The Corner

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We’re Not Used to Scientists Telling Us, ‘We’re Not Sure.’

Scientist Linqi Zhang performs research in his laboratory for coronavirus antibodies in Beijing, China, March 30, 2020. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

One of the things that becomes clear when you spend a lot of time poring over scientific journals is that the vast majority of scientists try to distinguish between what they think is true and what they know is true. They develop theories of how something works, they run experiments to try to prove it, they study the results of the experiments, they see evidence and counter-evidence, and then try to refine their theory further. Sometimes the results are inconclusive — a medicine works against a disease in some of the mice, but not others. A lot of their articles in journals amount to saying, “We have found evidence that indicates X causes Y, but this still requires further research to confirm and understand better.”

Those of us who are not scientists are used to scientists telling us about the world — particularly the dangers of the world — in clear and indisputable terms. “Leaves of three, let it be.” Fully extinguish all campfires. Unprotected sex carries the risk of sexually-transmitted disease. If you are bitten by an animal, you may require a rabies vaccination. If X happens, then the proper response is Y.

The frightening emergence of SARS-CoV-2 puts us in the usual situation where the public is asking scientists, “What is going on? What should we do?” and scientists have to answer, “We’re not entirely sure.”

Scientists have some answers, of course. Wash your hands. Avoid crowds and minimize your contact with others when possible. Wear a mask (although even this basic advice was complicated by people making the illogical simultaneous arguments that masks didn’t work and that doctors needed the ones that were available). They’re pretty sure you can’t catch the virus from someone who is six feet away from you, or any greater distance.

But scientists aren’t sure if the virus is airborne — that is, just floating around, far from people who have recently coughed or sneezed. They aren’t sure why — thankfully! — children are so rarely effected. They aren’t sure if summer weather is going to have a significant impact on the virus. They aren’t sure whether those who contract the virus and recover will have immunity for a long stretch. They think, but aren’t sure, that the more viral particles you’re exposed to, the more severe your case will be. And while this virus is commanding the attention, effort, resources and brainpower of more brilliant doctors and scientists all around the world than any other problem the world has ever faced, no one knows how long it will take to develop a vaccine.

Some studies of this virus are offering really surprising results. Up in Boston, clinicians tested nearly 400 homeless individuals at random and found 36 percent tested positive for coronavirus. But astoundingly, “none of them had a fever, and none of them reported symptoms.” (Maybe living on the street forces a person’s body to develop a better immune system? Or maybe people without strong immune systems don’t survive living on the street?)

One of the more encouraging studies — that is not yet peer-reviewed, and comes from Chinese scientists — suggests that catching the virus while outdoors is pretty darn rare. If this pans out, governments could allow people to enjoy parks, beaches, national forests, and just about any outdoor activity, with sufficient social-distancing precautions.

The upshot is that the information coming from the best virologists and epidemiologists in the world is cautious, tentative, and full of caveats, notes of caution, and remaining uncertainties.

The public has a ravenous hunger for certainty, and various individuals and forces will be eager to fill that vacuum, oftentimes with nonsense that 5G technology is spreading the virus, or that this a deliberately-released biological weapon. As our Andrew Stuttaford noted:

Chinese officials, doing what they can to obscure their regime’s responsibility, have suggested that the U.S. military may have something to do with it, while Venezuela’s President Nicolàs Maduro, anxious, doubtless, to curry favor with Beijing, wondered if “coronavirus could be a strain created for biological warfare against China,” a claim that risked irritating his friends in Tehran: Ayatollah Khamenei maintains that the “virus is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians.” In an attempt to bridge ancient and modern, Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has asserted that “we have heard testimony that some [Israeli] soldiers are trying to spread the virus through the door handles of cars,” a slander that updates the smears of over half a millennium ago.

It would be a better world if everyone turned to trusted scientists and data to find answers about problems like this. But the public is impatient to know more. With about 75,000 new cases and about 7,000 deaths each day worldwide, it is hard to begrudge the public’s impatience.

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