Covid-19, mystery novels, and how science works

This is a guest post from Emma Despland.  Her first pandemic-themed guest post is here; this week, she asks what the pandemic can teach the public about science, and teach us about public understanding of science.

There is considerable frustration about uncertainty surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, how serious it is and what we should do.

Do we need to wear masks? What kind of mask? If you’re had Covid-19, are you immune? For how long? Do I need to disinfect my groceries? Is it safe to go jogging outside? One model  suggests that you need to be 10 m away from someone who is running to avoid getting hit by their microdroplets and possibly contaminated, whereas other experts think this long-distance transmission is unlikely.

Fictional representations of science show too many Eureka moments.  The real process is more like doing a jigsaw puzzle, where you stare at hundreds of seemingly unrelated pieces and try to assemble them into a meaningful picture. There is always one irritating piece that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere; and part way through, you inevitably find that at least one piece was wrongly placed.  The public usually sees the puzzle when it’s almost finished, when the picture is discernable (unfortunately, it’s usually a puzzle found in the basement, with a few pieces long lost).  With Covid-19, the whole world is watching the puzzle-doers.

I’m a scientist who spent her teens reading classic murder mysteries. I guess I enjoy both because it’s a very similar reasoning process, putting together bits of information to figure something out. One has to be aware of the risk of jumping to conclusions based on incomplete evidence.

The murder weapon was found stuffed down in the back of Bill’s sock drawer – this is a verifiable fact.  But, does it mean he’s the murderer? Maybe not. Maybe someone else put it there to frame him. It’s hard to interpret this fact. To find where it fits in the puzzle.

Susan seems to have lied about where she was on the night of the murder. Three witnesses, two of whom are not connected to the murder or to each other (to the best of our knowledge), claim to have seen her walking in the street when she said she stayed home. So the evidence is strong (but not watertight) that she lied.  If we later find out that those two ‘independent’ witnesses were paid by another suspect to say what they did, then we will revise our assessment of the truthfulness of Susan’s statement. And of course, even if Susan did lie, it doesn’t mean she committed the murder. Maybe she’s hiding something else. Maybe it’s related to the murder (is she protecting someone?) or maybe it’s far more innocuous.

This is how scientists think. We try to build a model of how our system works based on the evidence we have. We also assess the quality of the evidence as we integrate it. We change the conceptual model as new evidence comes in – this isn’t being wishy-washy or sitting on the fence, it’s responding dynamically to a changing situation.

Usually the back-and-forth happens in smaller spaces. It happens through specialist journal articles, at conferences, in private conversations. Now the urgency is not only pushing the debate into the open, it’s also focusing more attention on what used to be semi-private conversations between small numbers of people who devoted large amounts of energy to figuring out one particular problem.  Scientists are all of a sudden finding the numbers of their twitter followers exploding.

This sudden window into the process of science is dangerous, in one way, because it can fuel conspiracy theories and partisan bickering. Individual pieces of the puzzle are being exploited by groups to reap profits or score political points. But it’s very, very good in another, because the public is seeing how science actually works – with their attention focused by the urgency and personal relevance of the pandemic problem.  We’ve been trying to show the public how the scientific process really works for decades, and that’s an important goal.  Might Covid-19 give a boost to public scientific literacy?

© Emma Despland  May 5 2020

Image: Sherlock Holmes and the coronavirus.  Collage by S. Heard; all elements public domain.

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