Start with a simple empirical proposition: It is rare that one has all the evidence at hand one would like to have when facing important decisions. This holds true for countless big personal choices — marriage, divorce, buying/selling a home, moving to a new location, choosing the best school, embarking on a career, etc. Such decisions involve the uncertainty endemic to life on our planet.
The same uncertainty equally pervades the weighing of policy options, whether to support or oppose, let alone, or decide to act. We are constantly calculating odds, assessing trade-offs, and estimating plausible outcomes. We also assess their probable impact on allies, neutrals, and adversaries — and, in politics as ever, on potential election outcomes. Technology tells us what is or may become possible; markets factor in what consumers and producers see as currently plausible; multi-tiered regulation ultimately dictates what is legally permissible. Many policy arguments feature advocates purporting to apply scientific standards of proof; other arguments center around legal proof standards. And, naturally, many arguments have advocates combining the two.
One thing that separates executive and legislative branches from judicial branches is that judicial bodies are obligated by law to follow certain rules considering whether evidence suffices to cross the legal threshold of proof and thus decide the case. (For simplicity, I am skipping administrative agencies, which often combine quasi-legislative with quasi-judicial functions.) Unfortunately, decision-makers often clash over what constitutes proof; complicating this is that is it easier to place the onus of proof on one’s opponents than it is to prove one’s own case.
Imposing high standards of proof can lead to protracted paralysis, making one a prisoner of events as they unfold, leaving the initiative to other actors. Conversely, lax standards of proof often carry a greater risk of making catastrophic blunders.
Standards of legal proof aim to match the severity of liability facing defendants. The lowest standard is a mere preponderance of the credible evidence; the highest, famously applied in criminal cases where defendants face deprivation of liberty — or, in capital cases, life — is beyond a reasonable doubt. (Certain classes of civil cases, where wrongdoing is easily alleged and inherently difficult to rebut, carry an intermediate standard of proof, “clear and convincing” — highly probable or reasonably certain — between the two main standards of proof.) These standards work in legal proceedings but have little usefulness in guiding empirical policy. The inability to compel the production of evidence from many bad actors on the world stage renders all these standards hard to apply in deciding policy matters.
In a Jan. 24, 2022, article in Tablet magazine, “The Dissidents,” author Clayton Fox interviewed many leading scientists, from which he writes: “one quote stood out”:
There is no scientific truth, only replicable science. Then it becomes theory, but not law. And not truth. There are fundamental laws of physics that have been overturned. Law is not truth, law is law, and in science, law can be overturned.
Somehow in the madness, confusion, and paranoia of our two-year sojourn through Covid-19, that basic definition of scientific truth — that it is ever evolving, and inimical to dogmatism — has been largely mocked, denigrated and ignored, if not met with slogans like “believe science.”
Thus, he writes, does Anthony Fauci aver that “attacks on me are attacks on science.” Fox blames a coterie of “authoritarian bureaucrats and tech platforms that increasingly function as private arms of the state.”
In October 2020, three leading medical scientists, from, respectively, Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford (the GBD3), issued the Great Barrington Declaration. They recommended “Focused Protection” of the most vulnerable, instead of blanket protection that includes many people at near-zero risk to catch COVID. The latter are unlikely to be hospitalized, let alone die if they catch it. For them, early therapeutic treatment can be very effective. The GBD has been signed by over 60,000 medical professionals and has gathered over 920,000 signatures in total. In the entire history of epidemiology, the GBD3 stated, no disease in history has ever been eradicated by lockdowns. While much scientific evidence was slighted or ignored outright, eventually facts came to light that, along with public attitudes, may make them decisive in altering current policies. One key reason that these facts were not widely known sooner is that many mass and social media platforms actively suppressed contrary views as allegedly “misinformation.” I recently came across a Big Word, ultracrepidarian, an adjective that denotes “the habit of giving opinions or advice on matters that lie outside of one’s knowledge and competence.” Its leading practitioners in America today are today’s politically correct mass and social media outlets. With the pandemic, they outdid themselves.
