A little scientific knowledge is a dangerous thing if it convinces people they know more than they do. Perhaps that's the explanation for Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman's extraordinary offer of her citizens as a “control” to see how many people die if a major city abandons attempts to control the spread of Covid-19.
In an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper that has since attracted widespread criticism, Goodman argued for re-opening businesses in Las Vegas, citing the need to get people back to work. She certainly isn't the first public official in America to make this case, particularly in a state that has so far avoided many deaths. There have been 163 total deaths confirmed in Nevada, 150 of them occurring in Las Vegas.
Cooper responded, ”But hasn’t it been because of social distancing that the numbers have been what they are?”
This is where Goodman came up with something really new, saying, “How do you know until we have a control group? We offered to be a control group.” Goodman started talking about the importance of control groups for vaccine testing before Cooper interrupted, “You’re offering for the citizens of Las Vegas to be a control group...?” At this point, Goodman confirmed, “I did offer, it was turned down.”
Goodman is right about one thing: the best science involves control groups. A lot of the studies claiming the effectiveness of various treatments for the disease are of limited value because they either didn't have one, or didn't select it randomly.
However, modern science values other things, including getting informed consent before you experiment on people, which Goodman doesn't seem to think important. Goodman herself believes she had Covid-19 in January, which if true might reduce her personal risk in such a scenario, making it even more inappropriate to put others' lives on the line.
Las Vegas itself has more than 600,000 residents. Goodman said the idea was rejected because the 2 million people living in the metropolitan area, many of whom work in the city, would affect the reliability of the study – probably the most tactful reason that could be offered.
It's true we don't know how bad this pandemic will get if isolation efforts are abandoned, but cities that put stay-at-home orders in place too late provide clear evidence of a minimum. Abandoning isolation efforts would definitely produce a much worse toll. Most people don't want to find out how much worse.
Goodman also dismissed the relevance of evidence Cooper presented from China on the way the virus spreads. If what we have learned from other cities isn't relevant for Las Vegas, it's not clear why the reverse wouldn't also be true, and thus an experiment in Las Vegas wouldn't be informative or useful elsewhere.
Goodman is in her third term as mayor, having succeeded her husband. An independent who has previously endorsed candidates from both parties, she was re-elected with 83.5 percent of a very low turnout vote. Her chief opponent in that race was Phil Collins (not the singer), 2020 presidential candidate for the Prohibition Party, an affiliation unlikely to be electorally advantageous in Las Vegas.
Term limits mean Goodman can't run again, so we may never know how her electors feel about her offer, but some ex-residents aren't happy.