Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, policymakers have been urged to “follow the science.” But does this advice always make sense?  Given that science is ever changing, probably not. If they do, there is a good possibility decisions made with good intentions will make a bad situation worse.

That’s not to say that scientists are unqualified or that they don’t know what they are talking about—instead, the issue is that when it comes to novel viruses, they don’t know everything and even what they do know as experts comes with major uncertainty.

Those who simply say “follow the science” often believe we should follow a ‘precautionary principle’ when we determine coronavirus policy—to make policy as a precaution against all the possible negative consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. But if policymakers are to invoke the precautionary principle, they should also take precautions against all the possible (and unintended) negative consequences of imposing quarantines.

We are only now beginning to understand the devastating health consequences of lockdowns and quarantines. Quarantine lockdowns have prevented Americans from seeking necessary health care to diagnose or prevent serious chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, while parents have foregone vaccinating their children for diseases other than covid-19.  The resulting illness and death from failure to seek medical care are every bit as important as the other tradeoffs.

Coronavirus hits some populations much harder than others—notably, people with pre-existing medical conditions and the elderly. Targeted quarantines to preserve the health of at-risk populations might make more sense than a general quarantine—especially when one considers the severe tradeoffs general quarantines impose on prosperity, liberty, and health.

Quarantine policies should be determined as dispassionately as possible.  Above all, when making health policy decisions, policymakers should respect the views of scientists and the evolution of strong scientific evidence while also considering the other factors—economic, personal liberty, and public health—that will be impacted by those decisions.  

Equally important, lawmakers and regulators must avoid the temptation to smuggle in their own policy preferences in the guise of following science. This type of behavior was identified nearly a decade ago in “The Science Charade” where agencies, or rather, agency decision makers, “exaggerate the contributions made by science…in order to avoid accountability for underlying policy decisions.” 

Policymakers should be informed by science as they grapple with hard tradeoffs and uncertainty over the outcomes of their decisions.  Science can be a tool to help them create sound public policy, but it offers them no way out of the responsibility for doing so.  Harry Truman famously said, “The buck stops here.” Policymakers today should say the same.