What Dr. Fauci Forgot About Science
It’s easy for those who disagreed with COVID policies over the last few years to forget that Dr. Anthony Fauci was once both a respected scientist (his work has been cited an astounding 233,830 times at this writing) in his field and an effective administrator. History, though, probably won’t be kind to his last three years on the job, and that’s because he forgot what it means to be a scientist.
I am a scientist, or at least I was a scientist until I retired after forty years in research. Now, I mostly write textbooks, and handbooks, edit journals, and occasionally teach. I mean by “scientist” that, after too many years in school, I worked in government and university labs, mainly on fundamental energy projects. I got to learn, up close, what the business of science was all about.
I can boil it down to a simple idea. The job of a scientist is two things and two things only: measurement and uncertainty. Scientific results in every field depend on our ability to measure something: a temperature, a reaction rate, a voltage, a response of some kind. We can then draw a conclusion or test a theory with those measurements. But no measurement ever made by humans is exact; none at all. All measurements have uncertainty.
Uncertainty (mathematically) describes the confidence we have in the measurement we made. For example, we may measure the temperature of the room as 20 °C, but we know that the uncertainty of the measurement is due to the thermometer only being capable of giving the temperature to within 1 °C. This might be stated succinctly as: T = 20 °C ± 1 °C. We can read this as twenty degrees plus or minus one degree. A measurement that does not assess the uncertainty is a job only half done.
Image: Anthony Fauci. YouTube screen grab.
Nothing we can measure will ever give us the “true” value, whether it be a temperature, pressure, or concentration of gasoline in arson fire debris. We may get close to the true value of a measured quantity as science and instrumentation, and resources advance, but we can never get all the way there. It’s similar to approaching absolute zero in temperature; you can get close but never right there.
What follows is a concept that might be disconcerting. In science, our business is not seeking “truth”; we leave that to religious professionals. As Nobel laureate (Physiology or Medicine, 1996) Peter Doherty says: “If you want absolutes speak to a politician or a pope.” No scientist sets out to mislead, but no scientist can labor and bring forth “The Truth.”
It is nothing short of hubris for a scientist to cast his/her scientific results as truth. Just wait 10 years, and someone will come along with better instrumentation and understanding and show you were wrong! Settled science is a preposterous idea that only politicians hold. I teach that uncertainty in science is not a bad thing, and if a student thinks otherwise, he (or she) needs to get over it! True, if your uncertainty, despite your best effort, is too high, your conclusions may be limited, but that’s the job. Live with it. No, embrace it or sell real estate.
And herein lies my problem with Dr. Fauci. In so many of his briefings, press conferences, interviews (the guy loves the camera!), and recent books, he has too often implied (or worse, stated) that science is truth, even to the point of asking that we infer that he, himself, is the science. That meant that any criticism of Fauci was taken to be a rejection of science and, by extension, a rejection of truth. This is utter nonsense. Scientific results are not truth; no scientist* ever speaks in terms of “truth.”
That Fauci has done this time and again is most surprising, given his experiences during the HIV/AIDS epidemic; he struggled for years trying to save patients and do the research required to manage this complex disease. He, of all people, must understand uncertainty. Though I admire him greatly, I think that, unfortunately, he gave into the hubris that tempts all scientists.
In his book, Expect the Unexpected, Fauci says of President Trump, “It was clear that some of the things he was saying were contradictory to the scientific facts.”
Well, sir, there is no such thing as “scientific facts.” There are scientific observations, measurements, and theory, some of which are very well established, but all of which are uncertain. But facts? No. That implies truth and that dog don’t hunt. Even in the relatively short time since the debut of Covid, the “facts” have changed over and over.
Truth, being absolute, exists independently of all other considerations. It exists in a vacuum. But science does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in the continuum we all inhabit that encompasses economics, security, and threats of all kinds. President Trump had to balance the scientific observations with all these other considerations, and he was not properly appreciated for what he did. Fauci lived in the comfortable scientific bubble while Trump was out in the rain, wind, hail, and snow.
In closing, the scientific, economic, policy, and societal challenges Covid posed were monumental. That this virus is being managed after only two years speaks highly of both Anthony S. Fauci and Donald J. Trump, albeit in different ways. I appreciate and thank them both.
*I realize that here, I am leaving myself open to the “No Real Scotsman” argument, but I will take the risk. It goes like this: (1) No Scotsman puts butter on his porridge. (2) But my uncle is a Scotsman, and he puts butter on his porridge. (1) Well, no real Scotsman…
Dr. Bruno, a scientist retired after more than 40 years in research, amuses himself writing books and editing scientific journals, along with wood and metal working.