In July 2021, former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was questioned on how the Biden administration was weighing the pros and cons of (re-) recommending that vaccinated Americans start wearing masks again. She replied: “We don’t look at it through that prism. They don’t make these decisions or recommendations based on politics. They make them based on data. … [T]he CDC is looking at data across the country. They provide broad public health guidance not based on politics, [but] driven by science and data. … it is not more complicated than that [my emphasis].” Biden himself seemed to reject the idea that there is a tradeoff occurring with mask mandates when he emphatically remarked, “It’s not about your rights.”
Not all U.S. politicians shared the President’s sentiment regarding Covid policy. In particular, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis struck the opposite tack.
In the same month Psaki proclaimed that the Biden administration’s policy prescriptions were guided solely by empirical fact, DeSantis issued Executive Order 21-175, which outright banned Florida schools from requiring their students to wear face masks. This order was antithetical to the CDC’s position on masking in schools and was in stark contrast with the President’s position.
The text of the order differed substantially in content and tone from similar documents from the federal government. Rather than focusing on studies on Covid spread and mask efficacy, it centers on DeSantis’s concern for the right of parents to make medical decisions for their children. The order’s central aim is the protection of “the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, or mental health of a minor child [, and that the] right to normal education is imperative to the growth and development of our children and adolescents.” Only a handful of the order’s clauses even mention empirical data on mask efficacy. Diametrically opposed to the Biden administration’s approach, scientific/empirical data has taken a backseat in the justification of Florida’s Covid policy.
It is tempting to dismiss DeSantis’s move as nothing but a populist display of his anti-establishment tendencies—a policy to generate criticism and elevate him to the national stage. In a similar vein, DeSantis was roundly criticized for failing to “follow the science.” The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board made this point, explicitly criticizing his Covid policy for failing to follow the advice of CDC scientists and being insensitive to empirical data on Covid transmission. The accusation that policies like DeSantis’s fail to “follow the science” is not unique to this case. Dating back to the beginning of pandemic restrictions, such pithy slogans achieved a status akin to that of a religious mantra.
The use of this and similar phrases serves two interrelated purposes: a signal of virtue (you are a good person if you listen to and follow the experts) and a condemnation of others (you are bad because you fail to let the science guide you). This phrase, therefore, gives us the means to praise the Biden administration for its claim that it acts in accordance with CDC advice, and the means to criticize DeSantis’s executive order banning mask mandates in schools for failing to do so. Right and wrong in the context of Covid policy are now nicely understood in terms of agreement with the advice of scientific experts and empirical data.
I suggest that such a view is too simple. What public health policies we support is not and cannot be a mere question of adherence to “the science.” To truly understand what is at stake in the tension between Biden’s and DeSantis’s respective responses to Covid, we need to explore the complex relationship between the scientific domain and questions about what we ought to do. “Just follow the science” can only get us so far.
It is unclear what it means to “follow the science” in this context. From the way this phrase is used, we can infer that it means something to the effect that scientific/empirical data and recommendations by the relevant experts is sufficient to tell us what we ought to do regarding Covid policy. This view seems to imply that policymakers should defer to the advice of scientists and their analyses of empirical data in determining public health policy. This understanding of the position explains why much of the criticism of DeSantis’s policy centers on his alleged failure to listen to the advice of favored scientific experts. Likewise, it can explain the praise the Biden administration received from the mainstream media for its explicit deferral to the likes of Anthony Fauci and the CDC on Covid policy.
DeSantis and Biden differ in the extent to which they each relied on empirical data and expert scientific advice in framing and justifying their respective approaches to Covid policy. In his official Covid platform, Biden stated, “America deserves a response to the COVID-19 pandemic that is driven by science, data, and public health — not politics. …Our national strategy will be driven by scientists and public health experts …as they make decisions strictly on science and public health alone [my emphasis].” Biden’s deference to scientists and medical experts could not be stronger. He made it clear here and elsewhere that from his administration’s perspective, questions about Covid policy were settled solely by what “the science” says is best. There was no room for non-scientific considerations. As noted above, he argued that masking rules are “not about your rights.” “Rights” may not be considered relevant in Biden’s approach, but they were central to DeSantis’s.
