There is a light off in the distance. It could be the light at the end of this long pandemic tunnel, or it could be the headlight of an oncoming SARS-CoV-2 variant that is even worse than the one that started all this. We are in the midst of a global game of chicken with a virus that has shown a dangerous ability to mutate and change its characteristics.
Science is telling us how to bring this nightmare to an end. A sufficiently high enough percentage of us, worldwide, have to become immune to the virus to diminish the amount of it being passed around. The less circulating virus, the fewer mutations. This inelegantly termed “herd immunity” is our way out. Unfortunately, widespread anti-science misinformation is sowing doubts in some peoples’ minds about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccinations and other virus control measures.
- Letter: Stop politicizing face masks and vaccinations
- Letter: It's open season on grandma and grandpa
This incorrect information about science seems to stem from a combination of malevolence and ignorance. Malevolent sources deliberately spread inaccurate information under the guise of “just asking questions” or “raising concerns.” Deliberately inaccurate information apparently benefits someone or something, but those benefits may not be obvious to those of us who choose to live in the real world. The double-edged sword of modern communication systems allows inaccurate information to spread as rapidly as accurate information. The other source of anti-science belief seems to be misunderstanding about what science actually is. In school we were taught about scientific subjects, such as biology and chemistry, but not so much about what science itself actually is.
Science is not a collection of immutable facts. At its most basic, science is a process that uses evidence to refine knowledge. What are often referred to as “scientific facts” could be more accurately called “scientific status reports.” They reflect the existing state of knowledge at a particular time, but may be subject to revision as new evidence emerges. Early in the pandemic, changing advice for controlling COVID-19 spread was used by science-deniers to reject all science-based advice. Rather than being a weakness, those changes in advice demonstrated the ability of science to consider, evaluate, and refine recommendations based on emerging evidence.
I do not naively believe there is anything I can say or write to suddenly change every science-skeptic’s mind. My hope, though, is that some who are curious will make use of the information resources we have at our fingertips to learn more about what science is, and how it can help us end this pandemic. We all want our old lives back. Current “scientific status reports” tell us that the more we collectively do to minimize the spread of the virus, including being vaccinated, the faster we will be able to start referring to the pandemic in the past tense.
As Aldous Huxley observed, “Facts do not cease to exist just because they’re ignored!” If we use the facts science has revealed, we can end COVID-19 sooner rather than later.
Tom Colville lives in Fargo.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.