Science in Real Time

Why expert advice on COVID-19, including mask-wearing, keeps changing.

Most of us acquire our science from others either through classes and textbooks or on TV shows. We learn about facts that are generally accepted by the scientific community. Then these facts are integrated into theories that explain our world within some overarching framework. This static textbook view of science may include the histories of current theories and the explanations they replaced, but the information is presented as final, accepted truth. Questions of earlier generations are now understood, and we have a theoretical framework that gives us a rich understanding of how God’s creation works.

But what we see in textbooks and science classes is far removed from the real activity of scientists; in the active scientific exploration of creation, uncertainty and debate reign. Disagreements and competing explanations move back and forth as individuals carry out experiments and suggest improvements on current theoretical understandings in various domains. Sometimes the issues explored are small and have almost no impact on the broader scientific landscape. Occasionally, an experiment or new theory has a profound effect on our understanding of the cosmos. This new understanding is treated as tentative until tested and probed by others to see if it holds in all circumstances that we can imagine. More substantial changes in scientific knowledge have been called paradigm shifts and happen at unexpected intervals. Sometimes these shifts suggest the existing framework is wrong (think of Galileo claiming the Earth is a planet rotating around our sun and not the center of the cosmos). Perhaps more often, the new framework is an extension of a simpler earlier theory (Einstein’s theory of relativity radically expanded the Newtonian understanding of the laws of physics, which still apply under standard conditions).

Before the dust settles

Science is a human exercise and subject to all the follies that humans are prone to express. One current debate is what caused the extinction of dinosaurs 66 million years ago. We know a huge asteroid dropped into the Yucatan Peninsula at this time. There were also significant lava eruptions in India (the Deccan Traps) around that period which radically changed the composition of the atmosphere. The debate over which event is ultimately responsible for the massive extinction of dinosaurs and the emergence of mammals has been called “the nastiest feud in science.” There are individual scientists on both sides of this question, and many paleontologists are currently looking for more evidence to determine what happened so long ago. If I follow the debate, the asteroid explanation seems to have the most persuasive evidence, but that may change tomorrow.

What this demonstrates is that, as science is advanced, it is unclear and prone to change. Only later, after the dust has settled, is there a consensus around acceptable facts. The more profound the theoretical and experimental change, the more dust and the longer it often takes for the community to accept the new evidence. Sometimes all we can say is that there are problems, and the issue is being explored. In physics, Einstein’s theory of special and general relativity competes with quantum theory as our best understanding of the underlying physics of our world, and it is not clear how they can be combined. Both accurately reflect aspects of reality, but they seem to have very different understandings of gravity and other phenomena.

Today we are living in a pandemic due to COVID-19, and we are seeing science working in real time in ways we generally do not experience. We are encountering new explanations of the origin of this virus, how it makes us sick, why some are much more affected, and how best to prevent its spread. Sometimes the consensus emerges rapidly; at other times, scientists and public health officials seem to change their recommendations in a complete reversal. For scientists, this fluid behaviour is understandable, even expected, but for people who have learned their science from others, such changes can be unsettling. They may even make us doubt our public health officials, and sometimes they lead to very bizarre explanations of this pandemic.

Expect medical advice to change

At this point, we need to differentiate between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation may be wrong but, dare I say, honestly wrong; disinformation is a deliberate attempt to deceive. For many scientific issues, there are vested interests that can be harmed by new information or benefit by spreading untruths. The cigarette industry is an example. For a long time, the industry undermined a clear view of the relationship between cancer and smoking. Currently, some parts of the oil industry appear to be funding disinformation about climate change, suggesting that the evidence is still not firm and that no scientific consensus on the cause of what is happening to our environment exists.

This pandemic is a perfect convergence of all these fluid and confusing factors. One area of confusion is the use of masks by the public. Initially, the argument was that they had little impact on the spread of the disease and not wearing a mask was fine, but now the consensus is that wearing a mask is helpful. COVID-19 appears to start and sometimes remain asymptomatic, and it may be possible to infect others before we realize we are sick. The virus spreads by droplets that we exhale as we breathe, cough, talk, and sing. A mask can reduce the spread of these droplets by catching them in its fabric. Medical masks are designed to stop the virus from affecting the wearer, but current science suggests cotton masks are better at protecting others than protecting ourselves.

As our knowledge of this virus explodes, expect many more changes in how we should behave and how we should treat people who are sick. Recently, one trial of a possible medication (hydroxychloroquine) to treat the illness was halted because a report in the medical journal the Lancet suggested it had adverse effects. But then the article was retracted as the data could not be independently verified and several red flags were raised. The WHO has restarted the medical trial, but the confusion this created is unfortunate. We can expect more incidents like this as rapid dissemination of information is part of how researchers communicate, and public health officials try to use and recommend best practices to us all. Don’t be surprised by this, and don’t ascribe a wrong or harmful motivation to scientists and public health officials, who are doing exactly what we want them to do: work with the best and most current information. We have recently celebrated Pentecost, with its gift of the Spirit. May this Spirit of Truth bless all those who are to understand and fighting this pandemic.

  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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