What’s up with shifting scientific guidance?!

Uncertainty and Misinformation

A: Science is a method, not a fixed set of findings. Beware the scientist who does NOT change her mind.

As cheekily characterized by the Wall Street Journal, science is merely a fancy way to “guess-and-test.” So why is it such a powerful force in the world? Our brains are biologically wired to seek patterns; science is the best protection we have as a species to avoid finding fake signal when the underlying truth is just noise.

Though our fields range from virology to vinology, we scientists share common habits of mind. As Carl Sagan famously wrote: “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

Three hallmarks of scientific thinking include:

🤔 A scientist proactively seeks to tear down her own good ideas

We’re trained early on to attempt to “falsify” our own claims (aka throw the proverbial book at them). Why? Because in science the ideas that withstand the most ferocious scrutiny win the day.

💟 Replication is the heart of science

We scientists like to see findings replicated in different populations, different geographies, and by different scientific teams. If promising early hypotheses fail to replicate (exhibit A: hydroxychloroquine) we change our minds accordingly.

📊 Science deals in relative probabilities, not absolute certainties

Scientists produce probabilistic statements such as “the {Pfizer} vaccine trial found 170 cases of the disease, 162 in people who received a placebo and 8 in people who received the vaccine, indicating 95% efficacy.” (reference below). Policymakers, on the other hand, have to answer questions such as “Should vaccines be mandated for certain types of workers?” Bridging the gap between relative probabilities and policy positions involves considerations of ethics, equity, and real-world constraints.

As a deeply human endeavor, science is far from perfect (see the WSJ article link above for more). But at its best, it can dazzle. For better or worse, science is the single best self-protection we humans have against fooling ourselves. (quote/image credit: Making Sense)


Our brains as (imperfect) pattern-seekers

Pfizer vaccine efficacy quote pulled from University of Minnesota’s CIDRAP announcement

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