by Tom Evslin
Pandemic Lesson #1: ‘The Science’ must always be challenged.
But that doesn’t mean all challenges are right.
In the beginning, scientists in Wuhan, the only scientists who had direct access to Covid data at the time, said that the disease couldn’t spread from person to person; it only spread when infected food was eaten. The World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed that “science”. It was wrong.
Once China and WHO changed their view and conceded that infection could spread from person to person, they also said that it spread mainly on surfaces. We had a mini-epidemic of handwashing and surface cleaning. Mary and I still have most of a big bottle of sanitizer left. We took our mail out of the mailbox with rubber gloves and quarantined it three days before opening. Dr. Fauci and the US CDC did not recommend masking at that time. Still to be determined is whether they didn’t recommend masking because they didn’t want the public to gobble up the limited supply of surgical masks or because they truly didn’t believe that airborne infection was significant.
An interesting side note is that epidemiologists had not kept up with the latest physics about tiny droplets. The physics embedded in their literature only acknowledged larger droplets, which are more likely to alight and persist on surfaces, and ignored tiny droplets which stay in the air – it’s those tiny droplets that the virus travels on. The “science” which emphasized infected surfaces was wrong. It’s a good thing it was challenged. It’s a good thing that we learned that small weave masks are effective. What if no one had been allowed to question “the science”?
Dr. Fauci and other experts said it would take at least two years to develop an effective vaccine. They were being optimistic based on experience up until then. Fortunately, they were wrong.
When the vaccines first got emergency approval, they were billed as being 85-95% effective. Most people, including me, thought that meant getting vaccinated would reduce the chance of getting infected by 85% to 95% and could well snuff out the disease like what has almost happened with polio and smallpox. Those estimates were the best available; but they were wrong, especially as the virus mutated. I urged vaccine requirements for air travel and some professions like medicine thinking that vaccinated people were largely not spreaders. I was wrong. The “science” was wrong. Experience has shown the vaccines effective at preventing hospitalization and death – a good thing; but not nearly as effective at preventing spread. For the least vulnerable, it is beginning to appear that mild infection is more effective than a shot at preventing hospitalization. The world changes and “the science” changes as well.
There is nothing wrong with the fact that we learn more as time goes on or that old truths become invalid as the world changes. What is wrong is to think that “the science” should go without challenge; that would be catastrophic. What is wrong is to think that any legion of fact-checkers can decide what we ought to read; that is also catastrophic. Science flourishes on challenge. New discoveries always tread on old truths. Progress depends on challenge – even if most challengers are wrong.
The author, an author, entrepreneur, former Vermont state cabinet officer, lives in Stowe. He founded NG Advantage, a natural gas truck delivery company. This commentary is republished with permission from his blog, Fractals of Change.