Montana Viewpoint: Covid research and the division between science and opinion
Sometimes it seems to me that everything we do in life is an attempt to solve mysteries. While that includes how a crime was committed, it also applies to things from “what is life all about”, to putting a jigsaw puzzle together, or figuring out how to do something we have not done before.
We look for solutions, we look for reasons, we look for constants, we look for people who can teach us. Mostly we get things right, but not always, and so there is a lot of controversy about what to believe and what to not believe, who to trust, and who to not trust.
All this philosophical rambling is inspired by the ongoing attempts to counter statements that some of us don’t believe or don’t want to believe by calling them biased, or lying, or fake. It works across the political spectrum and is an important factor in causing us to suspect others of trying to deliberately mislead us for their own gain.
We don’t think of the fact that there are people who are trying to unravel mysteries because of their own curiosity, and while they want people to know about their discoveries, they are not particularly looking for fame or influence.
There is a lot of political controversy about the science around Covid for instance. I come to the defense of science because I was trained in it in a field that studied how the brain affected behavior, how we know when we have had enough to eat, for example, which is a lot more complicated than having a full feeling in the stomach. For instance, there is an area in the brain of a rat that controls eating. If it is destroyed, the rat can never satisfy its hunger and will eat continuously. (They become pretty nasty, too.)
The people who pursue science are people who are looking for the facts, who are trying to solve the mysteries and do not care as much about how the public views their findings as they do about how others in their field view their research. In science, there is a rigid procedure for discovering facts called the scientific method; you start with a problem, propose a solution, develop a way to investigate it, use that method and compare your results to your original proposed solution.
Knowledge doesn’t count for much if it isn’t shared so there are publications that accept and print valid scientific experiments so they can be verified or disputed by others who follow the exact same procedure used in the original.
Because scientists do have biases, just like everyone else, the scientific method also acts as a safeguard against bias by comparing the results of experiments by others who use methods identical to yours, which may support or not support your conclusions. In the debate about the accuracy of the conclusions regarding covid-19—masks versus no masks, vaccines, yes or no — people will seize upon other research that disputes a conclusion or on things that happen that don’t conform with those conclusions.
But those disputes and non-conformities ARE science, it’s how science grows, how it learns, how it corrects itself, how it becomes more accurate. Personal beliefs, opinions, and belief in conspiracies are just that, and can be shown to be false by science, but that’s unlikely to change minds.
As far as scientists having a political agenda there are people who don’t believe that there are actually human beings who pursue facts while setting aside their political beliefs. For example, many politicians believe that a government employee’s political beliefs affect their job performance and bias their conclusions. But those same politicians will tell you that large campaign contributions from an industry don’t affect their ability to remain unbiased in their votes on issues important to that industry.
In closing, I’ll share a story which I once heard which I cannot verify, but true or not, it makes a point. Edward Tolman was a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkley for almost his entire career. His field of expertise was studying rats to determine how they learned.
Tolman, like any true scientist, cared more about the advancement of science for the benefit of humanity than he did about always being right. At the end of his long tenure he was given an award, and in his acceptance speech said, “I have lived long enough to see almost all my major theories disproven, but the purpose of science is to have fun, and I had fun.”