Electricity. Air-conditioning. Penicillin. The automobile. Air travel. The iPhone. Genome sequencing. Vaccines. Each one of these revelations was discovered with data collected through the scientific method. This scientific curiosity then informed enlightened public policy to better the human condition.
Yet, many current decisions are being made without consulting science at all. This is true at the national level and here in Florida. Nowhere is this more apparent than our experience with COVID-19 and our approach to re-integrating felons.
Just this week, President Donald Trump learned exactly the wrong lesson from being infected with COVID-19. He could have realized that his lax wearing of masks and social distancing set a horrible example and left himself and his staff vulnerable. But instead, he argued that his bout with the coronavirus showed anyone can get it and that precautions aren’t that worthwhile — and that, even though more than 210,000 Americans have already died — it’s not that bad.
In turn, Trump has issued strong statements about the need for law-and-order to keep everyone safe and secure — especially in the wake of racial and social justice protests. Richard Nixon ran on that approach once as well. Yet, statistical evidence shows that neither protests nor peaceful protestors are the cause of any increase in crime. Moreover, there have been extremely few cases where crime has increased in or around the protest areas.
The Trump Administration’s disdain for science and basic facts has damaged numerous policy areas, from a failure to combat climate change, to protect fragile public lands or to regulate polluting industries. But his rejection of science in his response to the pandemic is the worst of all — and his missteps predate the pandemic and likely made it worse.
Trump disbanded the Global Health Security and Biodefense unit in 2018. President Barack Obama had created this group to defend the United States against a pandemic just like the one we’re currently experiencing. It gets worse: In late 2019, Trump eliminated the job of a top epidemiologist working for the CDC in China to protect against new disease outbreaks.
Of course, the White House also rejected CDC guidance at every opportunity during the pandemic and muzzled Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Additional examples range from falsely claiming hydroxychloroquine could protect against the virus to urging governors to reopen their states at the height of the pandemic. And, of course, he is setting the worst possible example right now by pretending that he is well while he is still sick with COVID-19 — even driving around in a motorcade potentially infecting Secret service agents — and may well still be contagious.
The common thread in all of these actions is to undermine science, expertise, and prevent data-driven policy.
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In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has followed Trump’s lead at just about every opportunity. His administration has been widely accused of purposely under-reporting cases and deaths since the pandemic began and fired the person in charge of the state’s dashboard when she raised objections. DeSantis reopened the state while cases were still rising rapidly in June and July.
Even more egregiously, DeSantis has pushed for schools to reopen over local objections, only recently rescinding an executive order that would have forced all schools to reopen, regardless of the state of the pandemic in local districts, or those districts' concerns for the safety of parents and students. And just this month, he argued that schools should never have closed, calling those who argued against reopening the “flat earthers of our day.”
This discussion does not even begin to address the lack of transparency regarding COVID-19 in the state’s jails and prisons. Another timely example of ignoring prevailing research while making policy is the restoration of voting rights among felons in Florida. Florida law currently requires felons to have paid any remaining fines and fees before regaining their eligibility to vote. The reality is that this requirement places a very high burden on many returning felons, who live in communities of color and face great difficulty finding meaningful employment during the pandemic.
Leaving aside the fact that this type of “voting” or “poll” tax disproportionately affects some individuals, my (Alex’s) own research shows that excessive fines and fees actually increase the likelihood of recidivism among juvenile offenders, especially African American youth. Any smart and sensible re-entry plan within a criminal justice context must have the ability to participate in our democracy as a first step.
Now more than ever, policies should be guided by the best available scientific data. As the engineer W. Edwards Deming put it, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” The world is much too full of the latter without enough of the former.
Alex R. Piquero is chair of the Department of Sociology and Arts & Sciences Distinguished Scholar at the University of Miami. Michael Touchton is associate professor of political science and faculty lead for Global Health with the Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas at the University of Miami. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.