How researchers get heard

Traveling By and With Science: My Trip to Spain

My wife and I just got back from 10 days in the Basque Country of Spain — the first international trip we’ve taken since the pandemic began. We had a great time and tested negative for COVID (at least, before encountering the flight attendant who coughed for nine hours on our return leg). But I flew back home in a markedly different mindset about my relationship to science and COVID than the mindset with which we started.

We planned our trip with what I’ll call for now the intention to “travel by science,” by which I mean having rigid, science-based rules governing our behavior — e.g., eating only outdoors, socially distancing at all times, spending a maximum of 5-10 minutes in shops. (This, despite the fact that the US State Department — based on the CDC’s evaluation — gave Spain a “Do Not Travel” label because of COVID infection and hospitalization rates. Which had fallen well below similar rates in the US by the time we took off. )

From that initial “travel by science” intention, we ended the trip in a place I’ll call for now “traveling with science,” treating science as a set of rules of thumb, in silent competition with other considerations. Because they were rules of thumb, we could set them aside if they conflicted with experiences that were unique, sufficiently interesting and/or represented sunk costs we didn’t feel up to waving off.

For instance, it’s ordinarily hard to get a table at a restaurant in San Sebastian, which has 11 Michelin star restaurants and scores of other excellent ones. And San Sebastian being largely a city of narrow streets and rainy weather, it’s very hard to get a covered outdoor table. (I know: first-world problem. Just accept it for the sake of argument as one of innumerable life challenges made more challenging by COVID.) Fifteen minutes into a three-hour guided tour of some of San Sebastian’s best pintxo bars — one of the great gastronomic experiences in the world — we realized that we were going to be spending a lot of time inside these bars in the old city sampling the delicious pintxos with our masks off and lots of unmasked people seated around us. There was just no way around the choice: Either we were going to have this experience with a higher level of risk, or we were going to abandon the tour and have room service. We had the experience, wore masks in spots, and didn’t catch COVID. And a lot of the trip went this way — a dance between having the experience and “being safe,” which ended up actually being safe.

Depending on who you are, “traveling with science” might sound like realistic, hypocritical or simply human. The experience (at least for me) was actually rather consuming, because it was always conscious. As I practiced it, traveling with science required continuous evaluation and calibration — asking questions such as: How many open windows are there? What’s my risk tolerance? Will I ever be back in this medieval town and have access to this 16th century wine cave again at a time when I can linger in it without my mask? Can I restrain myself from punching the next heavy-breathing person who sits next to me with their nose above their mask? Etc.

But this question of how we live with science, it strikes me after the trip, is far more interesting than whether we live by science or not — because “living by science” requires a rigor and religiosity that few of us can muster continuously, much less flawlessly. So much science-based public expertise assumes our willingness to be rational actors and live by science. Meanwhile, the vast majority of us cherry pick the science we want to regard and/or reach an idiosyncratic equilibrium, somewhere between living by science and living by will.

Another way of putting this might be to ask the question: Can people live with my expertise, or am I creating an aspirational but inhuman standard for them? Am I a guide, helping them to see and thrive? Or am I a law-giver?