Climate and Coronavirus

Transparency and Critical Discussion Necessary for Understanding Climate and Coronavirus

Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida (USF), Eric Winsberg, recently teamed up with Professor of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, Eric Schliesser, to contribute their expertise in the NewStatesman – where this story originally appeared. The two discuss the false equivalence that is created when comparing scientific research in climate change with new finding about coronavirus.

In the last few days, much has been said comparing the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change with the growing consensus of public health officials about how to respond to COVID-19. As philosophers of science, Winsberg and Schliesser think this comparison is inapt. And while appealing to science is an understandable response to politically motivated downplaying of the threat posed by COVID-19, what is needed is more critical discussion of public health policy.

Winsberg and Schliesser argued that at present, there are very few controlled studies or peer-reviewed articles about COVID-19. The findings that are published in scientific journals end up being published as letters or brief reports, and this means the published material on the coronavirus has not received a full and thorough review. What is more, there’s been little time for scrutiny between public health experts from overlapping fields like virology, epidemiology, medical genetics, sociology, medical ethics and health economics, but this scrutiny is required to verify scientific findings and develop robust policy. 

By contrast, human-induced climate change is a hypothesis that is 100 years old, and it has been carefully studied, criticized, audited and looked at by a host of different disciplines. And even if one of the disciplines involved in climate science were unreliable, this would likely be uncovered by a nearby discipline.

This emerging consensus without a rigorous scientific scrutiny is problematic from both a scientific and political point of view, they claim. On the scientific side, since the coronavirus is new, scientists should have some reasonable ground for disagreement among themselves about its nature and what policies should be used to combat it. In fact, an independent survey of expert forecasts suggests that there is huge variance and uncertainty in expert predictions, generally. So, the absence of scientific disagreement over COVID-19 would be highly surprising, implying informal coordination, not the ordinary give and take in the marketplace of scientific ideas.

On the political side, shutting down entire economies and shuttering people into their homes will have profound consequences. Public health research points to a strong correlation between a good economy and good health. So, if there is a major COVID-19 induced recession, there is likely to be an increase of domestic violence, suicide, drug addiction, poor neo-natal care, and so on. Needless to say, weighing these costs against the benefits of saving lives by shutting down the economy is not a simple or value-free exercise.

Given the profound economic, social and political impact of the coronavirus, people are entitled to know how the costs and benefits of different policies are being weighed. However, the way experts and governments are assessing the risks is not being communicated to the rest of us.

For additional information on the pandemic and policy, please also see Eric Winsberg’s seminar, given at University of Cambridge.

Published on: 6/19/2020