For the past few weeks, politicians and the media around the world have been arguing over whether or not the civil liberties of the many should be infringed upon to save the lives of the few, which people should be saved when supplies are limited, and at what cost. The Guardian, The Harvard Crimson, The Atlantic, Forbes and others have pointed to the Trolley Problem as a thought experiment that should be considered when deciding the fate of people and economies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The trolley problem is an ethical dilemma used to argue the validity of utilitarianism (maximizing benefits) versus deontology (rule-based ethics, such as “thou shalt not kill”). The problem goes like this:
Five people are tied to a train track. An out-of-control trolley is barreling down the track. You can divert the trolley away from those five people to another piece of track where only one person is tied. Should you allow the trolley to run its course and accidentally kill the five people, or should you divert the trolley and purposefully kill one person?
The Trolley Problem IRL
The trolley problem doesn’t often appear in real life, but you may be familiar with this scenario as it appears in Hollywood movies. In the Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s Joker places bombs on two ferries in Gotham, and tells the passengers onboard each ferry that they control the detonator that can blow up the other ferry (and, the Joker adds, if neither group of passengers chooses to do so he will blow them both up at midnight). In Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America is told Thanos will not stop killing people until Thanos is given his friend, Vision. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, Voldemort offers to let the students of Hogwarts go unharmed in exchange for Harry Potter.
Politicians and policy-makers can argue about this type of dilemma endlessly. Some will say they have an obligation to save as many people as possible, even if that means purposefully sacrificing the few. Others will not want to take responsibility for purposefully causing harm to the few. Yet others will say it is out of our hands and we should not intervene in the course of nature.
What this dilemma does not account for is the scientists. Like Captain America, the students of Hogwarts, and the people of Gotham, scientists say “we don’t trade lives.” Scientists aren’t standing idly by watching the train coming and trying to decide how many dead is okay with them. They’re trying to build roadblocks to place on the tracks to stop the train from killing anyone at all. And in a pandemic, those roadblocks are vaccines.
The Cobra Effect
But you can’t throw any old thing in the way of a train to stop it. Just ask the people of Delhi, where tradition has it that the government in the 19th century offered money for cobra skins in an attempt to reduce the number of the poisonous snakes in the city. Naturally, people began breeding cobras to turn in to the authorities, who cancelled the program once they determined why the number of snakes was not decreasing. This resulted in people releasing their breeding snakes, since they no longer had a use for them, which increased the number of snakes loose in the city. This type of incident, in which a solution to a problem makes things worse, is known as the “Cobra Effect.”
Even if the story is apocryphal, the Cobra Effect can have real-life, catastrophic implications for societies:
- The Oregon Department of Transportation’s use of a half-ton of dynamite to rid a beach of a rotting whale carcass in the 1970s resulted in chunks of the mammal raining down on spectators up to a half-mile away, crushing a car and making more of a mess in the long run (luckily no one was hurt).
- China’s campaign aimed to rid the country of its grain-eating sparrows successfully removed the birds from the food web and allowed grain-eating insect populations to grow unchecked, which helped cause the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-1961.
- During World War II, constraints on time and money led to Mark 14 torpedoes being issued to submarines without being fully tested, resulting in torpedoes that frequently exploded prematurely or not at all.
- In Europe in the late 1950s, a sedative became approved as an anti-nausea medication during pregnancy despite having never been tested on pregnant women. This resulted in severe birth defects in an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 newborns in Europe within a four-year period.
The Cobra Effect and the NGSS
If history has taught us anything, it’s that acting quickly without all of the facts often leads to catastrophe. This is one of the reasons why science educators and the NGSS stress to students the importance of considering the impacts of solutions on society and ecosystems (MS-ETS1-1, HS-ETS1-3), performing multiple fair tests when collecting data (3-5-ETS1-3), evaluating design solutions for flaws (K-2-ETS1-3, 3-5-ETS1-2, MS-ETS1-2, HS-ETS1-4), analyzing data (K-2-ETS1-3, MS-ETS1-3), and redesigning solutions based on results (3-5-ETS1-3, MS-ETS1-4). A scientist’s job isn’t to throw just anything at a problem. It’s to find the best solution to the problem through testing and revising before applying it, so that we know for sure it will work and not cause other, unforeseen problems.
This is why vaccines take months or years to be produced: because they must be tested thoroughly to ensure they work, are safe for people to take, and do not have unanticipated side effects. So while the politicians argue about how many people is an acceptable number to die during a pandemic, the scientists will continue to run experiments and tests on their vaccines. But at the end of the day, it is the ordinary people who may have the most important job of all: to avoid becoming a statistic in this scenario. The train is coming, and our job is to stay at home and off of the tracks.