The Florida Governor’s executive order flows without interruption from claims about parental rights, to claims about detrimental effects of mask wearing for children, to asides about the inefficacy of masks in school settings. The justification for his policy is thus multifaceted. The fact that he even bothered to discuss studies on mask efficacy suggests that he found them relevant, at least in a limited sense, when determining what policy to implement. However, he did not give anything like Biden’s deference to scientists and medical experts. Furthermore, he was critiqued by medical experts for cherry-picking medical studies to support his preferred Covid policies. Given his ambivalence toward the scientific establishment, it is easy to see why one might try to explain the difference in Covid policy approach between the DeSantis and Biden administrations as a mere difference in adherence to expert wisdom. We have good reason to think that this explanation is radically incomplete.
It is not that DeSantis failed to believe the relevant scientific facts; it is that he did not think that they are the sole arbiter of what policy we ought to implement. He is clearly skeptical of mask efficacy, but his policy does not turn on this skepticism. This is an important distinction. We can better understand the difference between Biden and DeSantis’s Covid policies when we disambiguate what it means to believe the science from what it means to follow the science.
Not everyone believes that such a distinction is legitimate. The rhetoric epitomized by “just follow the science” implies that if you are not following the science, then you cannot legitimately claim to believe the science. The distinction collapses on this view. For Covid policy, this entails that if you accept the best available studies on Covid mask efficacy, then you ought to support a mask mandate (or implement one as a leader). However, not everyone accepts that believing a set of empirical facts entails that we should act in a certain way.
Philosophers have been interested in this very question for centuries. “Hume’s Law,” so named for its origin in the work of Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, suggests that accepting a set of scientific/empirical facts does not require that we thereby must accept that we ought to act in a certain way. Hume attempted to demonstrate the soundness of this distinction with the notion of deductive validity—a property of formal arguments. An argument is a set of premises and a conclusion. An argument is deductively valid if the conclusion is deductively entailed by the premises. In common parlance, an argument is deductively valid just in cases where if one accepts all the premises, one must accept the conclusion. Let us illustrate his point with a valid deduction:
Premise 1. All people who live in Atlanta live in Georgia.
Premise 2. Stacey, a person, lives in Atlanta.
Conclusion. Therefore, Stacey lives in Georgia.
For Hume, this argument is deductively valid: If you accept the truth of the two premises, then you must accept the truth of the conclusion. A key feature of this argument is that all the premises and the conclusion state matters of empirical fact—they do not purport to tell us what we ought to do. In Humean terminology, all of the premises and the conclusion in this argument are descriptive (purporting to tell us facts about the world), not prescriptive (telling us what we ought to do).
The idea that believing the science requires following the science is not like this. Its argument structure is one in which the premises are descriptive, and the conclusion is prescriptive. Let us consider an example of this kind of argument:
Premise 1. Giving money to Oxfam will improve the lives of impoverished people.
Premise 2. Elon Musk has billions of dollars.
Conclusion. Elon Musk ought to donate to Oxfam.
Hume thinks that Argument 2 is fundamentally different from Argument 1. In the first argument, the premises describe empirical facts and thereby the empirical conclusion follows as a matter of logical necessity. However, the second argument tries to give a prescriptive conclusion from only a set of descriptive premises. Hume thinks that in the first argument, a rational person must accept the conclusion if they accept the premises. But a rational person can accept all of the second argument’s premises without accepting that the conclusion follows from them.
For example, a rational individual might think that Elon should spend his money to colonize Mars to ensure the long-term survival of humanity. Or perhaps they have libertarian tendencies and think that Elon has no obligation to donate money at all, even if they accept the factual premise that donating his money would help impoverished people. The point is that accepting the descriptive premises does not settle the question of what we ought to do. Succinctly, Hume argued that no matter how many descriptive premises one agrees to, they can never logically entail any prescriptive guidance. Matters of fact cannot, by themselves, tell us what we ought to do.
If matters of fact cannot tell us what we ought to do, then what can? Hume’s answer is simple: Any argument purporting to tell us what we ought to do must contain at least one prescriptive premise. We can modify Argument 2 to illustrate Hume’s point.
Premise 1. Giving money to Oxfam will improve the lives of impoverished people.
Premise 2. Elon Musk has billions of dollars.
Premise 3. Billionaires ought to donate at least some of their money to charity.
Conclusion. Elon Musk ought to donate to Oxfam (or a similar charitable enterprise).
