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Why we should re-think our relationship with science

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.

So, what does the statistic show? As of March 15th, of the 8,162 positive cases in South Korea, 2,301 were between 20 and 29 – which is the largest number for any age group. But let’s have a closer look. How did the virus spread in South Korea? As of March 2nd, more than half of all infections were linked to religious gatherings of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Interestingly, 40% of the sect’s followers are between 20 and 30 years old. It is easy to see now that the high proportion of positive cases among young people is partly explained by the particular circumstances in the country, and likely higher than it will be in the long run.

What I want to show with this example is that, especially with a ‘low’ number of cases relative to the total population, we need to be extra careful in drawing conclusions. With regards to the importance of statistics in our modern societies, it is crucial that we promote ‘literacy’ in this area. As an example, we might start to give classes in schools that broadly talk about the ways studies are conducted in different fields, and their potential shortcomings that we should be aware of. I believe that there would be many researchers willing to participate. However, nobody has the capacity to keep up-to-date with several (or even one) field of science. We should, therefore, also discuss the role of the link between the scientific community and society – the media.

Towards healthy skepticism

This leads me to my second issue: the way that scientific findings are communicated. Articles like the one in my example will just lead to unnecessary generational conflicts in times in which we need to work together as societies. Still, day by day, we are bombarded with ‘studies-that-show’ articles summarizing – oftentimes carelessly – new scientific insights on COVID-19. While serious studies clearly communicate the uncertainty around their estimates, the media often fails to do so.

This is dangerous, since the uncertainty in studies on such a new virus is naturally rather large. What I want to point out is that the media and experts speaking on talk shows have a special responsibility here to inform citizens without spreading panic. This is a difficult trade-off: if they would fully describe the uncertainty currently surrounding the scientific evidence, more people could underestimate the dangers. As a result, they might decide to emphasize the worst-case scenarios. In addition, there are sometimes economic interests involved in focusing on more negative news. It is therefore important to make sure that the will to generate attention (and ultimately revenue) does not result in misleading headlines or sensationalized articles.

I believe we should still point out what we yet don’t really know, and explain why that is the case. In this early stage of research, it is very likely that the findings of studies will vary significantly and might sometimes even contradict each other. This is, however, nothing out of the ordinary and should be communicated this way. Otherwise, science and/or the media will lose their credibility with some parts of the population. This will ultimately come back to haunt us, leading people to stop caring or start consulting ‘alternative’ sources for advice. There is already a flourishing exchange of ‘alternative’ information online. The ‘anti-vaccination’ movement that gained traction in many countries during the recent years should serve us as a warning how dangerous this development can be for the health of entire societies. Recent developments in Hungary give a hint at other ways this crisis and the fear among the population could be exploited.

Ultimately, every one of us has to develop their own sense of healthy skepticism. Which certainly does not mean general distrust towards institutions, but rather awareness of the uncertainty that surrounds us. Although we might look for certainty in these difficult times, we need to be patient and stay calm. In the end, we will always have to rely on experts and the media to some degree. But it is important that we base this trust not solely on their authority or on whether we like what they are saying, but that we also try to examine how they obtained their knowledge and how it is presented to us.

In this series, our writers share their thoughts on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They rely on personal experiences and observations during this difficult time. The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect positions of European Generation.

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