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How would our leaders get through this pandemic without “the science”?

It’s never been obvious just what “the science” is, or why anyone would speak of science as a single truth, but the role it plays is quite clear. It’s the modern equivalent of the Oracle of Delphi, that mysterious font of guidance that Greek leaders consulted during wars and other crises. However foolish or sensible the advice may be, the oracle gives leaders an excuse to duck responsibility for decisions—and their consequences.

Why, for instance, was the upstate New York economy shut down for more than two months, despite the small number of cases of Covid-19 in rural counties? Why, as some offices and barber shops and other upstate businesses were finally about to reopen at the end of May, did Governor Andrew Cuomo infuriate local officials by suddenly announcing that this decision could not be made by them—or even by himself?

“We’ll give the experts all the data,” he explained. “And if they say we should move forward, we move forward.” Everyone’s fate now rests with the new oracles.

By “the experts,” Cuomo meant the consultants brought in to oversee the state’s reopening: an epidemiologist from the University of Minnesota and a statistician from Imperial College in London. When he introduced them at a press conference in mid-May, he explained that reopening was “not a political exercise.”

“This is about facts and science and data,” he said. “It’s math and there’s a liberation in that.”

It may be liberating for politicians to blame economic devastation on someone else, but it’s ridiculous to pretend that epidemiologists and statisticians have magical formulae for determining the costs and benefits of the shutdown.

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