Learning About Following the Uncertainty of Science

No two ways about it, we’re all getting a crash course in the uncertainty of science. It turns out that all those bumper stickers saying follow the science don’t mean exactly what we thought. Because COVID-19 is teaching us that the certainty we seek from science is not always there for us. Little more than a month ago, we thought the scientific triumph of mRNA vaccines had delivered us from this pandemic. But today, we’re learning that we have more to learn about what this coronavirus has in store. Even in Iceland – an island with one of the highest vaccination rates in the world – the delta variant is causing a big surge of infections.

This is a sharp reminder that uncertainty is a feature, not a failure in science. Questions about what we know to be true, what we suspect, and what we know to be false are ultimately what scientific inquiry is all about. Whether the subject is COVID-19 or obesity and nutrition, this reminder is valuable.

The Dangers of Fast Science

Early in the pandemic, Neil Levy, Eric Schliesser, and Eric Winsberg warned about the dangers of fast science. Back then, both Lancet and NEJM had to retract papers about treatments that turned out to be seriously flawed. Truthfully, those retractions were good signs that scientific rigor can help even after research publication.

In less than two years, scientists have learned amazingly much about this new coronavirus. By comparison, it took 15 years to learn about the proteins that HIV uses to infect human cells. Because of great scientific progress in a very short time, we have vaccines that many people doubted would be possible today. Yet we are still learning what those vaccines can and can’t do to end this pandemic. A furious debate about booster shots is going on – even while health policies are calling for them.

This is all part of the process of scientific progress. It is incremental and constantly refining itself. Debate about interpreting new data is ever present.

Communicating Uncertainty and Making Policy

So here we are, having made lots of progress from the early days of the pandemic, but still uncertain about what comes next. Yet we still must make public policy decisions along the way, despite uncertainty. And even more important, we must communicate to inspire confidence while being honest about uncertainties. Helen Jenkins of Boston University explains the challenge:

“There are some people whose confidence outweighs their knowledge, and they’re happy to say things which are wrong.

“And then there are other people who probably have all the knowledge but keep quiet because they’re scared of saying things.”

We have seen policy makers tell us that COVID “will just disappear.” Of course, that was a lie. More often, we see scientific uncertainty glossed over. Advocates give us models to tell us food and beverage taxes in Mexico will surely turn around the problems of obesity and diabetes. But in truth, targeting just one cog in a vast system that promotes obesity has little chance of making any measurable difference.

It takes more than glib promises to overcome problems as big as the pandemics of COVID or obesity. It takes good science and policy makers who understand the limits of certainty in science.

Follow the science is not a bad motto – but only if you can deal with scientific uncertainty, too.

Click here, here, and here for more on coming to terms with scientific uncertainty.

Uncertainty, photograph © Heiner Engbrocks / flickr

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August 23, 2021

One Response to “Learning About Following the Uncertainty of Science”

  1. August 23, 2021 at 10:10 am, Allen Browne said:

    Science is a process – learn, reevaluate, challenge. There is no certainty and today’s truths may not be true tomorrow.

    Thanks, Ted.