Doubt is essential for science – but for politicians, it's a sign of weakness
People are searching for certainty about coronavirus, and that’s the opposite of what leads to scientific breakthroughs
As a regular Twitter user, I choose the people and organisations I follow online carefully. And therein lies my problem. On social media, we are more likely to engage with and trust content that aligns with our views, and thus become saturated by opinions we already agree with.
Some of these views are based on political or religious ideologies, others on the flimsiest of evidence or the most superficial and unreliable of information. Against this backdrop of conflicting ideas and polarised worldviews, we’re now being asked to trust in science – and scientists – like never before.
During the coronavirus crisis, everyone online seems to have a “scientific” opinion. We are all discussing modelling, exponential curves, infection rates and antibody tests; suddenly, we’re all experts on epidemiology, immunology and virology. When the public hears that new scientific evidence has informed a sudden change in government policy, the tendency is to conclude that the scientists don’t know what they’re doing, and therefore can’t be trusted. It doesn’t help that politicians are remarkably bad at communicating scientific information clearly and transparently, while journalists are often more adept at asking questions of politicians than they are of scientists.
It has never been more important to communicate the way science works. In politics, admitting a mistake is seen as a form of weakness. It’s quite the opposite in science, where making mistakes is a cornerstone of knowledge. Replacing old theories and hypotheses with newer, more accurate ones allows us to gain a deeper understanding of a subject. In the meantime, we develop mathematical models and make predictions based on data and available evidence. With something as new as this coronavirus, we started with a low baseline of knowledge. As we accumulate new data, our models and predictions will continue to evolve and improve.
A second important feature of the scientific method is valuing doubt over certainty. The notion of doubt is one worth exploring. We can trace its origins to a medieval intellectual movement, and to two individuals in particular, the Arab scholar Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) and the Persian scholar Razi (Rhazes). The movement was called al-shukuk in Arabic (meaning simply “the doubts”), and it refuted the wisdom inherited from Ancient Greek scholars more than 1,000 years earlier in subjects such as astronomy and medicine. Al-Haytham, an early advocate of the scientific method, cast doubts on the writing of the Hellenic astronomer Ptolemy, and suggested that one should question not only existing knowledge but also one’s own ideas – and be prepared to modify or overturn them in light of contradictory evidence. He overthrew the millennium-old idea that we can see things because our eyes shine light on objects, and gave the first correct explanation of the way vision works.