Science in the time of Corona

Peter MolemanArticles, The world within your headLeave a Comment

Verbazingwekkend en paradoxaal | Peter Moleman

Most people tend to view science as a collection of facts. I see this differently. I carry a model of the outside world in my head: what I see, hear, smell, how animals live, plants grow, cars drive, storms develop, about magnetism, gravity, atoms, how psychotropic drugs work. And of course about the working of the brain. You might call this a model of reality. Each of us carries a model of reality within their head, each their own model. I cannot really know for sure whether my model is accurate. It exists in my head, so it is subjective. Science is for me the method of testing whether the model inside my head is borne out by what is out there, objectively, outside my head. The question is: is it real or am I just imagining it?
In order to test the model in my head, I analyse the results of experiments in the scientific literature. The writers of those articles have performed those experiments consistently following the scientific method. If I am convinced that this particular model in my head is confirmed by those findings, then I write an article on my website. But you can only consider that which I write as objective, existing outside my head, if other scientists agree with it. That is science, or, according to the definition of Science in Wikipedia1: “Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe”. A systematic enterprise which in this case consists of the community of scientific researchers as well as the knowledge acquired as a result of their efforts.

Science and the COVID-19 virus

The world today is in the grip of a deadly virus, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-192. We can only limit the damage from that virus if we understand what exactly is happening. The questions we need to answer are fairly simple: what does that virus do inside the human body and how does it spread? From this knowledge we need to extract measures to conquer the virus. Many thousands of scientists over the whole world are working day and night 3 on this. One group searches for vaccines which help our body to combat the virus or for medicines to kill the virus or restrict its effects such as damage to lung tissue. But that is not easy. It is a new virus, which has its own tactics to use our body for its own multiplication. It attaches itself to certain cells, especially in our lungs. One of these scientists may think about how he can use this in the fight against the virus. What he develops is based on a subjective model in his head. He then performs experiments to see if it works. I can guarantee you that scientists will have concluded hundreds of times that it does not work. He then consults with his fellow scientists: what was wrong with the model in my head? Then he thinks further about what might work, and does the next set of experiments. And so on until the results coincide with the model in his head.

Science and the transmission of the COVID-19 virus

Another group of scientists addresses the question of how the virus is transmitted. This of course you know: through coughing and sneezing and droplets that travel through the air to reach another person. But even that is not so simple.

  • Can you have the virus without having been ill at all? And if so, can you then transmit it? Is that the case with children? Or do they not carry the virus? Then they cannot transmit it.
  • Should you test more in order to know how the virus is transmitted, or is that of little use because the virus can be spread even if the test is still negative?
  • Can you get the virus from a contaminated door handle?
  • Does it make a difference if you are infected with a small or a large dose of virus?
  • What could explain the sudden outbreak in Italy? Is the population there different to that of China where it started? Or was it because the government did not take adequate measures?
  • After you recover, are you immune to the virus? And if so, how long?

These and many hundreds of other questions have to be answered to know exactly how the virus spreads. As I see it, there are at least two major problems in this regard. The scientists who are studying the transmission cannot perform any experiments. They have to look at what happens in China or Italy or elsewhere. But if you compare China with Italy, is the difference in transmission because of the difference in population or something else? Let us then compare two places in China, where the population does not differ much. But perhaps they live much closer to each other in the one place compared to the other, so the chance of being infected by droplets is much greater. This means that you would need to take into account both population differences and living circumstances. And even that is not enough, because you have to look at hundreds of factors at the same time. And that is what the scientists do. But they have yet another problem: time pressure. They cannot take their time to look for answers at their own pace, as the government needs to take measures now and not only in six months’ time.

Models in computers instead of in the head

The scientists who study the transmission of the virus therefore have to take a very large number of factors into account. So many that it makes the forming of a coherent picture, an integrated model of reality in one’s head, impossible. This problem was solved a long time ago. They make models on their computers where they introduce hundreds of variables. Then they can calculate how the virus spreads, and how many people will need to be put on a ventilator at any given time, or how many people will die. And which benefit will be brought by the one or the other measure.
These computer models, however suffer from the same drawback as the model in my head. Do they correspond to what is happening in reality? That is virtually impossible, because some factors are not known, or very uncertain. Look at the questions in the section ” Science and the transmission of the COVID-19 virus”. Not a single one of these questions can yet be provided with an answer which is absolutely certain. So the scientists keep busy day and night collecting new data from over the whole world to improve their models and gain in certainty.

