Between the Ones and Zeroes

The push to "reopen" and forcing binaries onto non-binary situations.

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In the late 1960s, President Nixon called his science advisor, Edward E. David, into the Oval Office. Henry Kissinger was there too, among a few others. The topic was a recent spate of airplane hijackings.

“The president, in effect, asked me how science could be used to stop these incidents,” David said in a speech much later. “I had the distinct impression that he expected a final solution to be laid on the table immediately.” Nixon wanted an off switch: do this one thing, make the problem go away.

“I'm afraid I told him rather unwelcome news, that the situation was extremely complex and there was neither a sure fix or any technological magic that I could conjure up to solve this problem,” David went on.

One of fundamental ways that politics and science have never mixed is in their acceptance or rejection of the binary. To a certain kind of politician, everything is binary, a one or a zero, with no room for fractions or irrational numbers or any gray area whatsoever. Planes will be hijacked until they are no longer being hijacked, at all and forever. The economy is closed because of Covid-19 until it is open again, completely and forever.

As the lockdowns have dragged on, a certain kind of politician has decided that it is time to switch from a zero back to a one, to flip the light switch back to the on position, regardless of what the Edward E. Davids of today—pretty much the entirety of the world’s public health experts, epidemiologists, physicians, nurses, physician’s assistants, nurse’s assistants, medical students, freshman in college with a passing interest in medicine, hospital custodians, grocery store clerks, meat-packing plant employees, and most rational people with an interest in not dying—are saying about it.

“It’s time to reopen the economy” went from a Fox News fever dream to complete conservative orthodoxy virtually overnight, even as the science remained clear that “reopening” isn’t the binary that the pithy tweets spewing forth from Congress suggest. It’s not just the U.S.—in the U.K., virtually every tabloid screeched things like “Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons” this past week just because the officially designated period was coming to an end and Boris Johnson was supposedly going to issue new rules.

People—not just politicians, but they lead the way—want science to offer a yes or no answer. With the coronavirus, we want to go from closed to “open” without acknowledging the need for an in-between. We want a positive test to mean you have the virus and a negative one to mean you don’t, with no room to accept the idea of an error rate. We want the almost-mythical-at-this-point antibody test to determine immunity once and for all, even though those many of those tests are basically useless with absurd rates of false positives and we don’t even know how well any of it corresponds to actual immunity from reinfection anyway. This is a crash course in scientific gray areas.

And with politicians in charge of a fundamentally scientific crisis, it almost feels inevitable that we’re failing that particular course. How many times have you heard a politician (*cough* Biden *cough*) promise that we will “cure” cancer in some arbitrary time frame? This is another binary: the Big Bad is either here or it is not, it kills us until we stop it from doing so, once and for all. The nuance required to understand 250 different diseases that share only the basic concept of uncontrolled cell proliferation is not something many in government can manage—or they can, but choose not to, because claiming you’re going to cure grandma’s lymphoma is an easier sell.

With cancer, or other long-term, ongoing issues, you could argue this isn’t horribly damaging. If by using the language of binaries you can get people on board with, say, huge increases to NIH funding, then maybe your little white lie about some mythical cure isn’t the end of the world. But if your little white lie is that it’s safe for everyone to go get a haircut and then head to a NASCAR race next week, maybe it is the end of the world.

When Nixon poked his science advisor in the shoulder and demanded he do some science to fix things, David actually did offer some advice, it just wasn’t what the president wanted to hear. He told him about x-ray machines, and metal detectors, and other simple things that might help keep weapons off of planes. Nixon didn’t like those, so instead he started by putting a bunch of air marshals on planes, but eventually we got the modern version of airport security at least partially as a result.

In other words, we took incremental steps that offer somewhat dramatic inconveniences to the general public, but probably does deter most would-be hijackers from even giving it a shot. Call the x-rays and the metal detectors the masks, testing, and contact tracing of the issue. There is no “open,” not anymore, just a long tail of gray area, an ocean of ambiguity stretching out in front of us, and we’ll do better to learn to swim in it.

random bits

  • If the virus doesn’t get us, the heat sure will! But seriously it’s already getting too hot in many places for people to survive, far quicker than anticipated.

  • Scientists found a black hole only 1,000 light-years years away, 25 times closer than the one at the center of the Milky Way.

  • I’m sure you’ve all heard about them by now, but still: murder hornets. (But also, please do not kill regular good bees because you’re scared of the murder hornet. The thing you’re killing is not a murder hornet.)

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