The United States is receiving a crash course in scientific ambiguity.
When the coronavirus first appeared last year, no one expected it to infiltrate every part of daily life for such a long time and in such a sneaky way. Every day for the past 18 months, the pandemic has pushed Americans to make life-or-death decisions, and there is no end in sight.
It appears that scientific understanding of the virus is changing by the hour. The virus only spreads through intimate touch or on contaminated surfaces before becoming airborne. The virus evolves quietly at first but later manifests itself in a variety of hazardous new forms. Masks are not required for Americans. They do, in fact.
The ground beneath our feet has never been so shaky during this tragedy. In the last week, government health officials announced that in the next months, all Americans would be given booster shots. Those officials had informed the public just days before that the immunizations were still effective against the Delta strain of the virus and that extra shots were not required.
The Food and Drug Administration is poised to formally approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which has already been given to millions of people in the United States, as early as Monday. Some skeptics were skeptical that the vaccine had not yet been formally approved but was being extensively distributed.
Americans are witnessing science as it unfolds in front of their eyes. The procedure has always been fluid and unpredictably unpredictable. However, it has rarely advanced at this pace, forcing citizens to face study findings as soon as they arrive at their front door, a steady stream of deliveries that no one requested and no one wants.
Is it too risky to pay a visit to my unwell parent? Do the advantages of in-person schooling balance the risk of my child suffering physical harm? Will our family get-together become a superspreader event?
Even for researchers, public health professionals, and journalists who are used to the ephemeral nature of science, living with a capricious foe has been disconcerting. They’ve struggled over the best approach to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, too.
However, too befuddled Americans unfamiliar with the winding and often contentious path to scientific discovery, public health professionals have appeared to be shifting the goalposts and confusing, if not outright lying, the country at times.
Scientists are “edging forward in a very incremental way” most of the time, according to Richard Sever, assistant director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press and co-founder of two popular websites where scientists submit new research, bioRxiv, and medRxiv.
“There are blind alleys that people travel down, and a lot of the time you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.”
Biology and medicine are two very demanding professions. Before an idea is adopted, it is reviewed for years, if not decades.
Researchers develop a hypothesis first, then devise experiments to test it. Before a community of specialists agrees to a judgment, data from hundreds of investigations, frequently by conflicting teams, is examined.
In the meantime, scientists disclose their discoveries to their peers, typically at specialty conferences that are closed to journalists and the general public, and fine-tune their theories in response to comments.
It took fifteen years from the first cases of H.I.V. to the discovery of two proteins required for the virus to infect cells, a discovery critical to cure research. Even once a study has arrived at a satisfactory conclusion, it must be submitted to a scientific publication for rigorous evaluation, which might take another year or more before the results are made public.
On that scale, scientists have gained a rapid understanding of the coronavirus, in part by speeding up alterations to the process that were already beginning.
Treatment outcomes, epidemiological models, and virological breakthroughs – research on every facet of the epidemic is published online almost as quickly as scientists can finish their manuscripts. Online, notably on Twitter, or in emails between specialists, “preprint” papers are scrutinized.
What researchers haven’t done is describe how science has always operated in a way that the average person can grasp.
The public discussions and disagreements, rather than taking place behind closed doors, convey the misleading impression that science is arbitrary or that scientists make things up as they go along.
Dr. Sever explained, “What a non-scientist or layperson doesn’t realise is that there is a large bolus of information and consensus that the two persons who are disputing will agree upon.”
Is it really so unexpected, however, that Americans are perplexed and baffled, if not outraged, by fast-changing rules that have far-reaching consequences for their lives?
The task facing federal authorities is unenviable: developing standards for coping with an unknown and quickly spreading illness. However, health officials have not stated clearly or frequently enough that their advice may, and most likely will alter as the virus and their understanding of it evolves.
Dr. Syra Madad, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, stated, “It’s been a piss-poor job since the beginning of this pandemic, to put it most kindly.”
Leaders in the United States and the United Kingdom made too many promises too quickly and had to retreat. When scientists discover more about the virus, health officials have failed to portray altering guidance as required.