From climate change to new coronaviruses: Science needs rigorous criticism and scrutiny

Comparing scientific research on climate change with new findings about coronaviruses is both wrong and misleading. The philosophers Eric Schlisser and Eric Winsberg argue that when we look at the outbreak of the new coronavirus disease ,Covid-19, we need more transparency and critical discussion in order to truly “believe in science”.

From climate change to new coronaviruses: Science needs rigorous criticism and scrutiny

By Eric Schlisser and Eric Winsberg

“Finally, let’s try to remember that the ‘geniuses’ who tell us not to worry about coronaviruses, and the ‘geniuses’ who tell us not to worry about climate change, are actually the same people. Jimmy Kimmel, US talk show host

In the past few days, there has been much comparison between the scientific consensus on human-induced climate change and the growing consensus among public health officials on how to deal with the outbreak of new coronary pneumonia. As philosophers of science, we consider this comparison to be inappropriate and dangerous. Recourse to science is an understandable response to politically motivated understatements of the threat of an outbreak, but we need a more critical discussion of public health policy.

At present, there are very few controlled studies or peer-reviewed articles on new coronaviruses. The new coronavirus study, published in academic journals, is mostly presented in the form of newsletters or briefings, meaning that published results have not been fully and thoroughly reviewed. In addition, public health experts from the cross-cutting fields of virology, epidemiology, medical genetics, sociology, medical ethics and health economics have little time for detailed deliberations that are necessary to validate scientific findings and develop strong policies. All this means that the “evidence” of the new corona virus, Covid-19, which has been repeatedly mentioned in public discussions, has not been independently reviewed.

In contrast, human-induced climate change is a century-old hypothesis that has been carefully studied, criticized and reviewed by many different disciplines. Even if one subject involved in climate science is not reliable enough, it may be discovered by another subject in the relevant field. As Michael Polanyi pointed out in 1962, the discipline of science is not closed, and even in the eyes of a careful layman, a flawed line of inquiry can be obvious because the adjacent disciplines expose their flaws.

Given that climate change and the outbreak of neo-coronary pneumonia are not subject to the same level of scientific scrutiny, on the one hand, the questioning of climate science is often based on industrial funding and full of lies, and that scientists use limited coronavirus models and incomplete data for the new coronary outbreak, and requires a rapid response, so it is misleading to compare the two. Although there is a growing policy consensus on how to deal with the new corona outbreak, scientific consensus can only lead to credibility and reliability if the scientists concerned form a well-structured, communicative group. Unfortunately, there is no well-organized group of scientists studying the new coronary outbreak and its effects, so the emerging consensus on the response to the outbreak may be the result of numerous human biases.

From a scientific and political point of view, there are many problems with this emerging consensus, which has not been subject to rigorous scientific scrutiny. Scientifically, since this is a new virus, scientists should leave some room for disagreement over their nature and what policies to respond to. In fact, an independent survey of expert seipros estimates shows that they often have huge differences and uncertainties. Therefore, the lack of scientific differences over the new coronary pneumonia outbreak is very surprising, suggesting some kind of informal coordination, unlike the normal exchange of scientific views on an equal footing.

After all, reliable scientific results do not come from scientists who have discovered amazing ways to find the truth in the first place. Reliable scientific results often require rigorous scrutiny of scientific claims, i.e. stress testing of concepts, data and methods over a period of time, usually by competitors to research projects. Most scientific claims have more or less flaws, but the process of mutual criticism will eventually eliminate them, leaving behind a more reliable knowledge system than the original results.

We can use the premature scientific judgment of Dr. Robert Koch as an example. As a scientist who “discovered the microbial causes of anthrax (1876), tuberculosis (1882) and cholera (1883), he made headlines around the world when he announced that he had a “drug for tuberculosis”. Since tuberculosis was not treatable at the time and was a major cause of death and disease, his conclusions were immediately warmly welcomed and considered to be a great comfort to society. Unfortunately, when the clinical data obtained by independent scholars came out, it was clear that the claim that tuberculosis had been treated was rather sloppy.

Similarly, in the field of climate science, when new data emerge, such as the discovery of ice sheets melting at a surprising rate, or dramatic changes in the sensitivity of the climate balance calculated by global climate models, debates break out within the scientific community and take years to figure out the significance of these anomalous results. However, as we write this, the outbreak of new coronary pneumonia is spreading at an incredible rate and with many unexpected results, such as low mortality rates in Germany, Japan and South Korea, and a high rate of asymptomatic positive infection in a small village in Iceland and Italy, where all people were tested. It takes time and care to solve these problems.

As things stand, the available data for the new coronavirus is confusing, even contradictory, and it’s very difficult to understand what’s going on in a variety of numbers. The ability to test varies from place to place. In addition, testing in some places takes three to five days to obtain results, so the current positive results can only reflect the situation in hospitals three to five days ago. At the same time, death reports are real-time, and the difference between test reporting and mortality means that the so-called fatality rate is not reliable. However, these unreliable data are being incorporated into simple models that have significant policy implications for the collapse of the entire economic system in several countries around the world, depriving millions of people of their livelihoods.

On the political front, a halt to the economy as a whole and keep people behind closed doors would have far-reaching consequences. Public health studies point to a strong correlation between good economics and good sanitation. Thus, a large-scale recession caused by the Covid19 outbreak is likely to lead to an increase in domestic violence, suicide, drug addiction, and poor neonatal care. Not to mention, weighing these costs against the benefits of saving lives through economic suspension is not a simple or worthless approach.

Given the economic, social and political implications of coronaviruses, people have the right to know how to measure the costs and benefits of different policies. However, the way in which experts and governments assess risk sits not communicated to everyone else. A recent study has led to transparency in UK government policy, which shows the importance of transparency in public health policy, as it makes political decision-making more accountable to stakeholders and citizens. More importantly, transparency is a means of preventing the negative effects of the growth of group myths and conspiracy theories. In outbreaks such as The Covid-19, many experts are members of government teams, so transparency is needed to ensure that political considerations do not affect the views of experts.

We therefore understand that decision makers and their scientific advisers must make time-sensitive and difficult decisions in uncertain circumstances. However, they can better explain the key commitments in modeling. How many lives do they want to save? How long do they expect the recession to last? In terms of life and well-being, what are the negative consequences of these policy interventions? What is the possible impact of the huge economic rescue plan being implemented around the world?

At present, government responses often come from thinking about hasty social experiments that use public policies that are difficult to understand and may even have serious consequences, even if the ultimate effect softens expectations. At the very least, the government’s policies to deal with the spread of the new coronavirus Covid-19 outbreak will have a serious impact on the economy. The impact of the blockade on social welfare throughout society is unclear. Since this is a new virus, we don’t know what will happen if the government is de-controld without a vaccine.

So, with 18 months to go before we are told to find a vaccine, it is necessary to ask whether we should continue to take these measures during these 18 months? Ultimately, we should have more, not less, critical discussion of the science and politics behind the response to the new corona. “Believe in science” is a better slogan when the science associated with the outbreak is as mature as climate science and is closely scrutinized in multidisciplinary areas.

In other words, those who call themselves geniuses and tell us not to worry about climate change have been debunked time and time again. While we do need to worry about the outbreak of new coronary pneumonia, we should also worry that a hastily constructed response strategy could do more harm than good – because in a pandemic, all of us have to bear the consequences of each other’s decisions.

 Author: Eric Schlisser is a professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and Eric Winsberg is a professor of philosophy at the University of South Florida. (Any day)