Uncertain Times

We live currently in a world of great and sometimes terrifying strangeness, where the rules and customs by which we have lived for so long have been turned upside down. Some people may be focussing on whether they need to don smart shirts and make-up on their Zoom calls (the media seems very hung up on our changing dress code in the virtual meeting world), and others whether ‘science’ is going to get the blame for the unfolding crisis in the face of Covid-19.  As you might expect, I would be closer to the latter camp. I put ‘science’ in inverted commas since it isn’t ‘a’ thing, a unitary discipline which in and of itself contains all the answers. No, sadly not. There isn’t going to be a single way of tackling a disease that has, as fellow head of house and former Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies said at a meeting in Cambridge ‘upended the textbooks’.

This is not a disease which manifests itself in a single way, nor one whose course can simply be predicted, as those who had it apparently mildly but then have suffered protracted symptoms and after effects can attest. Epidemiologists and modellers are still trying to make sense of its progression through the population (and models are only as good as the information you can feed in and the assumptions you make); biomedical researchers are working flat out to come up with a viable and safe vaccine; and all of us have to make decisions each day about how to live our lives safely – for ourselves and for others.

The situation is uncertain, the ‘science’ is far from ‘known’, fixed and definitive. Around the world we are all battling the same uncertainties and it is crucial those without a scientific training are not misled into thinking that there is a unique right answer which will rapidly fall from the scientist’s lips and which will enable us all speedily to return to normal life. That this strange beast known monolithically as ‘science’ regardless of discipline (or possibly even ‘Science’, to give it appropriate gravitas with a capital letter) will suddenly provide a solution which enables us to put Covid back in its vinegar bottle and move on.

Thinking like this, I read with dismay the following sentences (written long before the pandemic) in Clarissa Farr’s mainly excellent, if slightly structurally contrived, book The Making of Her about her life as a headmistress at a leading private girls’ school. “If art helps us understand and express ourselves, helps us lead an ethical life through respecting and recognising the essential fragility of human nature, its exploratory nature also allows us to accept and live with the fact that some aspects of life are unknowable. In a world dominated by STEM, we are less comfortable with that which cannot be predicted and measure, yet so many of aspects of our lives are set about with uncertainty.”

As is so common with the media, this non-scientist who makes very clear throughout her book that she was a dunce at science and never cared for it as a pupil, is tempted to stray into seeing the world of education as a binary divide: STEM versus non-STEM. Worse, she believes that STEM subjects are all about certainty, fixed answers and the knowable as opposed to the unknowable, ineffable and creative domain that, to her, represents the arts and humanities. This false division of our education is a dangerous trap, made all the more treacherous in the current uncertain world in which scientists are barely allowed to say ‘we don’t know’. And, manifestly, we don’t.

The disease we are facing is new and hence inevitably unknown. We, the scientific community, may collectively have tools and frameworks in which to set to work to learn more of the virus’s secrets, but we know how much we don’t know. Scientists – unlike Farr’s beliefs – are comfortable with the uncertainty, of not knowing facts, because our job is to devise ways of discovering them. Science is not some cold, organised way of getting from A to B. Albert Einstein expressed it as ‘To these elementary laws there leads no logical path, but only intuition, supported by being sympathetically in touch with experience.’ Would Farr associate sympathy and intuition with scientists? I somehow doubt it. Of course, school science is not like research science. School science does tend to be taught as if the facts are all known, and as if there is nothing to be curious or creative about. But good school teaching should still be able to introduce the ideas of the amazing, the uncertain, the curious and the limitations of what we know. If we cannot instill these emotions in the student, we are failing.

Too many people believe like Farr that there is always a right answer and if a scientist can’t provide this, they are in some sense failing. This was as true in the days of ‘Mad Cow Disease’, when the science profession was hesitant to put a firm number on how many deaths would ultimately derive from the human version vCJD. More than ten years after the first death in the UK in 1995 as a result of this disease, scientists were still debating what the final tally of deaths might be. In fact, the second wave feared never seems to have materialised, at least as yet.  A politician can use the fact that scientists are understandably reluctant – when they lack hard facts and evidence – to give a precise number of future expected deaths (as I recall, the predicted ranges covered at least two orders of magnitude from the less than two hundred that have actually so far occurred to tens of thousands) – to suggest they are somehow incompetent. Not to ‘follow the science’, as we have heard so often in recent months, but to blame the science.

There is another interesting analogy between the current pandemic and Mad Cow Disease: the absence of test and trace. When a few animals were found to harbour the disease, via post-mortem brain studies, their calves were not initially tracked. They were instead allowed to breed further, thereby potentially spreading the disease across the farm population. There were those who, at the time, spoke up about keeping records – and they were ignored. Sound familiar? With Covid, things moved at a much faster rate in the (human) population, but this country did not follow others’ lead in isolating the early sites of infection. We are all now paying the price: literally and emotionally, if not with our lives, and almost certainly for years to come.

Politicians who don’t understand the science are too prone to do what is electorally convenient. It has not passed unnoticed that Germany, with a leader trained in science to PhD level, has performed significantly better in dealing with the current crisis. We, as a nation, suffer from a culture that makes science only suitable for alleged eggheads (and not for typical politicians), and which believes that science is some sort of monolithic, rigid set of rules that don’t teach us about uncertainty, or allow us to respond with compassion and flexibility. It is dispiriting to see our leaders and our education system failing us all, not least by casting science in this inappropriate light.

This entry was posted in Communicating Science, Education and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.