There is an angry, heated row raging among scientists about how best to tackle Covid-19. Given all the variables, we shouldn't be surprisedby Philip Ball / March 16, 2020 / Leave a comment
Dissent and dispute are a normal part of science. If you ask randomly selected high-energy physicists where we should be looking for a theory of quantum gravity, you can be sure that whatever answer they give will be challenged by some of their peers. If you ask geneticists to what degree genes determine social structures and human variation, or neuroscientists how the brain works, likewise none will give an answer that others won’t denounce.
In normal times the rest of us can watch these debates with interest, amusement or mild confusion. With strategies for tackling the coronavirus pandemic, we don’t have that luxury. For some of us—it is actually rather terrifying to write this—which experts are right and which are wrong will determine whether we, or our loved ones, will live or die.
To keep a little proportion on that stark truth: it was ever thus, to some degree, in biomedical science. In the early days of AIDS research, for example, there were genuine scientific disagreements about causes and treatments (even if these were outrageously abused by contrarians with agendas), and there too the consequences made the difference between life and death. It’s only because the HIV epidemic has moved more slowly that we tend to overlook how lethal it became before scientists worked out not only ways to slow and arrest the problem with drugs (there is still no vaccine) but how to most effectively implement appropriate social measures to check the spread. Around 35 million have died globally since the AIDs epidemic began, and even in 2018 around a quarter of a million died from AIDS-related illness.
While, therefore, we can be dismayed at the angry row that is raging among scientists about how best to tackle the coronavirus, we shouldn’t be surprised. This is an immensely difficult question, and prediction is inherently uncertain, not only because of gaps in our biological understanding of the virus and its effects but also because so much depends on the vagaries of human behaviour: how we respond to advice, nudges and directives, and for how long. And while there…