I’ve been thinking about science versus politics, especially since clashes between the White House and Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, are in the news so much these days.
It’s important that we defend science. After all, whether we are trying to solve COVID-19, HIV, Substance Use Disorder, or even racial and class inequality, it’s science that will undergird successful strategies. But we also have to defend science because science is how we explore, understand, and unpack what we believe to be true. It’s right there in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” The United States was born as a hypothesis: Everybody deserves equal rights, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and here’s how we give it to them.
How do you test a hypothesis? Perform an experiment. George Washington called the new American government a “great experiment.” And this country is an experiment in many ways. The whole history of the United States has been our ongoing attempt, as a people, to “form a more perfect Union.” To figure it out. To get it right.
The experiment has revealed some important truths. Like you can’t have equality and liberty and democracy if you take away land from Native people, enslave Black people, deny a voice to women and poor people. And when you finally stop doing those things? You can’t just pretend they never happened and magically have a system that will be fair and equitable for everybody. Not after generations of restricting, for instance, where Black people could live, go to school, and work, making it nearly impossible for many to emerge from poverty, purchase homes, or pass along wealth.
You can see people out there right now, absorbing that data. Look at the diversity in age, race, and class among people who are in support of Black Lives Matter. More people than ever before now understand that systems in this country are biased, and need reform. Not just the police and the criminal justice system, but most of our systems and institutions. That’s why we’re in the midst of social unrest, leading to social realignment. Because people are paying attention. They are looking at the data. They are seeing Black people getting profiled, stopped, arrested, beaten, shot, imprisoned, and executed at disproportionate rates compared with other people. They are recognizing the bias within systems and institutions, spoken or unspoken, and they’re saying, “Okay, it’s not working. Let’s try things a different way.”
Some people feel threatened by calls for change. They believe trying things a different way means admitting the experiment was a failure. What they don’t understand is: America is not the product of an experiment. America is the experiment. And that experiment is still playing itself out. It is still going on, every day. That’s how science works. If the data proves your hypothesis wrong, you admit
that you still haven’t found the best way to guarantee people equal rights—and then you keep experimenting until you figure it out. Until you get it right.
Calling for change is not rejecting America. Rejecting science is rejecting America. Because America is science. That’s why it’s so bizarre and inappropriate when people criticize Dr. Fauci for changing his positions over time. That’s what a good scientist does! Hypothesis: Here’s how we protect people from COVID-19. Then you look at the data and adjust the hypothesis as the experiment reveals the truth.
Here’re some more data: You can’t stop a pandemic like COVID-19 if you’re only worrying about yourself—if only half the people in the country are practicing social distancing and wearing a mask. You have to think about family members, neighbors, strangers. You might think everything’s fine because you’re asymptomatic, but science tells us that wearing a mask and social distancing is how you work on behalf of the greater good, your country, the world. Science tells us to take care of each other.
Politics does the opposite. Modern politics is all about dividing people up into Us and Them, and no need to care about Them. In politics, no truths are self-evident and the only important data is whatever confirms what we want to believe. But simply insisting “Everything’s fine” about COVID works no better than simply insisting everything’s fine about race, justice, and equality. The data says otherwise.
So what I’ve been thinking about is how America is the greatest scientific experiment in history. Being loyal to that experiment means asking: Did things go the way we expected? If not, what did we learn and how can we apply that information to making things better?
America is science. We can’t let politics get in the way of that. That’s why I support Dr. Anthony Fauci. All Americans should.