Suddenly everyone is an #epidemiology expert, which understandably frustrates ‘real’ experts.
But it is good that people read/share information and form opinions. The problem is the widely shared fantasy about what empirical science does and how it works. Science is not a one-shot game where you design one impeccable study to deliver the knowledge we need, and then a “settled” science based on The Truth™. There is no such thing as an impeccable, truth-generating study. There are always things to critique and that can be done better.
This means two things: that we should not take any one study as gospel, and we should not dismiss every study for having weaknesses. Scientists work in the very opposite way, and slowly build a widely agreed-upon body of theory by incrementally refining methods and adding to the evidence. Even the so-called scientific method itself suggests that we cannot ever get to known and verified truth. We can only approach it by continuously progress, learn, and undermine or falsify prior claims. So it is a serious error to dismiss any findings outright because of imperfections in the study.
When scientists take apart a study, they are doing their jobs: by finding flaws, weaknesses, and expressing doubt about results, they are vetting the research and indicating the need and direction for follow-up research. This is very different from the common claim by ‘new experts’ in social media that a study is “false” because scientists have found that it has weaknesses or flaws. Virtually every study is “false” in this regard. It doesn’t mean that the truth has been uncovered, and it certainly doesn’t mean that one can assume that the opposite is true.
Empirical science is more akin to a discovery process than an uncovering of certainly true pieces of knowledge. All knowledge is interpreted through a lens, which in science is established theory, but it happens that the lens is discarded. This is what Thomas Kuhn referred to as scientific revolutions, which happen as evidence contrary to the commonly used lens amasses and raises doubts about its reliability, causing a ‘crisis’ and a new paradigm.
This does not mean that everything that took place before this shift is without value. The prior findings were not discarded, and physics did not start from scratch with the publication of Newton’s theory. The same with Einstein’s theory of relativity. But prior findings are seen in a new light and their significance might shift as the evidence is reinterpreted using the new lens, creating (usually) new understanding. In science, this is par for the course.
Scientists are and should be skeptical, critical, and even unconvinced. They should disagree. It is how our accumulated knowledge grows and is refined. Unfortunately, society has adopted a form of unreflective and normative scientism in which science is assumed to immediately have all the answers. This is, I think, the reason why it is so common in political debates to use as argument that “scientific studies show that…” It is a meaningless statement, but plays on our unreasonable view of science as the generation of immediate and eternal truth.
If we instead recognize science as a discovery process, it should be obvious that there likely are scientific studies in support of most views. But even if I can cite 1,000 studies in support of my opinion, it means little if they were all conducted using unsupported, unreasonable, or since then rejected assumptions (such as geocentrism). Scientific findings are never adopted because there is one study. Yet, prior findings can, at least in principle, be undermined and challenged by a single study finding contradictory evidence. But such falsification of theory, which is how science progresses, requires that the new study is done well and uses state of the art methods and data.
That’s why scientists immediately jump on and mercilessly critique, if not attempt to shoot down, a new study with results that are surprising or even challenging to what they believe to know. If it withstands the critique, it must be taken seriously. If it does not, it is not automatically rejected but may have provided important clues for how to design future studies, refine methods, etc. But what matters is that the study is overall rather well done and, then, that its weaknesses are uncovered.
This is why scientists go through years of training. The point is not (only) to learn the field’s terminology and memorize theories, but to learn the trade: how to do good research and spot weaknesses. Any good scientist can offer a list of weaknesses in any study, which to a layman likely sounds like an outright rejection of the findings. But that’s a highly simplified interpretation that is easily an error. Many groundbreaking works were ferociously resisted by the scientific community before the ideas were adopted (examples like Semmelweis and Chandrasekhar come to mind). This is not necessarily a flaw. Science “should” resist novelty by demanding convincing evidence before adopting new explanations. (But it should not resist for reasons other than logic and evidence.)
In the current pandemic, studies are still scarce and scientists are working to figure out how to properly measure trends in this changing landscape–and make effective recommendations to policymakers. Studies will only get better as we get a better understanding of the virus, more (and more reliable) data, better interpretations, etc. But this cannot be accomplished if new findings are quickly dismissed outright and scientists shunned for not producing evidence in line with people’s (or policymakers’) preferred imagined reality. Science takes time and must take time. It progresses through scrutiny, skepticism, and critique. But informed such, not mob-like attacks on scientists with the “wrong” results.