Pandemic and epistemic humility

I was asked by a colleague recently what I think is going to happen in the Fall. My answer was that I don’t even pretend to know.

There’s not too much overlap between my professional expertise and my opinions on our current situation, but there’s this: There is more uncertainty than you’d like to admit, but that doesn’t mean that you can say whatever you want. This holds both in general and in the present specifics.

In an article in the News Statesman back in March, Eric Schliesser and Eric Winsberg argued against “comparing the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change with the growing consensus of public health officials about how to respond to Covid-19.”

This partly conflates apples and oranges: The consensus on climate change is agreement about the phenomenon in broad terms, whereas the response to Covid-19 is a policy decision.

To compare apples to apples— Scientists know a lot about Covid-19 as a broad phenomenon. Just as so-called climate sceptics continue to deny both the data and the phenomenon, extremists about Covid deny basic facts like death tolls and even the existence of the virus.

To compare the oranges to the oranges, as it were— the response to climate change goes beyond just a question of climate science, just as much as the response to Covid-19 goes beyond biomedicine.

Nevertheless, the contrast they point to is real. The consensus on climate change has built up over many years with cycles of publication and critical review, but the science of Covid-19 is still very much in flux. There’s a lot we don’t know. This twitter thread from Megan Romney is a snapshot of our ignorance as of a couple of days ago.

Some institutions are planning as if there will be a second outbreak in late Fall. Others are assuming that this current outbreak will continue more or less unabated. And others are hoping against the evidence that the worst is over. The exigency of running a university requires that plans be made— but I won’t pretend to know what’s in store.

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