Disputes over public policy are not governed formally by any standard of proof. Intuitively, one would ask for higher standards of proof for the most serious matters — such as going to war. Yet adversaries with whom we might go to war often have largely opaque societies with limited information available.
There is also the human tendency to favor one’s own side by placing the burden of proof on others. In more than half a century of policy disputation, I can’t recall a single instance where someone said to me: “The burden of proof rests on my side, and I hereby accept it.” Thus, no one can divorce oneself from self-interest in making the other side’s case harder to establish.
From this flow two propositions which in tandem come as close to genuine neutrality as I can propose:
These are fine in the abstract, but a real-life problem is that people in positions of power routinely impose their preferences on those with less power. Bosses tell subordinates what to do, including when deemed necessary, what burden of proof applies. Ditto parents, presidents, etc.
Yet pressing issues call for arriving at some realistic mid-point. Two major controversies serve as case studies in the pros and cons of how empirical evidence has been used in support of or opposition to major public policy choices: (a) COVID-19’s origin and consequent policy responses; (b) the potential effectiveness of economic sanctions to deter or punish aggressive behavior by foreign adversaries — Russia, China, and Iran — as well as conduct by our allies that may undermine such policies.
What evidence should we require before finding China guilty of hiding COVID-19 to protect itself from being held responsible for unleashing a global pandemic? How should we weigh hazardous research carelessly conducted and thus not contained? How much evidence — qualitative and/or qualitative — should suffice for lifting lockdown and mask restrictions and targeting discrete population segments for vaccination and treatment?
One avenue of inquiry is determining culpability. State of mind is at the root of these questions. What may have been done intentionally? What activities may show reckless disregard for the safety of others? What acts were grossly negligent, or merely negligent? And what honest misjudgments were made in good faith, and hence not culpable?
A second avenue of inquiry is whether policies were reasonable in light of the perceived threat. What adjustments, if any, were made as more was learned about the virus? What options, if any, were foreclosed? Were any efforts made to suppress qualified medical authorities who disagreed with decisions made?
For two years now, the public health establishment has ignored or denigrated critics, demonstrating that bureaucratic attitudes and perceived imperatives can triumph over even a vast storehouse of contrary empirical evidence. The COVID-19 scorecard was in many respects a dismal one. Virtually worldwide, the authorities chose total lockdowns; mandated vaccines and wearing of masks; dismissed opposing views; demonized dissenters; and revoked emergency authorization for monoclonal antibody treatment despite awareness of successes with it, enraging Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who said at a Jan. 25 presser:
Without a shred of clinical data to support this action Biden has forced trained medical professionals to choose between treating their patients or breaking the law.… There are real-world implications to Biden’s medical authoritarianism — Americans’ access to treatments is now subject to the whims of a failing president.… this is not how you help people. The government is going above and beyond to deny access to people.… Now [patients] are being told that it would be illegal for a provider to give it to them — all based off one observational non-peer-reviewed study.
Johns Hopkins Dr. Marty Markary slammed the CDC for ignoring the superior results documented for natural immunity and misleading the public when it finally issued a report. The result was serious harm to millions of Americans:
Public-health officials ruined many lives by insisting that workers with natural immunity to Covid-19 be fired if they weren’t fully vaccinated. But after two years of accruing data, the superiority of natural immunity over vaccinated immunity is clear. By firing staff with natural immunity, employers got rid of those least likely to infect others. It’s time to reinstate those employees with an apology.
For most of last year, many of us called for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to release its data on reinfection rates, but the agency refused. Finally last week, the CDC released data from New York and California, which demonstrated natural immunity was 2.8 times as effective in preventing hospitalization and 3.3 to 4.7 times as effective in preventing Covid infection compared with vaccination.