In this modified argument, if one accepts all the premises, then one must accept the conclusion.
Hume’s Law is intuitive. Think of any possible prescriptive argument, whether it be donating to charity, keeping promises, telling the truth, etc. If one examines the prescription for long enough, it becomes clear that, at a bare minimum, the argument presupposes something about how the world ought to be, how we ought to treat each other, or what it means to be a good person. Traditionally, we do not view our beliefs on these questions to be rooted in scientific investigation. If it is the case that lying is wrong, we do not take this to be supported or denied by the results of physics, psychology, or chemistry. Moral/ethical beliefs are just not that type of thing. Hume’s Law thereby gives us a new way to understand where to locate the deeper tension between Biden's and DeSantis’s respective Covid policies.
Hume’s Law suggests that we have good reason for thinking there is a meaningful difference between believing the science and following the science. By applying its lesson to the case at hand, we gain clarity on the deeper nature of the tension between Biden's and DeSantis’s respective Covid policies. If it is the case that believing the science does not require one to follow it, that is, if accepting the truth of expert scientific opinion on Covid does not require one to actually put said policies into place, we need to look past the domain of empirical, scientific fact for an answer to where the heart of the tension between Biden and DeSantis is.
One possible place concerns the respective value judgments that the two invoked to justify their policies. Value judgments concern the things we find worth pursuing, protecting, and safeguarding. They serve as the goals of our actions and provide the kind of justification we look for in appraising actions. We make value judgments whenever we evaluate some action or proposed action and determine how well it serves some value. At a basic level, value judgments aim to explain why certain actions are good and others are bad. Crucially, value judgments can be thought of as prescriptive in Humean terms—they can provide the type of premise our arguments need to have conclusions purporting to tell us what we ought to do.
DeSantis’s executive order includes a litany of such value judgments—in particular, a deep concern for the rights of parents to make medical and educational decisions for their children and the rights of children to enjoy a certain kind of educational experience. It is clear that DeSantis found these things valuable to the extent that they were the central concern in his Covid masking policy. Further, DeSantis appeared to be critical of the idea that we should consider rights violations as instrumentally useful towards some public health goal. In a separate executive order banning “vaccine passports” in Florida, DeSantis made it clear that the use of vaccine passports is objectionable regardless of the potential collective health benefits. According to the order, such a policy would violate patient privacy and prevent Floridians from living a normal life if they object to Covid vaccinations on religious grounds. DeSantis’s executive orders on masking in schools and vaccine passports show that his value judgments prioritized individual rights concerning medical autonomy, privacy, and parental control. DeSantis put value judgments at the forefront of his policies; medical expert advice and empirical data were of secondary importance to him.
To find the value judgments that guided the Biden administration, we need to look past their rhetoric of being guided solely by expert advice and scientific data. Psaki was questioned on this very point and replied, “They [the CDC] make a determination about what steps they could recommend to protect more people and save more lives. And then, if they make a recommendation, … we will work to implement it.”
Saving and protecting lives was the key value-metric guiding the Biden administration’s Covid policy. This coheres with Biden’s remark that masking policy “is not about your rights.” The Biden administration’s rhetoric that it was guided solely by empirical data and expert scientific advice is now understood as a statement about the use of science as a means towards the end of protecting and saving lives. Whether the Biden administration’s policies actually saved and protected lives on balance is an empirical question left unanswered here; this is merely an examination of the justifications given for the policies. The value in following the science was instrumental—valuable insofar as it served to protect and save lives.
This difference in value judgments between Biden and DeSantis helps explain the difference in the two politician’s views on the relevancy of scientific data and expert opinion. DeSantis privileged individual rights to privacy, medical autonomy, and parental control. Because mask mandates and vaccine passports violated these rights in DeSantis’s eyes, he rejected the policies. Making this judgment did not hinge on scientific data about mask efficacy or the potential benefits of vaccine passports. Biden’s primary value judgments concerned saving and protecting lives; serving these values with public health policies required that his actions be informed and shaped from the outset by empirical data and expert scientific input.
The tension between DeSantis and Biden is made clearer when we explicate the different value judgments they prioritized in shaping their respective Covid policies. Hume gives us good reason to think that believing the science and following the science are different things. We now can see that the degree to which following the science is relevant to one’s Covid policy depends on the values one privileges in their decision making. The phrase “follow the science” presupposes certain value judgments about what matters. Accusing DeSantis of failing to follow the science misses the deeper clash between his Covid policy and Biden’s.
