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Follow the Science?

November 13, 2021
by Mark David Siegel

“The level of COVID-19 risk we can live with is also not an entirely scientific question. It is a social and political one that involves balancing both the costs and benefits of restrictions and grappling with genuine pandemic fatigue among the public.”

-Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic

Hi everyone,

Since the pandemic began, we’ve followed the science. Science showed how the virus spread, so we opened windows and donned masks. Science gave us testing and population data so we could plan for surges. Science explained the immune response, which ushered in effective treatments. Science created monoclonal antibodies, antiviral drugs, and, most importantly, vaccines. Science saved lives.

But science has limits. It can’t make people socially distance, wear masks, or take vaccines. It can’t create safe workplaces or fix a broken healthcare system. It can’t overcome ignorance and disinformation.

And as powerful as science is, it can’t make choices for us, particularly when we confront the possibility of breakthrough infections. It’s up to each of us to decide how much risk to take. We could choose to isolate ourselves indefinitely, but is that really what we want? No parties? No sports? No restaurants? Never?

With the holidays near, I’m going to capitalize on my shots, even if the protection isn’t 100%. I’m healthy and immunocompetent, as is my family. I’ll avoid needless risk: I’ll mask up at Stop & Shop and take extra precautions around vulnerable people. I’ll sit outdoors at restaurants when it’s not too cold. But I need to see my extended family again. The risk will never be zero, but with everyone vaccinated it’s low enough.

In the months ahead, the pandemic’s numbers will fluctuate, and local case rates should inform our choices. But ultimately, we each have to decide how must risk to accept, just as we’ve always done when we board planes, strap on skis, and eat raw oysters. In doing so, we should recognize the biases and cognitive distortions that make risk calculation hard.*

My choices won’t be right for everyone. The truth is I’m not a big risk taker. You won’t catch me bungee jumping or riding motorcycles any time soon. But there are some risks I’m willing to take, especially when it comes to seeing friends and family. We should follow the science as far as it takes us, but at some point we have to chart our own courses. The pandemic is going to be with us for a long time, maybe forever. How we choose to live with that reality, and how to balance risk and reward, is ultimately not a question science can answer.

Enjoy your Sunday, everyone. I hope you get to soak up some sunshine today.


* See shark attacks

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Submitted by Mark David Siegel on November 14, 2021