Half a year into the coronavirus pandemic, many of its enormous public health, economic and political ramifications are still poorly understood. The virus itself has turned out to be maddeningly complex. It manifests itself in different populations in diverse and confusing ways, depending on age, environmental and social conditions, blood type, form of exposure, and other interacting factors. Doctors, epidemiologists, geneticists and other scientists are struggling to understand the virus and its effects so that policymakers can develop clear guidance for the public on how to balance protecting public health with the need to protect economies and communities.
Under these pressures, the typical scientific process has been accelerated. Science is normally slow: creating and testing theories, collecting and analyzing complex data, developing and assessing models, writing and rewriting (and rewriting again) papers, and then going through the long peer-review process of publishing scientific results in journals.
A fundamental characteristic of science is that what we understand to be true must be testable. A theory is only as good as the evidence that supports it. Overturning core scientific understandings can take years or decades or even centuries. The idea of an Earth-centric universe was refuted when Galileo and scientists who followed him found conclusive evidence that contradicted it. Evolution, plate tectonics, special relativity, anthropogenic climate change—are all theories that replaced conventional wisdom as the weight of evidence accumulated over the years, decades and sometimes centuries in their favor.
But for a challenge like COVID-19, where teams of researchers around the world are struggling day and night to understand the threat we face, new information can change our understanding in a few days, or even a few hours.
Scientific journals, which are the usual conduits for publishing and publicizing science, are struggling to balance their traditionally slow and careful approach with the desperate demands of a society seeking to save lives. Much has previously been written about the current, imperfect practice of peer review at these journals. Even worse, there has been an explosion over the past decade in predatory journals that offer to speed up publication of marginal articles by trading away strict peer-review practices in return for money. These have been rightly condemned, but they still flourish, and the scientific community has yet to figure out a way to rein in this problem.
Newer platforms like MedRxiv and bioRxiv also provide a way to rapidly move research into the public domain in advance of formal peer review by disseminating unpublished manuscripts. These are quickly picked up by the media, and they have been major outlets for COVID-19 research. Even the most prestigious of the scientific journals, like the Lancet, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the New England Journal of Medicine have moved to greatly accelerate the review and publication of the results of genetic studies, the effectiveness of specific drug treatments, the relative vulnerability of different groups of people, or the importance of social distancing and other behavioral interventions.
An inevitable downside of this accelerated release of information is that sometimes it turns out to be wrong. In the past few months, some high-profile COVID-19 papers have been released, promoted heavily in the media and then retracted. Sometimes data were inaccurately or incorrectly analyzed. Sometimes mistakes or flaws in research methods or test results were discovered. Sometimes even newer information contradicted their findings.
We long for certainty in an uncertain time and these instances can be embarrassing and frustrating. Even worse, they undermine public trust in science. Scientists remain among the most trusted groups in the United States, despite recent efforts by some politicians to discredit science and scientists when their findings run contrary to political ideology. We are understandably desperate to know how to fight this new, lethal enemy—but the scientific community must balance the pressure for quick answers with the safeguards put in place to try to ensure those answers are right.
Similarly, the public must understand that being wrong is also part of the scientific process. The retraction of a study is bad news, but it should also be seen as evidence that the scientific process is working—that we’re checking and rechecking, testing and retesting, and, most importantly, acknowledging and correcting errors when they happen.
What does it mean for public policy when desperately needed scientific understanding is advancing but still imperfect, as it is for climate change, the pandemic and other critical issues? Our leaders should put policies in place based on our best current understanding but recognize that these policies must evolve as the science does. Denigrating or ignoring science because it can be messy and uncertain is a mistake. Basing public health policy on ideology; on economic rather than health priorities; or on personal beliefs will not serve the public interest. But waiting for perfect information to act would mean waiting forever while the climate continues to change or while people continue to get sick and die.