George Pyle: We are ruled by scientific illiterates

Serious question: Is it a legal requirement that those who hold state government positions in Utah must be scientifically illiterate? Or is it just considered a bonus?

Consider the thankfully short-lived effort to kill what appeared to be a single wolf that had roamed into northeast Utah and killed a rancher’s calf.

The Department of Agriculture and Food put out traps in an effort to kill what it unscientifically viewed as an interloper. But after a few days the traps were removed, as it appeared that the wolf had moved on.

Only someone who knows next to nothing about biology would treat what scientists call an “apex predator” as some kind of alien invader into the wild areas of this or any state. Yes, wolves get hungry and kill cattle, sheep and such. It is a loss for a rancher, one for which the state should offer compensation.

But ecosystems only function when animals, plants, fungi, etc., fill the role of predator and prey. Too much or too little of either and things go out of whack. No wolves means more deer and elk, which in turn overpopulate and overgraze, destroy plant and root systems, muddy up streams, reduce the number of fish in those streams, and on and on through a highly complex web that we may never fully understand but can easily destroy.

And, no, humans who hunt deer and elk don’t balance the books.

Meanwhile, back at the pandemic, Utah officials heard the bit about flattening the curve. They saw that we might be able to slow the spread of COVID-19 long enough to ramp up hospital capacity, testing, tracing, isolating and all that stuff to take the edge off the threat.

So Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and company had a lot of press briefings about how we need to stay home to break the connections that allow the coronavirus to thrive in the only way it can, by jumping from person to person.

Schools closed. Sports were canceled. And we avoided a New York City-level catastrophe.

But, about that test/trace/isolate bit. Apparently by assuming that government agencies set up to do those very things weren’t cool enough, far too much trust was placed in the Silicone Slopes start-up called TestUtah.

Whether Herbert and Cox dragged the tech bros into the mess or the companies sold themselves to an easily razzle-dazzled administration may not be clear. But it seems obvious that both the state and the entrepreneurs were overly impressed with the organization which, despite burning through millions of taxpayer dollars in Utah and three other states, has shown major signs of being in way over its head and falling far short of the efficiency and trustworthiness required.

The amazing journalists of The Salt Lake Tribune, ably followed up by an investigative reporter writing for The New Yorker, tell a tale of how venture capitalism is not the best tool to deal with an epidemic. The tech culture worships quick starts, shots in the dark, rapidly spending tons of other people’s money and walking away from a giant, smoldering crater with some hard-won knowledge, some phone numbers and the motivation to do better next time.

When you are inventing smartphones or software packages, that works fine. When you are trying to save thousands of lives from a microscopic demon that doesn’t care about your contact list or your string of glorious failures, not so much.

While state officials pat themselves on the back for easing restrictions, case numbers are going up and a safe reopening is far from assured.

And over the weekend, a crowd of people who take even more than the normal amount of pride in their ignorance assembled for a state-of-coronavirus-denial protest concert in Cedar City. Attorney General Sean Reyes and Greg Hughes, former House speaker and current candidate for governor, stopped by to put their foolishness on full display.

Because, they have good reason to believe, that pigheadedness is something that wins you political points hereabouts.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, pursued a career in which knowing a little bit about a lot of things is considered a plus.


Twitter, @debatestate