Why we should re-think our relationship with science

April 1, 2020

 

The current crisis provides us with several painful lessons to learn. One of them concerns the way the society interacts with science. As a short disclaimer, while I believe that what I describe here is not bound by any borders, I rely heavily on my experiences with the handling of the situation in my home country Germany.

 

In my view, the COVID-19 epidemic is another occasion that displays the ambiguous attitudes in societies across the globe towards science. In the last decade we could see a steady rise in the market for alternative medicine, ‘anti-vaccination’ movements gaining traction and many high-level politicians, among them the US president, with a troublesome relationship towards science – to put it mildly.

 

Having said this, I am surprised how quickly the current crisis led parts of our society to accept as a fact anything that is presented to them as somehow being based on research. And please, don’t get me wrong here. It is very important that experts advise the government and the society on how to deal with this virus, and that we follow this advice. However, with regards to the amounts of information that bombards us through the (social) media, it is crucial that we have the tools to distinguish trustworthy advice from less reliable sources or even intentional misinformation. Of course, we cannot all start to study biology. But what we can do is to reconsider the way we as a society discuss scientific findings and how they are presented to us. 

 

The dangers of early conclusions

One way of achieving this would be to promote scientific education. And hereby I mean the scientific method in general, which is basically the same no matter the field in which it is applied. Credible science does not claim to uncover the ultimate truths about our reality. In contrast, through rigorous testing and rejection of hypotheses, science wishes to reach a point where we can use a theory to explain the observations that we have made so far.

 

Let’s get a bit more specific. Statistics is an important tool of science, especially in studying a virus like COVID-19. However, as researchers have shown, humans are especially vulnerable to misconceptions in this area. Moreover, even experienced scientists aren’t immune against bias. As an example, I recently found this article on the website of the German newspaper die Zeit. It essentially says that young people are the main carriers of COVID-19, “as current numbers show”, and that they endanger everyone with reckless behaviour. The article also cites a tweet from epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding of Harvard University, who also seems to be concerned by these numbers.