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29 Mar, 2020 12:50

Scientists must look dispassionately at Covid-19 so they can see what it is, not what they fear: Rushed science can be bad science

Scientists must look dispassionately at Covid-19 so they can see what it is, not what they fear: Rushed science can be bad science

No one likes uncertainty, especially when it comes to the threat of death posed by the coronavirus. Demanding certainty may be human, but we should be very wary of rushing to quick conclusions driven by fears rather than evidence.

It is inevitable that the “something must be done” demands to stem the coronavirus are placing immense pressure upon governments and scientists. At times like these, there is a tendency to shut down debate, to become increasingly intolerant of different views, disagreements and challenges.

But challenging the experts has become a fundamental part of defeating Covid-19, not a divergence from this fight.

The worst mistake we can make is to entertain the childish notion that there is an answer, a simple scientific truth waiting to be discovered by the experts, if we just let them get on with it.

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This is wrong for two reasons.

First, science does not work like that. Healthcare and science is a field that is characterized by doubts rather than certainty. As Dr John Lee, a retired professor of pathology and an NHS consulting pathologist explains, in one of the best articles so far on Covid-19, different interpretations of the current data do exist and should be welcomed. Some may be correct or might be closer to the truth. These could alter the actions we can take. While he accepts that governments are acting on the scientific evidence they are being given, they, and we, the public, ought to remember that "rushed science is almost always bad science."

The second is we need to interrogate the experts, especially as lay persons, and especially at a time when the tendency for all types of experts to lay claim to truths is spreading faster than the virus itself.

We need to do this to hold them to account. But we also need to do this to educate ourselves about how true science works, in order to be even better at this for the future.

One of the real problems with experts in the current crisis is what is called "expertise slippage” – the tendency of experts to pontificate on matters which fall outside their area of expertise. Mathematicians seem to think because they know about exponential curves they can sermonize about social distancing.

Some of the most critical of official responses to Covid-19 are from those who have the least relevant expertise. Thus, the 229 experts boosted by the BBC for demanding a change of policy turned out to include specialists in a range of disciplines from mathematics to genetics, but not a single expert in the science of the spread of diseases.

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The problem here is not the questioning of government policies. The problem is the demand by these experts that, because of their status, the public should automatically defer to their prognostications and not others, especially the public’s own concerns.

A moral hierarchy of legitimacy is created where the public are naturally demoted to the back of the queue. This is not only contemptuous of ordinary people. It suggests a far bigger problem: namely, that all sciences and experts are equal.

Nothing could be further from the truth. “Behavioral scientists”, those who advocate behavioral tricks to 'nudge' public compliance with policies deemed to be good for them, is at best, a highly dubious 'science.' The one example that features so prominently in their writings kind-of sums it all up: the fly painted in urinals to improve men’s aim and reduce spillage seems to be a high point of their achievements.

In contrast, microbiologists can claim that over the past century they have identified the causes of numerous diseases. They have come up with vaccines and treatments for many of these illnesses to the greatest benefit of mankind. From John Snow’s identification of the Broad Street pump in Soho, London, as the source of a cholera outbreak, to Doll and Hill’s studies revealing the link between smoking and lung cancer, epidemiologists have made major contributions to human health. 

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And so they will in this current crisis. But for the light to get in, we need to disavow and call out the misuse of expertise and try to curb the natural instinct that demands certainty. We need more science, not hurried science; more questioning and less 'expert' pontificating.

Governments are trying to act responsibly. We need to ensure that the science they’re acting upon is driven by detachment, and certainly not by fear.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.