The worldview implicit in “just follow the science” rhetoric glosses over important questions about the different value judgments made by policymakers in the Covid policy space. The phrase’s recent prominence gives us reason to think it is also intimately tied to another recent trend in the U.S.—the rise in skepticism about science.
Trust in medical science declined significantly over the course of the pandemic. According to Pew Research, on average, Democrats have more trust in medical science than Republicans. It is in vogue in coastal-elite discourse to blame reactionary conservatives and conspiracy theorists for fomenting skepticism of science among the public. Undoubtedly this phenomenon has been a significant driver of skepticism about Covid vaccines and the wisdom of the “medical experts.” But there is another, perhaps more fundamental, driver of the rise of skepticism about science.
Let us briefly return to the worldview implicit in “just follow the science” rhetoric. Under this view, a policy like a mask mandate is completely justified by scientific data and expert opinion regarding the issue. The policy’s justification is grounded solely in scientific fact. When the argument for a public health policy is framed in this way, the grounds for critiquing/rejecting the policy are reduced to two positions: question the certainty of the specific, relevant scientific data or deny the science altogether. In August of this year, Fauci claimed that criticism of the public health policies he pushed constitutes “a complete distortion of reality … a world where untruths have almost become normalized.” Clearly, he intended to place the blame for skepticism about medical science during the pandemic at the feet of conspiracy theorists. This might explain some skepticism about Covid policies, but what explains the rise in science skepticism in the first place?
Inherent in the “just follow the science” worldview is an unshakable bond between the scientific data/expert opinion and the actual policies. The policies are directly entailed by “the science.” This worldview puts the skeptic of the policies in a bind: if they wish to reject the policy, then they must reject the science as well. Under this position, one cannot reject just the science or just the policies. Acceptance and rejection of both are intrinsically tied. This worldview thereby licenses us to say that someone is denying the science if they do not support the Covid policies recommended by public health authorities at a given time. If we labor under the assumption that accepting a proposed policy is the same as accepting the truths of medical science, we can see a clear path for skepticism of science to germinate and take root. This raises yet another question: why would some attempt to ground the justification of public health policies solely in the scientific domain?
A likely reason is the perceived legitimacy and certainty of science. Science is taken to be the paradigm exemplar of a good knowledge-seeking enterprise; its results lay claim to a level of certainty that our everyday statements simply cannot. Its methods are broadly considered legitimate by the public, and why should they not be? Breakthroughs in science are the biggest drivers of change in the human condition. We tacitly endorse the legitimacy of science every time we send a text, drive a car, or receive medical treatment. These features of the scientific enterprise can explain why so many insist that our duties/health policy should be grounded solely in this domain. By attempting to offload all justification of their health policy onto the epistemic shoulders of science, defenders of this worldview are effectively elevating their position to a level where no moral and political critique can even be uttered. If the policy is merely a question of scientific fact, how could something like DeSantis’s concern for parental rights even be relevant? The defenders of “just follow the science” attempt to cloak themselves in the certainty of science to close off the very possibility of political and ethical critique.
Certainty is something we desire for our beliefs. We aspire to reach a state where our scientific, moral, and political beliefs are certain to a high degree. Certainty allows us to feel comfortable in our beliefs, comfortable that we are in the right. If science provides all the answers, then we need not worry ourselves with the messiness of ethical tradeoffs. The world of decisions becomes clearly demarcated—you are either acting in accordance with empirical fact, or you are an irrational science denier.
The alleged certainty that science can endow our ethical and political beliefs with is chimeral. Making sense of the tension between Biden and DeSantis’s respective approaches to Covid policy, along with our own opinions about how we ought to act during a pandemic, requires us to examine the ethical beliefs and value judgments underlying different approaches. The U.S. policy response to the pandemic involved unprecedented restrictions on and changes to individual autonomy and everyday life. Because of this fact, the ethical and political complexity of the policies called for a nuanced debate on the relative weight of our competing ethical and political considerations. How we tradeoff individual autonomy for potential collective health benefits is neither an easy nor straightforward question to answer. Yet it is a tradeoff we must consider all the same—one that “the science” cannot fully answer.