The error of experts

On March 13th I came back from vacationing in Costa Rica to a Denmark in lockdown. The virus SARS-CoV-2 was spreading across the world. On June 15th I was among the last in Denmark to be allowed to return to the office after three months of working from home. Three months of intently following the development. How many dead today? How many hospitalized? How many on ventilators? How is Denmark doing compared to other countries? Is R0 less than 1? Is it more? Are we over the worst of it yet? When will it end? Will there be a vaccine?

I am not the only one to have asked myself these questions. We probably all have. Upon returning to the office, I read “How Contagion Works” (DK: I smittens tid. It: Nel contagion) by Paolo Giordano. He puts in writing many of the emotions and thoughts we all have shared. Why must we self-isolate? Why must we suffer deprivation? I recommend this little book if you want a catalyst to reflect upon the pandemic and remember some of the answers to these why-questions.

Paolo Giordano’s book has a chapter on the role of experts and the expectations we have of them. “The most sacred part of science is the truth” he quotes Simone Weil (who I now add to my reading list). In the time of contagion, science has disappointed us, he says. We wanted certainty, but all we got were opinions. We forgot that this is how it always works. That this is the only way it works. That for science doubt is more important than truth. I quote Hugh Walpole: “In all science, error precedes the truth, and it is better it should go first than last.” But when we are amid a pandemic, when lives are at stakes, are scientists allowed the luxury of errors?

“In all science, error precedes the truth, and it is better it should go first than last.”

Hugh Walpole

Throughout the history of science, errors have been made. Errors are an important part of science when they are made in good faith. When they are not, they are labelled scientific misconduct. See for example 20 of the Greatest Blunders in Science in the Last 20 Years. When talking about scientific misconduct in Denmark, Milena Penkowa is usually the first person that comes to mind. When talking about scientific misconduct in the time of contagion, the debate about the effects of hydroxychloroquine comes to mind. Scientific papers have been retracted from both the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine due to suspicions of misconduct. These suspicions were based on an investigation by the Guardian and the failure of an independent follow-up peer review. The retracted Lancet paper halted global trials of hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19. These trials have now been restarted. But have we lost valuable time?

With these thoughts in mind, I have a new-found appreciation for the peer-review process and the open data movement. I have the deepest respect for the scientists that are working on developing vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. And I am happy that at least the lives of humans, do not critically depend on my research.

Book review: The Invention of Nature

Book cover

I’ve decided to write up small reviews of the books I read, that a I believe are of possible interest to ecologists. Maybe one day it will turn into a list of 10 must read books for ecologists. To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Alexander von Humboldt, I, like so many others, read Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature. Despite being in the final stages of finishing my PhD, I have to admit I devoured this book. It may be because I also had a broken foot for five weeks, and couldn’t do much except sit around and read. But it was captivating.

Andrea Wulf’s description of Alexander von Humboldt and the many famous people he interacted with, is sure to have you wishing to be transported back in time where the world was still largely unexplored, where salons appear to have been a daily occurrence and the line between science and art was practically nonexistent. Of course you tend to forget about the dysentery, the inapropriate clothing for scaling mountains and the lack of modern comforts, such as flushing toilets. These could perhaps easily be tolerated for the opportunity to be in the company of famous personas like Simón Bolívar, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe, who all read and were influenced by Humboldt.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) acchieved many things in his life, the least of which was living to age 90. He has multiple geographic places (including mountains, towns, counties, lakes and rivers) and species (including the humboldt penguin and the humboldt squid) named after him. It probably also isn’t far fetched to call him the founder of what we today call macroecology. Through his many travels he noticed similarities between continents, predicted the devastating effects that humans have on nature. The following quote is from a book review published on goodreads by William2, which I think captures mostly everything about the book:

“But his insight into the unplumbed market for science writing is secondary to his real achievement. Humboldt’s revolutionary act was to view nature as a unified force dependent upon myriad interactions and mutual reciprocities, not reduced to mind-numbing categories as taxonomists and other systematists were then doing. Humboldt saw the full ecological impact of forests; therefore, he was the first to warn about deforestation. He saw how greedy cash crops (monoculture), cleared needed forest, leeched the ground of minerals and emptied aquifers, thus touching the fates of countless animal species, including humans. Moreover, he saw the importance of expressing one’s personal emotional responses to nature and he wrote with a passion that repelled some cold men of science, but enlisted scores of readers from all walks of life.”

William2 on Goodreads

Most importantly in this quote, is the realisation that, although many say science should be free of emotion, reporting only the facts, scientists may capture scores of new readers (and nature lovers) by expressing their own personal emotional responses to nature. If you need motivation to fall in love with nature (again), read this book. If you are a PhD student in ecology and you’re starting to wonder why you’re doing what you’re doing, read this book.

Hetch Hetchy Side Canyon, I by William Keith. Uploaded to fineartamerica on January 25th, 2016.