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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Expertise always trumps dogma

By Greg Jayne
Published: May 3, 2020, 6:02am

The headline sums it up. “Seattle’s leaders let scientists take the lead. New York’s did not” trumpets an article in The New Yorker by Charles Duhigg.

As the coronavirus reached the shores of the United States, landing first in Washington, leaders in this state followed the lead of public health professionals. And why not? They are called professionals for a reason, having dedicated their working lives to studying pandemics and how to mitigate them.

Now, you might think the best way to slow COVID-19 is trusting that “one day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Or maybe drinking bleach. But you would be wrong.

So officials in this state acted swiftly and calmly. And they listened to the experts. New York’s, as detailed in the article, wasted time bickering and telling the public “go on with your lives + get out on the town despite Coronavirus.” That was a tweet from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, one day after the first COVID-19 diagnosis there.

The results have been predictable. Washington’s coronavirus death rate is now about one-tenth that of New York.

As King County Executive Dow Constantine told The New Yorker: “Everyone, Republicans and Democrats, came together behind one message and agreed to let the scientists take the lead.”

All of which highlights the absurdity that is gradually taking hold of the state’s Republicans. In a recent virtual meeting with The Columbian’s Editorial Board, state Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said it’s “not necessarily a bad thing” if more people are exposed to the virus. “It will speed our path, frankly, toward herd immunity.”

We aren’t familiar with Braun’s qualifications as an epidemiologist. We’ll look into that.

Then, the state Senate GOP caucus last week tweeted, “Who is the COVID virus killing in WA state? 53% are 80 or older. Let’s protect our older neighbors at home and look at different rules for others.”

There is an argument to be had about loosening stay-at-home rules and opening up the economy. Gov. Jay Inslee is taking measured steps to do that. But it bears mentioning that, if the tweet is accurate, 47 percent of Washington deaths from the coronavirus are people younger than 80. How about if we protect them, too?

At their core, these rising debates over which lives matter and when to open businesses and whether or not Washington’s response has been too strong speak to a bigger problem that infects this nation: A desire to ignore expertise. We criticize people for being “elites,” which is a dog-whistle for discrediting somebody who knows what they are talking about. We question the value of higher education. We ignore science when it disagrees with our prejudices. And in the process, we replace expertise with dogma, diminishing the value of people who have studied and trained for a particular scenario.

Oh, not everybody does this. Just enough to elect a reality TV star to the highest office in the land. You know, somebody who thinks it’s a good idea to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and to get rid of his pandemic response team because the cost was too high.

We’re paying for it now.

The article in The New Yorker includes a 2010 quote from Scottish epidemiologist John Cowden: “Being approximately right most of the time is better than being precisely right occasionally. You can only be sure when to act in retrospect.”

That sums up the actions being taken in Washington and other states, with officials maintaining a precarious balance between protecting public health and protecting the economy. Having people out of work carries its own health problems — both physically and mentally. That toll cannot be ignored as we soldier on through extended stay-at-home orders. As one health official says, “Every single decision had a million ripples.”

Because of that, it is easy to find fault with individual decisions. Unprecedented times have unpredictable consequences. And that is when we should listen to the experts.