Pandemic Reveals our Basic Misunderstanding of Science

Part of the frustration many people have been experiencing regarding the COVID 19 (et variants) pandemic is the seemingly contradictory expert opinions being expressed almost everywhere you look.  Never in recent memory has science been looked to more urgently for guidance to a crushing problem.  The spectacle of governments cueing their resident expert or news sources clamouring to get a sound bite from the epidemiologist du jour has become standard operating procedure.  It is no surprise that politicians want to have scientists on side given the reverence most citizens have for science.  As it is strongly associated with the technological breakthroughs that we have come to take for granted, science gets good press.  Does anyone really want to go back to a time without electricity, the internet, smart phones, diagnostic imaging, commercial flight, plastic and modern agriculture?  Even those non-conformists who yearn to live off the grid depend on science for energy storage, countertop gardens and composting toilets.   No wonder politicians at every level want to be perceived as having scientific support in their pandemic policy making.  Not only does it legitimize their decisions, but it gives them a convenient whipping boy if things go south—“Don’t blame me; I was just following the scientific experts.”  Even those campaigning most aggressively to re-open the economy are loathe to be seen as anti-science.  So, how, one might ask, is it that both governments and those criticizing the government can claim to have science on their side?  The answer may stem in part from a basic misunderstanding of what exactly science is.

Science is not a monolithic discipline.  In fact, part of what makes science so fascinating is that it is in a constant state of flux.  Yes, there are many topics on which a vast majority of scientists will agree, but especially with emerging developments such as a new and mutating virus, there are bound to be many differences of opinion among educated practitioners.  The history of modern science is not merely one of continual refinements, but just as importantly, outright transformations of what was considered accepted knowledge.  

As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his landmark book The Structrue of Scientific Revolutions, scientists do not operate in a bubble of rationality, but instead are influenced by the prevailing intellectual framework, social assumptions and paradigms of the era in which they toil.  When there is a paradigm shift in science, it is not that the data has changed fundamentally, but rather that there is a new way of viewing the data.  For example, the transition from Newtonian mechanics to quantum physics is largely a change in assumptions about the universe.  A question like “what does the data mean?” is unhelpful if it does not take into account the conceptual frameworks being utilized in assessing the data. Even in periods of what Kuhn referred to as “Normal Science”, there are anomalies and stubborn exceptions to the prevailing model.  When these outliers begin to build up, science enters a “Model Drift” phase which sees a gradual erosion of confidence in the paradigm.  As more and more scientists desert the prevailing conceptual framework, a “Model Crisis” phase is begun which ends in a “Model Revolution”.  Once the paradigm has shifted, a new period of “Normal Science” begins and the cycle repeats. 

 

There are a few key takeaways in all of this for the layperson.  The first is that all observation in science is seen through the prism of a particular concept.  The second is that there is probably no moment when all scientists will have full confidence in the prevailing concept used to understand the world, and many moments where there is a significant number of scientists who are extremely uncomfortable with aspects of the paradigm.  The third is that total objectivity is pretty well impossible in a discipline subject to such strong social, economic and political pressures bearing down on human beings who are naturally replete with a series of biases, assumptions and perception filters.

When we apply this to the current pandemic, we should see that it is unreasonable to expect science to yield a single, straightforward answer to our questions.  Not only is the situation rapidly evolving, but the answers we are looking for involve issues in the even more erratic and unpredictable disciplines of social science such as economics, psychology, history and philosophy.  The question of “What is an essential service?” is really a thorny, philosophical one.  Similarly, the question “What is the best method to motivate people to stay home?” is a psychological one that has bedeviled many municipal leaders.  While scientists can hope to achieve controlled conditions by devising ingenious experiments with necessary control factors, social scientists deal with the most complex and unpredictable subjects of all:  human beings.  Add to this the role of the media in directing the conversation based on what will attract viewers, and you have a scenario in which confusion, frustration, disagreement and laying blame are quite likely inevitable.

At least the next time we want to know ‘what the scientific answer is’, maybe we won’t be so naïve to expect a single, definitive response.

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