The science is dismal

A Twitter thread got me thinking about the widespread disagreement about how to respond to the covid pandemic, especially how it relates to “following the science”. From one perspective, it is hard to wrap one’s head around the idea that scientific and rational people can disagree so starkly on what to do. Assuming that everyone has access to similar information (which may sound incredible, but this is more plausible than ever in the age of the internet), surely anyone that respects and follows the science must agree on the right action to choose. But this, I believe, is where the meaning of the word “science” has to be broadened to include economics as well.

Even an undergraduate student of economics can argue that two different persons with different beliefs about the world can process the same data differently to infer different things about what to do. But even starting out with the same belief, people can disagree on the action to be taken simply because they have different objective functions. A Bayesian agent would take the action that minimizes expected harm, while a regret minimizing agent would take the action that provides some guarantee against the regret, and so on for a variety of different objectives. A lot of the times, the arguments on how to proceed (the rational and sensible ones, at least) seem to be implicitly arguing about the right objective function to use. A month ago, those who were arguing that boosters be given to everyone immediately seemed to be arguing for using a minmax objective, while those who were content with giving it only to a small section of the population seemed to be arguing for a more Bayesian take. And similarly on the response to the omicron variant.

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