Posted: June 3, 2020 in: Uncategorized

SCIENCE IS A GAME OF MANY LOSSES ~ Suzanne Norvell, Ph.D.

Science is a game of many losses.  We like to think of science as breakthroughs and foundational laws, which it can be, but the reality is that breakthroughs are the exception and laws are often challenged and changed.  Scientific success is built on failure, and anyone who tells you differently isn’t being truthful.  In the 20 years I worked in a lab doing research, only a very small fraction of my experiments ever made it to publication.  Thus, to watch scientific research play out in real time across the globe as we are during the 2019/2020 Sars-Cov-2/COVID-19 pandemic is frustrating at best and, at times, feels almost torturous.

Infectious disease research is an area in which science has made huge advances in the last 100 years.  Yet, look what a new virus has done to society around the world, including wreaking havoc on our medical systems.  If science wasn’t about being human, a new virus wouldn’t be able to do that.

The very nature of the science business is to take on the most challenging problems facing our world and try to find a solution.  Everyday scientists and doctors are assigned tasks such as curing human disease, preventing natural disasters, healing the human mind and much more.  You can bet there will be lots of failure. I would argue that failing is the single most important way that scientists, and maybe all of us, learn.  We ask a question, make a hypothesis, test the hypothesis and then, depending on the result, ask the next question.  It takes patience and time, which is especially difficult in the case of a pandemic, when the process must be expedited.  And that is why it is especially challenging to do science directly in the public view.  The reality is that scientists are, at best, wrong as often as they are right and that is why all of us, especially the media, are easily misled and easily disappointed.  In fact, I would argue that a scientist who claims she is always right is probably not being truthful.  We are always just one experiment away from disproving our current way of thinking.  That is what makes the hashtag #believescience that is trending now on social media almost meaningless when it comes to Sars-Cov-2/COVID-19.  Everyone I know believes science, until it is disproved, and then we believe the next science.  That’s how it works.  This is a brand-new virus with brand new research.  We have to be able to disprove things.  It’s a necessity. We need to observe and question, over and over again. And models are called models because they are based on assumptions. This doesn’t mean science doesn’t work, it just means that it takes trial and error and that the public tends to judge this kind of learning process very harshly.

There is a lesson to be learned here. To do science, we must have both bold thinking as well as skepticism. To have one without the other can be disastrous.  Hippocrates once said, “to know is science, but to merely believe one knows is ignorance.”  When it comes to COVID-19, it is dangerous to believe we know.  Instead, we must be cautious making broad judgements until we really do know.  When it comes to science, we should recognize, admit and welcome honest failure because it means we are in the game, we are not on the sidelines and we are trying our best.  Let’s call failure what it is:  Learning and move on.  What other option do we have in our current situation?  We have to find the truth and, therefore, we must fail, and fail again, before we can succeed.

The key is that the best scientists will be honest about their failures.  They won’t try to pretend they are smarter than everyone else.  So, look for humble scientists that display cautious optimism when it comes to new results for Sars-CoV-2/COVID-19 research.  And most definitely question the “know-it-alls”.  Look for data presented in a way that clearly states that it is preliminary or a first attempt.  Watch for separate, independent verification of those data.  Also, don’t ignore scientists and doctors who present anecdotes, but also do not rely on those anecdotes.  An anecdote demonstrates that something can occur, but it does not tell us the frequency at which it will occur (reference).  An anecdote just might be the beginning of something great because most medical breakthroughs began as anecdotes.  Lastly, remember that while scientists do, indeed, have years of education and experience, none of that necessarily qualifies them for asking and answering some of the greatest mysteries posed by our universe.

It takes teams of scientists to take meaningful steps forward, and the last time I checked all scientists are human.  Some are honest and, well, sadly, some are not.  So, please, remember that scientific discovery is a process that has ups and many, many downs.  Don’t judge immediately, let it play out and use the information presented, whether judged as success or failure, to ask the next great question.  With time, and patience and persistence, the truth will emerge and when it does it will be transformational.  And, perhaps while you browse the latest Sars-Cov-2COVID-19 research data, remember Mark Twain’s Quote: A lie can make it halfway around the world while the truth is just getting its shoes tied.

Suzanne Norvell, Ph.D.

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