Coronavirus: why it's dangerous to blindly 'follow the science' when there's no consensus yet
The rules for coronavirus research have been relaxed. Angellodeco / Shutterstock
The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine are among the most influential scientific journals in the world. Both recently had to withdraw studies on the effectiveness of COVID-19 treatments after doubts about the underlying data arose. The scandal reveals the dangers of "fast science".
In the face of the virus emergency, research standards have been relaxed to promote faster publication and errors are inevitable. It is risky. If expert advice on the pandemic turns out to be wrong, it will ultimately have serious consequences for the treatment of reliable scientific knowledge in other policy areas such as climate change.
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The pandemic has been politicized and is complacent liberals against ruthless conservatives. There is also a tendency to think about options related to science and common sense. If we accept this framework, there is a risk that people will believe that experts are no better than us at making predictions and making statements that can guide politics.
For example, some "lockdown skeptics" responded to falling mortality rates by arguing that the lock was not necessary at all. Aside from arguments about how locks saved lives, it is right to be concerned about how this has affected expertise in general.
However, we should not see that epidemiologists advising governments have the same status in relation to the pandemic as other experts have in other hot-button issues that generate scientific consensus. It is wrong to believe that since epidemiology is an established science, the guidance that it is currently giving us is necessarily absolutely reliable.
There is still no reliable science about the novel corona virus. Since it is new, the models used by epidemiologists have to make assumptions based on incomplete data.
We have seen dramatic revisions of these models because it turned out that some of the assumptions were completely wrong. Even now, there is good cause for concern that some of the models that governments rely on may exaggerate the infection mortality rate. The tests focused on the sick - but if others who were infected with mild or no symptoms were included in the calculations, the death rate would be lower by a currently unknown amount.
Part of the underlying problem is built into the way epidemiology is organized to deal with new, developing diseases in a fast moving environment. Leading epidemiologists see themselves as synthesizers of "many branches of science with many methods, approaches and forms of evidence". However, it takes time to collect and combine such evidence.
Lives against the economy
Epidemiology is not the only discipline relevant to responding to the pandemic. Locks themselves cause costs of unknown magnitude. Too often these costs are presented as economic costs, as if we were faced with the choice between a healthy economy and healthy people. But people die from recessions.
We should design the topic so that you live against life and not against the economy. Estimating the impact of closures on future physical and mental deaths and diseases is not just a matter for epidemiologists, but a variety of disciplines - psychiatrists, sociologists, economists, educators, public health experts, and many others.
Lockdown threatens life and livelihood. Viacheslav Lopatin / Shutterstock
Reaching a reliable consensus takes time and the effort of many disciplines, especially because the consequences of a policy affect so many areas of life. There was simply not enough time to reach such a consensus.
Implications for climate science
Climate science is above the pandemic debates and provides an example of the value of science tested in political debates. Since the onset of the crisis, there have been many concerns that climate skeptics could play into the hands of allowing those who are concerned about following the authority of science.
There is every reason to believe that the strong consensus on climate science is fully justified. A key reason for the trustworthiness of the consensus is that it has been subjected to a stress test so often from so many angles.
Climate science has proven itself. FloridaStock / Shutterstock
Scientific claims such as "carbon emissions cause global warming" are not a discipline. Rather, the expertise of many disciplines is required: physicists, paleoclimatologists, mathematicians, astronomers and many more have contributed to making climate science robust. All of these experts must identify mechanisms, exclude alternative explanations, and make predictions.
Like epidemiology, climate science provides a reliable guide for politics. However, it is particularly reliable because its predictions and assumptions are further examined and evaluated by many disciplines that go beyond actual climate science.
We strongly advocate that scientific contributions to politics be given considerable weight. In this case, however, this advice can only reflect part of the science and offers a drawing file. Accepting this advice means accepting a bet, and we should not be surprised if we lose that bet in a way that we have poor understanding of in advance. The stake in this bet is particularly high if some citizens' rights have to be suspended for the advice to be accepted.
If we lose the bet, the debate as one of experts against skeptics will lead to a win for the latter. This would delay our response to questions based on scientific security, particularly climate change, by decades.
Science is our best guide to the world. But reliable science takes time and contributions from many different types of people, including public values. We should celebrate the achievements of science, but recognize that not every science is equally justified.
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Eric Schliesser receives funding from the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO)
Eric Winsberg and Neil Levy do not work for companies or organizations that would benefit from this article and do not receive financial positions that are known beyond this academic appointment.
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