Many months ago, I was hoping this headline would never see the light of day. Over 200,000 people dead. Here’s what the man in charge of formulating the national strategy on the pandemic had to say about this.

So I feel that we’ve done a tremendous job actually, and it’s something that, I don’t think it’s been recognized like it should, but when you look at our testing, when you look at our swabs, when you look at our ventilators, when you look at what we’ve done with hospitals — and we’ve made a lot of governors look very good, and now some are in a shutdown and some aren’t. We’d like to see it open up and open up as soon as possible.

But we’re very proud of the job we’ve done, and we’ve saved a lot of lives, a tremendous number of lives.

Philadelphia Town Hall

Here’s what most Americans think about this.

Pew Research Poll

And here is what people in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the U.K. think.

Pew Research Poll

Can the CDC and FDA be trusted?

I wrote about this on July 25th, and the bottom line then was this: the leaders can’t be trusted, but the institutions can. I regret to say I’m no longer so sure about that conclusion, based on an article in the great web site, Science-Based Medicine by Dr. David Gorski.

Here’s his conclusion, after going into a lot of detail about decisions made by these agencies and their consequences.

Regular readers know that I’ve long supported the CDC and FDA as the two federal agencies most aligned with science-based medical care. True, they aren’t perfect, and we at SBM have criticized them many times over the last 13 years when we thought they were falling short. We’ve also criticized the laws governing the FDA’s regulation of dietary supplements and homeopathy. Before this year, my answer to the question “Can we trust the FDA and CDC?” would have been an emphatic yes, even after three years of the Trump administration. Can I still say this? I don’t know.

. . .

The agencies have been politicized in a way I’ve never seen before, and that damage will be difficult to undo, even if Donald Trump is not reelected. Worse, in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need more than ever a reliable FDA, CDC, and NIH, all strongly dedicated to science-based medical policy and resisting political pressure to deviate from science. I fear that, increasingly, we don’t have that anymore.

Apologists for the current state of affairs will say, “Oh, but I have my own research, and it says. . . ”

This brings up an important point about the lay person’s understanding of science.

The vast majority of us, myself included, don’t have the chops to read a scientific study. Probably 99% of all people don’t know how a confidence interval is derived, much less whether there is evidence of p-hacking. And even if you do know that stuff, there are over 2.5 million scientific studies published per year. On covid alone, there are now more than 4,000 papers per week. Since January, there have been more than 23,000 papers on covid.

That means even if you’re a medical professional, you might be an expert in a particular field – for example, DNA analysis of covid — but almost a lay person in the study of how covid is impacting people of color.

We don’t live in the era of the “Renaissance Man,” where one person could be viewed as a master of multiple fields. Mastery today comes from teams of people who are experts in their field, or from experts who are standing on the shoulders of their peers.

Unfortunately, many people look at the mountain of studies out there and conclude, “I’ll just do my own research; my conclusions are as valid as anyone else’s.” Since 99% of people aren’t qualified to do that research, they invariably drift toward false premises, conspiracy theories, and memes. Then they present their “findings” on social media platforms.

There is another way. First, you have to recognize where your expertise is and where it’s lacking. Take me for example. I have skills in graphic presentation of data. That’s about it. When it comes to medical matters like virology or epidemiology, I have to rely on consensus opinion of established experts. This is extremely important, because in any field where real science is involved, there won’t be unanimity. Look at global warming. 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming and climate change. That means that if you dig deep, you can find a study published by someone in the 3% category who doesn’t agree. The key is that they are outliers; they don’t represent the consensus.

In evaluating consensus, it’s important to distinguish between actual experts and public opinion. For example, 57% of the public thinks that GMO foods are unsafe to eat, but 88% of AAAS scientists say GMO foods are generally safe. The “public” is not an expert, nor does it represent the consensus of experts.

You and I, as non-expert lay people have four choices:

  1. Do our “own research” and in a Dunning-Kruger manner, present them as “science.”
  2. Employ motivated reasoning to find the outliers among the experts who back our “gut feelings.”
  3. Give up and become a total skeptic about everything.
  4. On every question, try to determine what the consensus of scientific opinion is and promote that.

Will you always be right? Of course not. But you’ll be more right more of the time than the people taking any one of the first three choices.

This is not a “right or left” question. It’s a matter of our brain function. We all fall for cognitive biases and erroneously resort to logical shortcuts based on instinctive feelings. That’s why it’s so important to recognize this tendency and fight against it.

This is a circuitous way of explaining why I trust Science-Based Medicine. They are experts who represent the consensus of opinion in their fields.

Election Day is in 48 Days

Democracy or autocracy: that’s what this election is about. Your vote counts, no matter where you live. Check your registration, make sure your family and friends do that, and motivate others to save our democracy. And don’t wait until the last minute to drop your ballot in the mail!

Have you completed your census form? If not, please DO IT!

Updated numbers available, even if not in this post

Interactive pages on zorgi.me:

Today’s charts: Testing metrics for LA, OC & SD

New York Times

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