Science is persistently in the news. We are, the pundits command, to "follow the science." We too often, however, find ourselves in the midst of conjecture and opinion. What the pundits too often mean is that we should follow the scientists and accede to their opinions and conclusions. Not because they necessarily have science behind them, but because they are really smart, and they are scientists.
We have heard "follow the science" in a variety of settings. We heard it often in the COVID era. We heard it as to masks, amusingly both in favor of masks and against them. We have heard it with global cooling in the 1970s, global warming in the 1990s and more recently with simply "climate change." The scientists and the pundits strive to distinguish their respective conclusions and denigrate the conclusions of those with whom they disagree. There is a propensity to label various arguments or conclusions as "myth" or worse. The New Scientist led with a (seemingly disparaging) "myth" headline regarding global cooling; then the first words of the article concede the scientist's cooling consensus: "Indeed they did." Curious.
Science is not consensus. Years ago, a company ran an advertisement that read "When forty million people believe in a dumb idea, it’s still a dumb idea." This reminds us of the fallacy of consensus. We must never forget that Copernicus formulated a model that put the sun at the center of our solar system. Consensus labelled him a heretic. Gallileo, Pasture, the Wright Brothers, and more were rejected or worse by consensus. Popular writer Michael Crichton (Andromeda Strain (1965), Jurassic Park (1990), etc.) has been hard on the consensus crowd: "the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics." See, Consensus in the Absence of Proof (January 2021).
Science is not consensus. Science is about proof. The proof occurs through:
"a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses." (Oxford Languages Dictionary).
Thus, there is a hypothesis, a guess or conjecture about something. This may or may not be educated. Then there is testing of the hypothesis, which results in data. Data. Results. Science. W. Edwards Deming is credited with ”In God we trust. All others must bring data.” That is not "in scientists we trust," no disrespect for scientists. However, opinion is opinion (I think the Jaguars will win the super bowl in 2022, but I have as yet no empirical data). If forty million of us believe in the Jaguars, that will still not be science.
I was reminded of this all recently when I wrote Preservation and Interpretation (July 2021). That post led me back to the Tootsie Roll Pop, and the great mystery of "how many licks." The boomers will remember the Owl answer - "three." I vividly remember the Tootsie Pop. For some reason, today they just don't live up to my memories. We spent many Saturdays at the movies, and consumed unimaginable quantities of Tootsie Pops, Charms, Red Vines, Sweet Tarts, and worse. The Charms was large enough back then to last through to the credits. Those, as grandpa use to say, were the days.
But, the folks at Tootsie have reported on various attempts to crack the age old question of "how many licks." Science, through experimentation, says that the answer is 364 licks (Purdue University with a "licking machine"), or perhaps it is 411 (Michigan University with a "customized licking machine"). On that point, I have to ask if there is any kind of Tootsie pop licking machine that is not customized? I digress. A school in Kentucky took a different tack and had 130 people lick their way to the center. They then assimilated the data. Their answer? Well, "it depends." It depends on the gender of the licker, the flavor of the pop, and even the time of day. Science has gone after this nagging question, but without reaching a solid consensus.
Not to be outdone, a group of middle school students ran a study and came up with 144. So, science has spoken. The answer is 104, 134, 144, 167, 213, 364, or 411. One might conclude that the more customized your tools, the more licks required. These are examples, there are many more discreet outcomes documented. The publication illustrates that variables may be important. Variables in the test subject, the material tested, and even the time. It is interesting that none of the empirical data supports the conclusion of wise old Mr. Owl (three licks).
Science struggles to give a definitive answer to this age old question, with its minimal variables. Minimal compared to something as complex as SARS-CoV-2 transmission, inoculation, being a "carrier," achieving antibodies, masks, and more. For example transmission within 6 feet of someone (a social distancing paradigm) or 3 feet (another distancing paradigm). Oxford Academic recently concluded 3 feet is effective, after we lived 6 feet for months. For instance, is paper better than cloth, cotton better than polyester, two masks better than one, three masks better than two, tight fitting better than loose, multi-layered better than single, new better than old?
Even the CDC notes that face shields are not recommended, and neither are masks with "exhalation valves." Those valves let the virus out (but if you are intending to protect yourself with a mask, this seems potentially irrelevant?) Some have been particularly critical of face shields: "Face Shields Called Flawed Protection." The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) does not accept the shield as a substitute. Despite this consensus against, on a recent trip I ran into multiple people traversing the various airport concourses clad in only shields instead of the supposedly mandatory masks. I saw none confronted or even questioned.
