At this moment, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the value of science seems obvious. Science allows us to test for infection, to reduce mortality and to check for potential immunity. Science will allow us to formulate a vaccine and to determine possible after-effects of the disease. Science will do all these things … and more! But science has another value, especially needed in a crisis—to educate, and hence reassure, the public.
We’re not doing such a great job at this. Examples abound. An ER doctor on the frontlines makes a popular video stating categorically that you can’t get COVID-19 merely by being near someone who’s infected—transmission requires sustained proximity, he says, 15 minutes or more. The CDC admonishes the public not to wear masks—they provide no protection for ordinary people. Reporters tell young adults they should stay home—they need to protect the immunocompromised and elderly, implying it’s a purely selfless act.
This is not “misinformation” (although there’s plenty of that too), but each of these statements is not quite right either. Surely you can be infected in less than 15 minutes (say 14). Surely wearing a mask offers protection, however minimal, for you and for others. And while the elderly are more at risk, young adults are at risk as well. That ER doctor, the CDC and those reporters all wanted to reassure the public by providing simplified statements based on science but with contrived certainty.
But isn’t science supposed to dispel uncertainty? Well, yes, sometimes. But Richard Feynman, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, tells us that in science uncertainty is not only desirable but unavoidable.
Some readers may remember Feynman for his performance at the hearings that investigated the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. In a simple demonstration he showed the material used for a seal became inflexible when immersed in ice water, making the accident’s cause readily apparent. Feynman was a genius, not only at doing science but also explaining it.