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  • Writer's pictureJustin McBrayer

The Limits of Science in a Pandemic

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

While the COVID-19 pandemic might have brought many facets of human life to a halt, the practice of science was not one of them. This raises a fascinating question: what can science achieve during a pandemic?

The current pandemic offers two clear and unambiguous lessons about the power and limits of science. First, science remains one of the most powerful forces on the planet. Unconstrained by market considerations and the typical regulatory protocols, scientists around the globe cooperated to produce multiple vaccines in world-record times. The fact that a pathogen could be readily identified as early as January and effective vaccines released in December, is a testament to the power of science.

However, second, we learned that the power of science to make a difference in the contemporary world faces hard limits. In particular, many scientific endeavors rely on the understanding and cooperation of the public to make a difference. Think of a chain with many links. The chain itself is no stronger than the weakest link. No matter how powerful the tool, if it requires public cooperation to use it, the tool will only be as strong as the public cooperation. And the pandemic perfectly illustrates how public ignorance and rejection of science can sabotage the otherwise brilliant findings of science.

It’s a lesson in both pride and humility.

Start with the point of pride. No matter how we sort science from pseudo-science, it’s clear that humans have only practiced science for a few thousand years and yet produced incredible results. If the mark of science is to offer naturalistic explanations for physical phenomena, then the practice of science dates at least back to Babylonian proto-astronomers or pre-Socratic work on the composition of the universe. If the mark of science is to use careful experimentation to verify or falsify empirical hypotheses, medieval alchemists and ancient Chinese engineers qualify. And if the mark of science is the application of mathematical models to complex physical phenomena, then science can be traced back to theorists like Copernicus and Leibniz.

No matter how we describe the nature of the scientific enterprise, it’s not hyperbole to say that it’s changed the face of the globe. The birth of science marked a decisive shift in human thinking and human achievements. Jared Diamond famously claimed that guns, germs, and steel explain why some civilizations out-competed others. But the power of science underlies all three.

Science functions by building an intellectual bridge, of sorts, that links our naturally reliable judgments about the world to truths that lie beyond our ken (as described in chapter 6 of Beyond Fake News). Here’s a simple example. If you hike in the woods, you can accurately tell when you come upon a body of water. Given our eyesight, humans are naturally reliable at telling the difference between, say, a pond and dry ground. But we can’t look at that same body of water and tell whether it is acidic, basic, or neutral. Our natural faculties are good for deciphering some facts but not others.

But science has developed a method that links our reliable faculty of sight with facts that lie beyond our typical scope. If we take random samples of pond water and dip litmus paper in each sample, we can come to know whether the pond is acidic or not. That’s because we are reliable at telling the difference between blue and red, and litmus paper links these colors with deeper truths about the world (in this case, the acidity of the water). It is the method of science that builds this intellectual bridge connecting our reliable judgments with novel facts about the natural world.

Natural philosophers and proto-scientists from Ibn al-Haytham to Sir Francis Bacon have described this process of bridge-building. Early scientists from Isaac Newton to Nikola Tesla built such bridges with remarkable effect. As applied to the science of disease, the first vaccines were pioneered at the tail end of the 18th century despite the fact that the existence of germs wasn’t discovered until the next. And yet the bridge-building of careful and patient scientists in the 20th century has provided us with reams of information about pathogens and dozens of highly effective vaccines.

It’s difficult to understate the importance of this work to human welfare. The scar from a smallpox vaccine on my mother’s upper arm is a reminder that my childhood looked very different from hers. And her childhood was very different from that of her mother who risked otherwise lethal infections that we now treat with antibiotics. In fact, the CDC lists dozens of vaccines that are in contemporary use in the USA. Two very serious infectious diseases have been eradicated altogether: rinderpest and smallpox. The latter is a particularly stunning accomplishment as smallpox was responsible for the deaths of 300-500 million humans before its global sunset in 1979. It was science that made this reduction in human suffering possible, and much of this science came out of the work done in pandemics.