Should we distance 3, 6, 9? Should we mask, when, with what?
In Florida, we have not had mask mandates, shut-downs, and economic ruin. We are, by any economic account, blessed in the Sunshine State. The Florida OJCC has remained open and operational throughout. I recently learned of a state that is reopened its adjudication process in July (judges coming to the office a few days a week). Another just now returning to some function in August. I struggle to comprehend these. The experience here has just been so different. Despite this, I did recently learn that some of our offices were taking visitor temperatures (an irrelevant and non-descript finding - you can have the virus and transmit it without having a fever; you can have a fever for reasons other than the virus).
On the street, I have seen families walking about in masks, even recently. Even the CDC does not recommend outdoor mask use. I have seen people driving alone in their personal vehicle while wearing a mask (not sure who they are protecting or being protected from). In the grocery store in July, I encountered a family of tourists (their state is omitted purposefully, bless their hearts) wearing masks. Five people, five masks, and ten utterly and completely exposed nostrils. Not one mask was covering a nose. According to some, "this can defeat a key purpose of wearing a mask." Do we really need science to tell us that covering one entrance to our lungs is ineffective if we do not cover the other entrances? Some in the article cited above contend that "the nose is a main pathway for the virus."
What is the motivation of these folks? If the nose is not covered, is there any point in a face mask? Where is, as I began today, the science? What we have is at best consensus, but more likely merely confusion. Many smart people believe that mask wearing is good. They equivocate, a bit, in saying that the efficacy is enhanced by social distancing (but three feet? six feet?). Would the distancing alone be as effective? Where is, sorry to be redundant, the science? There is a group of middle schoolers somewhere that we could perhaps task with conducting an experiment or two. Maybe the results would be as diverse as the Tootsie Pop. But, they would nonetheless be results and data.
I think that people may benefit from wearing masks and social distancing and vaccination. Each has the potential for protection from the virus. At this point in time, however, the scientists are still working on fully understanding this virus, how it mutates, propagates, and evolves. We are 18 months into the American cases, perhaps two years into the first cases, and still there is no answer as to where this came from. In 2020 there was ridicule for anyone that suggested an origin connection to a laboratory, and yet more recently that suggestion is met with less contempt. It is a struggle to keep up with all the virus news we see on COVID. Maybe there is benefit in taking precautions just in case they might help?
The vaccine is being deployed in epic quantities. Bloomberg reports almost 5 billion shots administered. There are about 37 million doses dispensed daily across the globe, with less than a million of those in the US. We have not kept pace. The New York Times reports that 168.7 million in the US are "fully vaccinated." The population is 331 million according to Worldometers, so just over 50%.
Despite all of the debate, consensus, doubt, and angst, the hard facts are difficult to ignore. Nearly all COVID Deaths in US are Now Among Unvaccinated. Multiple headlines similarly note statistics such as "98% of Ohio's COVID-19 Hospitalizations in 2021 have been unvaccinated." Half or our population is nearly all of hospitalization and death. That does not mean the vaccinated are invincible. It does not mean that future vaccination will not be recommended or necessary. It means that the vaccination is working, and it enhances your chance of avoiding COVID-19 or at least avoiding the worst of it.
None of this means that masks are useless or ideal. It does not mean that distancing is effective or not. I suspect (I am not a scientist) that there will be years of study in our future, and that there remains much to learn about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID. But, those that are distancing, masking, and being careful are likely protecting themselves. Immunizing? No, protecting.
At the end of this all, despite any doubts one may have as to how many licks it takes, the vaccine is proven effective in preventing hospitalization and death. That is not laboratory proof, or science. That is the real world experience gleaned from hundreds of millions of injections. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." Accepting that science may not have this virus fully understood, that science is imperfect, note that it has brought us multiple vaccines and the proof of their efficacy is in the simple fact that inoculated people are avoiding hospitalization and death.
If you have not gotten "the jab," I encourage you to consider it. In the end, we must each protect ourselves, our families, and our coworkers. Beyond vaccination, if a mask makes you comfortable - wear it. If staying 12 feet from others makes you comfortable - do it. Make good decisions for you.