Facts And Uncertainty: What COVID-19 Tells Us About Science

Building scientific beliefs is a long and arduous path that originates from a contradictory process. But facing a pandemic, it's the best we've got.

A health worker taking a break
A health worker taking a break
Augustin Landier and David Thesmar*


PARIS — The coronavirus crisis and its accompanying armies of white gowns has put science back at the center of the economic and political scene, as in the days of the Manhattan Project and the Space Race. Yet the feeling many of us are left with is ambiguous, since the health crisis has actually shown the staggering uncertainty and limits of human knowledge.

Scientific experts have expressed diverging views and frequently changed their points of view. The terrifying predictions concerning the number of infections and deaths calculated by mathematical models did not materialize. Major publications have published contradictory experimental results, with some later withdrawn. Some wonder if science risks coming out of this crisis discredited in the eyes of the public.

Analyzing the coronavirus — Photo: COVER Images/ZUMA

And yet, the absence of consensus among the experts is actually a sign that the scientific debate is healthy. Knowledge is the result of an ongoing debate on the interpretation of facts, which are themselves established with varying degrees of precision. Different researchers act as advocates of diverging ideas. The debate might be heated and it takes time for dust to settle.

In experimental sciences, the evidence is often statistical: there is always a portion of uncertainty concerning the impact of an effect or its universality. In social sciences, the interpretation of observations is left even more open, as multiple events are often occurring at the same time. For instance, the beginning of the lockdown may have coincided in each country with a rise in fear among the population, which makes it difficult to isolate the direct effect of the quarantine on the transmission of the virus.

*Augutin Landier is a professor at HEC School of Management and David Thesmas teaches at MIT.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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