Early in the pandemic there was a widespread belief that science would be our salvation. With the help of science we would be spared the worst consequences, such as occurred during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. A vaccine would arrive, reliably, after a few hard months of research, and in short order the problem would then be essentially solved, and we could all resume our previous lives with a strengthened faith in the power of science to solve our problems and improve our lives. New therapies, like hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, and others would ease the course of the disease for those who did get infected. And we had no doubt about the reliability of tests to identify people who had the disease or who had had the disease and were now possessed with immunity.
Of course it didn’t work out that way. Science didn’t save the day. Even if we had done everything right it’s quite clear that the science was much messier than we had thought. At first, for instance, we didn’t worry much because most scientists thought the virus was not able to spread in people without symptoms. Then, when that turned out not to be the case we thought that transmission was most likely to occur by touching infected surfaces and that masks were not effective or necessary. Testing was an additional source of confusion. Instead of providing us with a simple binary— yes, you have it or no you don’t— we learned that diagnostic tests are more or less useful depending on when they are used and in which specific population. And we learned the obvious fact that even the best test is not helpful if the results aren’t delivered in a timely fashion.
In other words, our belief in science has been undermined. The key point here is that this apparent weakening of belief in science is nearly entirely due to a completely unrealistic view of science in the first place. The problem is that most people, including, surprisingly, many scientists and other supposedly more sophisticated people, buy into the illusion of scientific certainty, the (false) claim of scientific authority.
Most people have a completely mistaken and unwarranted view of what science really is or what it is capable of. Science is not a simple ever-growing accumulation of unchallengeable facts. Instead, what people don’t understand is that science is an ongoing process, a never-ending project to subject the universe to careful scrutiny. Science is a way of thinking, not a museum of facts. Ultimately, of course, we hope that it will lead to benefits and improvements, but the expectation that this will be routine and predictable defies our experience of the universe, which is nearly always more messy, complex, and confusing than we had thought or hoped.
If we had had a more sophisticated view of science and the scientific process we would have known that our initial beliefs about the pandemic were not absolute statements of fact, but rather highly preliminary efforts to make sense of the very limited, and constantly changing, data. Such uncertainty and fluidity is nearly inevitable in the early stages of a big, scary major health event like a pandemic.
I don’t want to cause any confusion. I am a great believer in science, and I believe that a scientifically informed policy in the United States would have led to a vastly better outcome. There is no reason to change that view. But at the same time we also need to acknowledge the limitations of science, or, more precisely, what exactly science is, and what it can bring about. The problem is that if we worship science, if we believe it is infallible, then we will be inevitably disappointed and we will give comfort and support to science denialists. Their work is so much easier when we start with a simplistic and unrealistic view of science in the first place.
Correcting this problem will be a difficult task. Journalists need to educate the public (and themselves) about the complexity of science. But the media doesn’t deserve all the blame. Too many students finish their education with little or no idea of what science is really about, daunted by imposing textbooks and curriculum based on rote memorization and formulas, with little or no attention paid to the underlying principles and creativity of science.
It is impossible to have a science-based society without also having scientifically literate citizens.
Doctors and scientists should not be immune from criticism either. Too often they are all too happy to assume the mantle of infallibility and assert their authority, despite the absence of a rigorous basis for what, in the end, are just educated opinions.
One potentially long term benefit of our current mess is that perhaps we will relinquish the idea that medicine and science can produce miracles on demand, or that tests are always reliable, or that experts are easily able to deliver pronouncements with complete certainty and unanimity.
Larry Husten was the editor of TheHeart.Org from its inception in 1999 until December 2008. Before that he was a freelance medical journalist who wrote for The Lancet, The New York Times, Discover, and a large number of other medical and computer publications. In 1994-1995 he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. He received a PHD in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo and drove a taxicab in New York City before embarking on a career in medical journalism.