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.
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 Major publications have published contradictory experimental results, with some later withdrawn.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.