The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call for America. In the past few years, we have become inured to some who think they can change the truth with a tweet, spin or “alternative facts.” We have come to tolerate the notion that two different realities somehow can simultaneously coexist. But whether you like it or believe it, there is only one reality, and today, that reality includes COVID-19.
We can’t tweet this pandemic away. We can’t protect against it with hyperbole and promises. Viruses are not affected by what we say, what we wish or what we promise — only what we do. And only through science will we figure out what to do to mitigate this virus.
The foundation of science is objectivity. Over hundreds of years, scientists have learned that good science comes from being as objective as possible. The process is not about finding facts to fit a predetermined theory, but rather discerning the laws of nature from noisy data and sometimes confusing observations.
The scientific method is, at its core, the empirical assessment of theories. If a theory stands up under careful empirical scrutiny, it ultimately might become accepted as a fact by the scientific community. Theories might start out as hunches or “gut instinct,” but they do not become facts until they are carefully, ruthlessly, repeatedly, objectively and empirically evaluated.
Such empirical evaluation crucially and fundamentally depends on data — solid, carefully collected, relevant data. As any scientist can tell you, collecting good data is hard work that takes time and care. Sloppy data collection leads to poor data and that leads to bad science.
Crucial COVID-19 information that we are missing includes the incidence of the disease in the general population. With that, we could better allocate resources to minimize the spread and predict who is at risk or which areas will next be hit by the virus. However, to determine disease incidence, we need more data — lots more data — which requires widespread testing, something we still are not able to do.
Without such testing, we simply don’t know how pervasive the disease is, and cannot identify those who are asymptomatic and further spreading the disease. That’s a real problem. We can’t contain a virus if we don’t know where it is. It’s like trying to drive your car using only the rearview mirror: All we know is where the virus has been, not where it’s going.
Furthermore, because the disease has a roughly 5- to 14-day incubation period, what we observe today reflects what was happening a week or two or even three ago. We won’t know whether the measures that are being taken today are effective for weeks. Simply put: Until we are able to test as widely and as often as possible, it will be hard for scientists to get ahead of this problem.
An internet meme says, “At the start of every disaster movie, there’s a scientist being ignored.” This real-world disaster began with Dr. Li Wenliang in China being ignored. That mistake has been amplified in the United States by our failure to follow the best scientific advice in a timely manner. Despite warnings, we have been slow to recognize the COVID-19 crisis and to ramp up to address it. Things are improving, but we’re not yet where we need to be.
Some of that is because over at least the past few years, our politics have sought to discredit science or to co-opt it for partisan purposes. But science isn’t partisan. Science is not about championing conservative or liberal causes. Science doesn’t change if you live in a red or blue state. As Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
The U.S. has a long and storied history of great science and scientists. We are a nation founded on discovery and technological innovation. We are a country that looks to the future with hope and optimism. Historically, we have been a nation that has embraced science and the promise of science for improving the world. Let us return to those roots.
When this pandemic is over, let’s hope we have learned the folly of politicizing science and that trying to use science for political purposes does no one any good. Furthermore, as we navigate our way through the choppy seas of this pandemic today, the most important lesson we can learn is: Let science lead.
Dedication: To all the scientists who are working hard to find a COVID-19 vaccine; who are collecting data and building models to help inform us better; who are trying to understand the virus better so that we can all be safer; and to all the medical and public health professionals who are putting themselves in harm’s way to heal the sick and try to stop this virus, thank you.