Yet the CDC spun the report to fit its narrative, bannering the conclusion “vaccination remains the safest strategy.” It based this conclusion on the finding that hybrid immunity — the combination of prior infection and vaccination — was associated with a slightly lower risk of testing positive for Covid. But those with hybrid immunity had a similar low rate of hospitalization (3 per 10,000) to those with natural immunity alone. In other words, vaccinating people who had already had Covid didn’t significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization.
Similarly, the National Institutes of Health repeatedly has dismissed natural immunity by arguing that its duration is unknown — then failing to conduct studies to answer the question.
It was left to the Johns Hopkins team to conduct the study, which confirmed the superiority of natural over vaccinated immunity.
As if all the above were not enough, the health authorities covered up much wrongdoing by the Chinese Communist Party and the Wuhan researchers — in which the CDC and NIH appear complicit. Last fall, President Joe Biden claimed that in a meeting with Xi Jinping he pressed the Chinese president for more COVID transparency. As the two were alone when this exchange allegedly took place, we have only Joe’s word for it. His long record of fabrications does not inspire confidence.
The fact that the CCP refused to allow timely access to the lab for health authorities to come in and help contain the outbreak speaks volumes. Given such refusal, we should conclude that the CCP has done bad things that they are hiding to avoid being held accountable. It is unrealistic to demand a high standard of proof when the guilty party denies access to the evidence that could definitively determine the causes of the outbreak.
And perhaps most infuriating of all, many leaders, and other entitled elites, ignored the restrictions they dictatorially and capriciously imposed upon the general population. Nor was much effort made to evaluate the harm caused by the virus versus the harm caused by lockdowns and masks — especially for kids. New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz offered a graphic portrait of how school lockdown and mask mandates harmed her children.
Arguably, excepting the two world wars that earned the 20th century the sobriquet the Bloody Century, the collective failures associated with COVID-19 amounted to one of the most globally ruinous, in terms of human suffering and immense economic expense, in modern history.
Historical evidence can guide policymakers in choosing sanction strategies that have a realistic chance of bearing fruit. Collectively, it suggests five principles of targeting and timing that can govern when adversaries might be brought to heel by a sanctions regime:
President Ronald Reagan lifted the grain embargo imposed upon the former Soviet Union by the Carter administration after the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Reagan did so because the only adverse impact had been on American farmers. Substitute suppliers — Canada, Australia, and Argentina — had stepped in to export the grain. In 1982, Reagan imposed a high-technology embargo — including products that only the U.S. made — that denied the Soviet military essential technology. This precisely targeted items essential to the regime’s survival, and for which there was no circumvention or endurance option available to the Soviets. The vehicle for administering the sanctions was CoCom, a coordinating committee established by NATO. Though not completely airtight, it proved sufficiently airtight and honestly and competently administered to accomplish its intended objectives. The time frame needed for the Reagan sanctions to work was remarkably brief; the Berlin Wall was taken down in 1989 and the former Soviet Union dissolved at the end of 1991.
Conversely, the post-Gulf War oil-for-food embargo imposed upon Iraq failed all five tests. Not only did it abjectly fail, but Saddam Hussein co-opted the UN into undercutting the sanctions by diverting billions to pay for illicit goods he sought, including parts to build missiles.
Generally accepted standards of proof often have little utility versus adversaries in public policy disputes — and little chance of prevailing over strong contrary political headwinds. This holds especially true if mass and social media align themselves with one political party. Yet in minor or even middling cases, our ensuing policy paralysis is merely a nuisance.
With COVID-19, and when weighing imposing sanctions upon geostrategic adversaries, such indulgence is dangerous. Making matters worse is a mainstream media mob heavily invested in favor of whatever helps Democrats and hurts Republicans. Unless we shake off our lassitude, vigorously contest suppression of contrary views by media minders, and adopt reasonable, realistic standards of proof — whether mine or some other formulation — our security, freedom, and prosperity bids fair to be smothered by dictatorial elites.
John Wohlstetter is the author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb (Discovery Institute Press, 2d. ed. 2014)