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Another big lesson Covid-19 has taught us: Science matters


Dr David Glassom is a senior lecturer in marine biology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. His research specialities are coral reef biology, climate change and marine pollution. He has a strong interest in science advocacy.

The Covid-19 pandemic gives us all the opportunity to become more scientifically literate, to learn to filter fact from fiction, to trust rigorous science instead of celebrities, snake-oil salesmen, politicians or corporate advocates promoting vested interests.

The coronavirus is playing havoc with economies and societies the world over. Its full cost will not be known for months or years to come, and possibly not even then. However, there are also opportunities to be grasped. They are not opportunities which we welcome, nor will they compensate us for the impacts of the pandemic, but we should grasp them nonetheless. 

Many of the opportunities will arise in the scientific field, for this pandemic is a giant, uncontrolled experiment. Virologists and epidemiologists are studying the virus and the way it spreads. Medical experts may learn about the human immune response to new pathogens. Research on vaccines and treatments is proceeding at an almost unprecedented pace. New tests are being developed for the virus and whole factories and production lines are being refitted to produce vital equipment. Beyond the immediate impacts of the pandemic, climate scientists will gather data on changes resulting from the drop in pollution and CO2 emissions.

Yet, a more profound lesson may be learned from this pandemic. For some years there has been a growing tendency to disregard the opinions of scientists in favour of political expedience or so-called “alternative” forms of knowledge. Examples abound – from climate change denial, to the crowds of people who turn to celebrity websites for health advice.

Global biodiversity and entire ecosystems, such as coral reefs, are threatened by governments’ refusal to heed scientific advice. In the run-up to an election in the UK in 2016, a member of the Conservative Party even opined that people had “had enough of experts”. 

The reasons for this trend are manifold and include deliberate disinformation strategies by some industries, politicians who would rather pander to their electorate than make hard choices, conspiracy theorists and simple ignorance, combined with the inability to tell truth from misinformation. 

Pharmacies line up unproven remedies and supplements alongside tried and tested medicines while the media commonly mixes science-based stories with celebrity advice. There is rarely a consistent message that scientific evidence is more than “just another opinion”. Years of the conflation of scientific evidence with an untested opinion have made it more and more difficult to distinguish fact from fallacy.

This has been brought into focus with the proliferation of coronavirus-related messages, many of which are false, from a variety of sources. Often these messages mix misinformation with some facts, making it even more difficult to separate one from the other. In some cases, such misinformation is deeply harmful, if not outright dangerous. 

There have been reports, for example, of arsonists burning cellphone towers due to a rumour linking the spread of the virus to 5G technology and of deaths caused by people trying to self-medicate with chloroquine phosphate. Arguably, the global lack of preparedness for this pandemic is partly attributable to an anti-science narrative propounded by political leaders in the past several years.  

The “anti-vax” movement is a prominent part of this narrative. While a debate about the safety of vaccination is as old as vaccines themselves, vaccines have managed to eliminate smallpox completely and polio might have gone the way of smallpox by now, if not for resistance to being vaccinated in a few countries. However, the movement has been renewed by the false controversy over the MMR vaccine, exponents of which claim that it is associated with bowel disease and autism. Although this idea has been repeatedly disproved and the doctor who first advocated it has been struck from the register in Britain and despite the deaths of thousands of people – the vast majority of whom are unvaccinated – from measles each year, the anti-vax movement has persisted. 

All this must surely change with the outbreak of Covid-19. Now we see what a highly transmissible virus can do in the absence of a vaccine or other effective treatment. Little is heard now of how people are sick of experts, of the dangers of vaccines causing autism, or of alternative remedies providing answers to the pandemic.

Instead, people are learning about enveloped vs naked viruses, the distance that the virus can be transported in droplets, how long it can last on different surfaces, why soap and water are more effective against coronavirus than alcohol-based sanitiser and the difference between PCR and antibody tests for the virus. Epidemiology is a common topic of conversation.

It is difficult to remember a time when so much conversation centred on a single, science-based topic. Moreover, it is largely recognised that scientific knowledge and advice is the key to solving the problem. Governments that have been quickest to heed this advice have been most successful in containing the virus. The focus on developing vaccines and effective antiviral treatments is further evidence of our reliance on science.

Of course, there are always exceptions. A leader of the Zionist church was quoted as saying, “This Covid-19 is Satan who is attempting to stop Christians from going to praise God as we wish,” while the Zimbabwean defence minister reportedly ascribed the pandemic to God taking revenge on the West.

The attempts by two prominent world leaders, in the UK and the US, to circumvent scientific consensus, in one case by claiming the threat was exaggerated as a political ploy, along with a “hunch” that the mortality would be much lower than WHO projections, and in the other by trying to institute a policy of “herd immunity by mass infection” were strongly resisted and soon failed. Fortunately, such views seem to be vastly outnumbered by those who recognise the validity of a scientific opinion.  

The question now is what will happen after the lockdowns have ended and Covid-19 has been brought under control? Will this new consciousness survive, or will we see a return to the recent anti-scientific propaganda? Will evidence-based views hold sway or will industry lobbyists still be given equal credence to career scientists?

I hope a lesson will be learned from this – that in an age of climate change, mass extinction, new diseases and other emergent threats to health and society, science matters. It is undoubtedly the best method we have of producing new knowledge and improving peoples’ lives. Science does not always have quick solutions to our problems, nor is it always right.

But we should bear in mind the words of Carl Sagan: “Science is not perfect. It is often misused; it is only a tool, but it’s the best tool we have.  Self-correcting, ever-changing, applicable to everything. With this tool, we vanquish the impossible.”  

We might not always like what we learn from science, but ignoring it or substituting it with superstitions, untested opinions or simply our own intuitions or biases will never solve the problems that face us. We should all use this opportunity to become more scientifically literate, to learn to filter fact from fiction, to trust rigorous science instead of celebrities, snake-oil salesmen, politicians or corporate advocates promoting vested interests. 

It is immeasurably sad that it should take a global pandemic to drive this message home, but it is a message that could still save us from the worst of this and other crises that we humans have unleashed on ourselves. DM


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