Science: Nothing is set in stone

Researchers contradict each other, findings change. Can science be relied upon at all? An attempt to explain

Among “corona sceptics” it is a hit: the video with the ironically meant title Believe only official sources. It shows how casually the experts interpreted the Corona danger at the beginning of March. Virologist Christian Drosten speaks of a “mild cold”, which is “in principle not a problem for the individual”, the Robert Koch Institute explains that wearing a mouthguard is completely “unnecessary”, and Health Minister Jens Spahn reassuringly recommends normal behaviour “as with a cold or flu”. Look here, the makers of the video want to say that the experts cannot be trusted, and the whole Corona excitement is just fake.

[“You don’t have to be a conspiracy ideologist to be surprised at the turnaround of the researchers. Isn’t it odd that something is now considered a global danger, something that a few months ago was supposedly just a mild cold? What does this teach us about the credibility of the experts and the power of scientific arguments? Don’t researchers claim this today and that tomorrow – as their respective interests demand?”]

In the course of the Corona crisis such doubts have seeped deep into many minds. They are intensified by the protesters of the Corona demonstrations as well as by the Bild-Zeitung, which repeatedly reported on contradictions within science with great indignation; politicians also complained about the virologists who would change their minds every few days.

This is about more than the pandemic. It is about the reliability of science in a rapidly changing world – in medicine and climate research, in energy policy and in the use of artificial intelligence. Which judgement can be trusted? In the end, are even those right who – like the current US President – prefer to rely on their gut instincts rather than scientific advice and serve a longing for simplicity?

Now it is often claimed that the corona crisis in particular has strengthened the reputation of scientists. However, a Europe-wide study published in June casts doubt on this. “Our survey shows that the majority of citizens in most member states do not trust the experts and authorities,” write political scientists Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard. The mistrust is most pronounced in Poland, France and Bulgaria; but even in Germany, only 44 percent of respondents believe that the Corona crisis has “demonstrated the usefulness of the country\’s experts and authorities”. The majority is uncertain whether scientists are not secretly in league with the government or pursuing hidden interests.

Why do researchers contradict each other so often, why do findings change so quickly? A search for an answer in seven chapters.

The Corona video mentioned at the beginning of this article is so irritating because it reflects the state of knowledge at the beginning of March, before the outbreak of the Corona pandemic in this country. At that time, experience with the new virus was limited to reports from other countries; nobody knew how it would spread under German hygiene and social conditions. As their knowledge increased, the researchers then turned their backs. They no longer focused on the calming aspects (“a mild course for 80 percent”), but on the worrying ones (“latently fatal for high-risk patients”).

Even more important was a finding about the coronavirus, which became clearer in the course of March: the new pathogen is often transmitted “asymptomatically”, i.e. without the infected persons showing symptoms. This characteristic, however, makes containment dramatically more difficult, as it can potentially make anyone and everyone a danger to others.

Of course, one can ask: could the experts not have foreseen this? And didn\’t Health Minister Spahn speak up too much when he said at the beginning of the year that Germany was “well prepared” for a pandemic. The answer: yes, Spahn was barking up the wrong tree; the researchers were overtaken by events.

But such surprises are in the nature of new, unknown phenomena: Since our knowledge is always based on past experience, we are often blind to unexpected turns. Only a few months earlier, experts considered it just as unlikely that German reunification would take place in 1989 as the financial crisis and the Fukushima reactor accident. Or take the strange wall of water that rolled towards the shores of the Indian Ocean on 26 December 2004: Because the phenomenon was so unusual, many beach goers stared at it without understanding, some even filmed the spectacle in all peace of mind – not realizing that a tsunami of the century was heading towards them, which in the end killed over 200,000 people.

Image source: https://bit.ly/3k13sIP

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