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 Scientific papers have been retracted from both the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine due to suspicions of misconduct.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.