This potted history of the scientific endeavor is enough to make clear why the scientific results of the COVID-19 pandemic are so startling. In less than a year, epidemiologists investigated the source of the pathogen, medical doctors experimented with treatments, and scientists developed vaccines with efficacy rates that would earn an A even in an Ivy League school. It took over four years to produce a vaccine for the mumps, and that’s the fastest vaccine on record. In 2020, scientists pulled off the same feat for COVID-19 in 11 months.

That success provides an answer to the question with which we began. Even during a pandemic, science can investigate the world with stunning speed and acuity. The pandemic has provided another lesson in the power of science, especially when scientists the world over cooperate to build intellectual bridges to identify the origin, nature, transmission, and treatment of a pathogen.

The next chapter of the story is more humbling.

Scientists developed a clear account of the origins of COVID-19, a zoonotic pathogen that likely jumped the animal-human divide in or around Wuhan, China. And yet in late spring, about a third of Americans believed that the pathogen was a hoax.

Scientists discovered hard facts about the transmission of the disease and what steps would limit its spread. We learned that the combination of social distancing and mask-wearing significantly reduces transmission rates in contemporary societies. And yet many Americans believe that wearing a mask makes no difference, and their actions bear this out: in late 2020, nearly half of self-identified Republicans report not wearing a mask most or all of the time while in public.

Medical doctors carefully tested a wide variety of drugs and treatment procedures. They published double-blind studies showing what worked and what didn’t. Despite this, hundreds of thousands of Americans continue to believe in debunked medical treatments, many of them suffering terribly or dying as a result of quack remedies. Our own president and top government leaders advocated for the use of ineffective, expensive, and sometimes dangerous treatments.

Scientists worked at a furious pace to develop not one, but several vaccines that are significantly more effective at preventing COVID than many other vaccines in use today. What’s even more amazing is that this level of efficacy is paired with an exceptionally low level of negative side effects. And yet one in three Americans disbelieves in the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and has no plans to get one. That number is even higher in certain demographic groups like Black Americans.

This public ignorance and intransigence has resulted in untold amounts of human suffering. Countries who moved swiftly to enact scientifically sounds protocols have infection rates a mere fraction of those who did not. Death rates in some communities that ignore science are an order of magnitude worse than rates in communities that don’t. The USA stands out as a cautionary tale on both counts.

The lesson is that it doesn’t matter what science can do during a pandemic if the results of scientific investigation are undermined by a gap in public understanding or a failure of public cooperation. It doesn’t matter what you learn about disease transmission if people won’t follow best practices. It doesn’t matter whether you develop a vaccine if people won’t take it. The power of science in contemporary democracies is constrained by the credulity and goodwill of the broader public.

So, what else can science do during a pandemic? It can broaden its scope from the natural to the social world. It can help us learn how to convince and engage the public. It can teach us how to battle misinformation online and effectively rebut non-scientific challenges from the fringe. It can show us how to persuade and teach and make allies out of political actors and everyday citizens.

A pandemic provides a kind of natural experiment for scientists who try to understand the human world and not just the natural one. We can study how people respond to news of the pandemic, how they are comforted, and how they are motivated. We can learn how political groups—both on the left and the right—can exploit a pandemic for political gain. We can measure which sorts of public health campaigns result in public trust and action and which do not.

From an academic perspective, the lesson is that a pandemic is an opportunity for both the natural and the social sciences. The COVID-19 pandemic perfectly illustrates how a science of the natural world is insufficient to solve human problems. We need a robust science of people, too. Natural science without social science is impotent. Social science without natural science is blind. We need them both.

Natural science without social science is impotent. Social science without natural science is blind. We need them both.

The lesson extends beyond pandemics to many of the problems that humankind faces. Climate change is a ready example. Careful work in the natural sciences has revealed both the scope of the climate problem and the most important contributing factors. But those lessons won’t be put into practice by contemporary democracies until the wider public understands and accepts those findings.

In sum, science in a pandemic can make great strides in deciphering the nature of a pathogen, the morbidity of infected hosts, and the best available treatments. But those advances won’t be put into practice without learning more about the beliefs, fears, and social constructions that guide human thinking and decision-making. Science can and should do both during a pandemic. Human welfare demands it.

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