The Limits of Our Science

The Covid-19 pandemic has been characterized in the public space by enormous fractures, mirroring societal divisions, that have often pitted the science that could inform better response to the pandemic against ideas driven by little more than ideology. This was immensely complicated by President Trump’s assumption of strong positions—for example, on the purported utility of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19—that had no basis in scientific fact. Such highly visible support for ideas that were simply wrong, at a time when the world needed clarity without false hope, pushed science to the fore to an unprecedented degree. “Follow the science” became a rallying cry and was part of then-candidate Biden’s appeal to voters. He promised that he would take a still-evolving Covid-19 science seriously if elected president, in stark contrast to the then-incumbent.

Few would argue that science should not be at the heart of decision-making during a pandemic. There is, however, and appropriately, a growing body of work that discusses what science can, and cannot do. As we look to learn from the Covid-19 moment, it seems worth asking—what are the conditions under which we may be suitably cautious about the science? Three principal conditions come to our mind.

First, we should be cautious about science informing decisions about particularly complex systems, where science can inform our understanding of particular aspects, but where these narrow aspects are only part of a larger and more intertwined whole. This was perhaps most clearly borne out during the pandemic when it came to decisions around keeping K-12 schools open. The science showed relatively quickly that children were at low risk from the virus, and did not much influence transmission of Covid-19 in the general populations. However, the issue of school opening went beyond a single scientific question. Certainly, there were inputs related to the estimated risks of viral transmission, but there were also risk perceptions and issues around the protection of teachers that transcended ready scientific solutions. Scientific engagement on issues that involve different groups with diverse interests need to be focused on particular questions (e.g., how much do children transmit the virus?) but embedded in larger and more complex societal decision-making.

Second, we as scientists bring to what we do biases and particular perspectives. And there are perspectives that color our thinking that are importantly germane to the Covid-19 moment. Academics in universities are, for example, increasingly politically left-leaning, suggesting that we are bringing to our work, our interpretation of it and hopes for its use, a particular political lens that is hard to avoid, particularly when a right-leaning president is sneering at scientific norms and findings. In addition, many of us with post-graduate degrees have had the privilege of doing better during the pandemic than many other sectors of society, adding a perspective that inevitably informs our work. Would we, for example, weigh the burdens of mobility restrictions differently were we unable to do our jobs with such restrictions in place?

Third, we are, as scientists, very much human, and our approach to the moment is informed by the status that the moment has afforded us. We wrote about this last week in the context of epistemic arrogance. We argue at this high watermark moment of visibility for science that we need the wisdom to recognize the complex and difficult path from science to truth, and to beware of overconfidence.

We are believers in the power and process of science, and never has that belief been more important than during the Covid-19 moment. It is this very belief in the influence and authority of science that pushes us to ask what our own limits are, to understand what circumscribes our potential contribution, to the end of making that contribution more consequential.

Michael Stein & Sandro Galea

As we re-emerge from the pandemic, 2021 stands to be a turning point year for public health. In The Turning Point’s weekly essays, we reflect on what we learned during 2020, and what we are learning during 2021, that can guide us to the creation of a better, healthier world.