The problematic relationship between law, politics and the scientific method

Two seemingly unrelated events (one legal, one political) highlight the inability of decision-makers to make meaningful use of the scientific method. It is not a reversion to Lysenko’s theories. However, the lack of a rational approach toward science to justify choices that directly affect people’s lives is worrying by Andrea Monti – Initially published in Italian by Scienza in Rete

In a few months, courts and politics had to decide issues that the simple enforcement of power could not handle. Last December, the Council of State (the Italian supreme court for administrative law) decided, albeit provisionally, that hydroxychloroquine could be prescribed off-label to patients with COVID-19 in a non-serious condition. A fortnight ago, the AstraZeneca vaccine administration was suspended in several European countries and then resumed after the EMA’s opinion, due to cases of two infrequent types of thrombosis (some of them fatal) temporally occurred vaccination.

In the first case, the decision was justified by stating the epistemologically incomprehensible principle that the absence of proof of ineffectiveness is equivalent to proof of non-ineffectiveness. In the second case, the existence of plausible biological mechanisms capable of explaining the association between vaccination and adverse events, albeit very rare, prompted the decision-makers to stop administering the vaccines, pending ‘clarification’ from the ‘competent authorities. In both cases, the problem is not the conclusion – that is, what authorities decided – but how it was reached.

The order of the Council of State highlights several critical issues, from the confusion between science and medicine to that between causality and correlation, from the inaccurate perception of the functioning of the scientific research to the subtle – but progressive and continuous – change of meaning for which it denies and affirms at the same time the right to “medical treatments” challenging to qualify as such (here is an in-depth analysis in Italian).

The choice to stop vaccinations suffers from the same defects. Moreover, it is also affected by the exploitation of a lexicon widely practised in scientific communication – and in the medical one – based on the ‘there is no evidence’ that (in this case) the vaccine has not caused adverse events. From a purely factual statement, in the language of the media, politics and law, ‘there is no evidence’ becomes a picklock to justify anything. In both cases, this paralogism’s classic application is manifest: if a particular thing cannot be proved today, it may become possible in the future. So, in the meantime and in this specific case, there is no reason to forbid the drug’s administration. Also, there is no reason to suspend the vaccination in parallel, even if there is insufficient evidence to establish that the side effects, even fatal ones, were caused by the vaccines. Today we do not know, but tomorrow, who knows?

The fallacy is obvious: the fact that a human being cannot fly without using machinery was, is and will remain true no matter how much time passes. In other words, there is no law according to which, deterministically, what is not demonstrable today will become so tomorrow. However, in reality, the issue is more subtle.

The Council of State’s order considers data as the bearer of truth. It did not try to provide a scientific demonstration of hydroxychloroquine’s efficacy. The decision on the drug’s viability, in other words, is based on the uncertainty of the research findings – or the inability to understand them.

It is an essential aspect of the whole argumentative process of the order: the judges take a wide range of results, from those published in studies to those from ‘field experience’. Predicates formulated in very different fields and not directly comparable, not cited, and without spending a word to analyse the rigour of the method that produced them, are lumped together in terms of truth value. It is a classic case of a judge acting as peritus peritorum, the attribute that, by law and not by science, transforms him into a subject capable of having the last word on the value of analysis and research results.

Similarly, the political choice to block vaccinations ignored the suggestions of those who know the scientific method and make themselves available to the decision-maker. It was doubtful that the EMA experts called upon to assess the causes of the deaths could achieve in a few days the results that the trials – even if accelerated because of the emergency – have produced in months. As a result, it would be difficult for any institutional statement to have any scientifically consistent value.

As ‘COVID-19 and Public Policy in the Digital Age‘ explains,

Politicians either assigned their choices to scientists and ‘experts’ or used them as lightning rods to justify their decisions. In other cases, such as in the ‘dialectic’ between President Trump and leading virologist Anthony Fauci-technical advice that does not accord with political strategy is adopted with considerable resistance.

There are, however, two other elements to consider in this matter: the widespread inability of people to use critical thinking and the lack of rigour of the generalist media that promote an approach to science (uncritically confused with medicine) based on trust, i.e. faith. Nevertheless, science is not a religion: it neither ‘promises’ nor ‘guarantees’ anything, just as medicine does not promise to heal but to cure. In the same way that drugs intervene in disease but are not harmless.

Although these considerations are trivial, they are not part of a shared culture which, on the contrary, is characterised by irrational behaviour, fuelled by the accentuation of individual events by the generalist media, which, in the heat of having something to say, continue to talk even though they have no elements. It is the victory of ‘weakened thinking’, that which does not want – or cannot because it does not know how – to ‘know in order to deliberate’ but needs someone to do it on its behalf. This individual inability to use rational thought has the collective effect of making it impossible to adopt efficient public policy choices because they would not be understood (not only by those who have to suffer them) and would therefore remain unimplemented.

We face the eternal debate between Socrates and Gorgias. Even though it goes on for a long time, it is all the more relevant. Education in philosophy helps individual decision-making processes, encourages the adoption of rational policies, and enables widespread control over executive powers. The alternative, of which we are beginning to see the effects, is instead the adoption of public policy choices based on the pressure of the moment, the denial of reality or – worse – on the claim to bend it to power’s needs.

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