Science and the RIVM4

In the Netherlands the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM)5 does a lot of scientific research on this subject. The institute, and especially its director, Jaap van Dissel, are visible in their advisory capacity to the government. But there are many more scientists in the Netherlands involved on research on the subject. The RIVM scientists and these others belong to a select group of top scientists in the world. They exchange data constantly and discuss their models with each other; the model in their head or on their computer. That is essential: it is not the model in the head of just one scientist, as they are constantly correcting each other.

Is the science about COVID-19 reliable?

The science around COVID-19 in the Netherlands and the rest of the world is completely reliable. By this I mean there is state of the art testing of the models in the scientists’ heads and on their computers against the realities in the world. This means that the scientific methods are reliable, but it is unclear whether this will lead the scientists to a better understanding of the facts about the virus. This is not really possible, because they cannot perform experiments to test these, and not all the relevant factors are known yet.

Science and policy

How is it possible that the Netherlands’ policy of combating COVID-19 is different to that in other countries, if we have the best scientists in the field? Policy is determined by the government. Fortunately we have a government which pays attention to its scientists. The frequent appearance on television of the director of the RIVM Infectious Disease Prevention and Control Unit gives the impression that it is mainly the opinion of the RIVM that counts. In reality it is the Outbreak Management Team ( OMT) comprised of the most influential Dutch scientists, not only from the RIVM, which formulates advice to the government6.
National policy is therefore based on the models in the computers and the heads of these scientists, with all the inherent uncertainties. They cannot however wait to take decisions and implement measures until these uncertainties are resolved. For example, there is a lot less testing for the virus in the Netherlands compared to other countries. No one knows for sure if this is the right thing to do. The OMT seems to think so, at least for the time being. Perhaps there are scientists in the OMT who are in favour of more testing, but you cannot keep the decision-making on hold as the debate continues. And further, it appears that the scientists agree that the closure of schools is of little relevance in preventing the spread of the virus. But the degree of pressure from society may well have been the deciding factor in the closure of schools in the Netherlands.

Facts and opinions

What is the point of having science if we cannot be provided with factual conclusions? What are the facts? It is especially at times of great uncertainty that people look for security in what they think are the facts. These are facts that exist in their head. The scientific method distinguishes between facts within your head and facts in the world outside. Facts which only exist inside your head are not actually facts, but opinions. You understand that the saying ” Science is only an opinion” is a contradiction in terms. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But if you deny the distinction between fact and opinion, then it can have unpleasant consequences for yourself7. And it gets even worse when this denial has consequences for others.

Opinions about the Corona virus

I am rather scared of the virus. I can’t cope well with the uncertainty and the fact that I have no control over the situation. In the early days I used to express my opinions on Twitter, the last a few weeks ago, but now I have stopped doing that. I am not the scientist who is searching for the facts about the virus, and no expert on that subject8. So how does my opinion help others? Much worse is when government leaders express their opinions and base their policy on them. Bolsonaro said that it is a minor flu epidemic and that the crisis is a media trick9. And Trump says that the antimalarial drug Hydroxychloroquine helps against the virus and has released a lot of funds to develop it further. But the knowledge about that drug against COVID-19 is based on fraudulent science10.

What next?

I consider myself fortunate to live in a country where the best scientists work day and night at their fact-finding, and where the government does its best to formulate policy which is based on what those scientists have found out. Whether they provide me with optimal protection I don’t know. Whether their policy is sensible nobody knows. And we will never know. If it later transpires that there were more fatalities here than in Germany, for example, then we will never know why. For this, too many factors are involved. The only thing I can do is to have faith.  Isn’t faith just that, about following someone even though you do not know whether that is the best option? So I do what the government and RIVM tell me to. And outside this, I try to restrict myself to the most reliable information11. And I remain anxious. 

  1. Accessed march 25, 2020
  2. COVID-19 is the clinical picture caused by the SARS-Cov-2 virus (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2)
  3. Literally day and night
  4. Dutch counterpart of the US CDC or UK DHSC
  5. https://www.rivm.nl/en
  6. https://www.rivm.nl/en/novel-coronavirus-covid-19/what-are-we-doing-in-the-netherlands-in-response-to-the-coronavirus
  7. https://thecorrespondent.com/373/the-coronavirus-is-reminding-us-that-anxiety-is-good-as-long-as-it-doesnt-turn-into-panic/3500868338-dfcfc849
  8. See Cecile Janssens “Experts with opinions and experts with facts
  9. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/23/brazils-jair-bolsonaro-says-coronavirus-crisis-is-a-media-trick
  10. https://twitter.com/kennwhite/status/1243152451139784711
  11. https://unherd.com/2020/04/how-likely-are-you-to-die-of-coronavirus/
    https://www.rivm.nl/nieuws/actuele-informatie-over-coronavirus
    https://www.sciencemediacentre.org/
    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00758-2

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