Have you ever been annoyed by how researchers seem to keep shifting directions during the pandemic? Or got upset that “alternative experts” didn’t get the attention they deserve? After all, many of them are also doctors and teachers of some form.
Who can be considered a credible expert? And who can’t? Why don’t scientists stick to what they said a few days ago? In other words: how does science work?
First of all, the bad news: science will never satisfy the desire for truth and definitive knowledge. He doesn’t even pretend to do it.
“Science is a process in which science always questions itself, which always leads it to correct itself,” said Ulrich Dirnagl, who researches stroke at Charité Hospital , where he and his colleagues are in charge of quality management for the biomedical sector. research at the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) – doing research on research, so to speak.
“Lots of miscarriages”
Although scientific work often leads to more in-depth studies and revisions, not all hypotheses or conclusions carry the same weight.
One of the many stories told during this stage of the pandemic goes like this: “A friend of mine is a midwife and sees a lot of miscarriages after women have been vaccinated.” These are the kinds of stories that are likely to cause hiccups in horror at first – after all, a woman is a midwife and should know what she is talking about.
Whether or not it emanates from a midwife, such an anecdote should at most encourage further exploration of the question. “An anecdote can certainly generate a hypothesis,” Dirnagl said. “But this hypothesis must then be tested in controlled studies if a causal relationship is to be established.”
No link between vaccines and miscarriages has been found – and more than 8.7 billion doses of the vaccine have been administered worldwide.
Skepticism and self-criticism
It is therefore very possible that the observation of the midwife stems from a deeply human mechanism: confirmation bias. This cognitive error causes us to give more credibility to information that matches our existing beliefs.
And no one is immune to confirmation bias. “The only thing that helps there is being your own devil’s advocate,” said Roland Imhoff, a social psychologist who researches the conspiracy mentality. It means deliberately taking the opposite point of view to the one you have, he said.
Because scientists are far more aware that they are prone to error than most conspiracy theorists, they will most likely continue to address the issue of miscarriage. “Organized skepticism is a scientific norm,” Dirnagl said. “Because we know we can make mistakes with our results and conclusions, we scientists are fundamentally skeptical – about ourselves, too. “
Therefore, scientific studies or research articles intended for publication in peer-reviewed journals should first be submitted to the review of other specialists in the respective field. This is done through peer review. Even research results uploaded to preprint platforms are critically examined by the scientific community.
Several studies were withdrawn during the pandemic, like this one on hydroxychloroquine
Although neither of these systems is perfect, they increase the likelihood that method or calculation errors will be discovered.
“Organized skepticism also means that good studies mention their own limitations early on,” Dirnagl said. For example, the authors might write that the cohort, or group examined, was relatively small, that no suitable control group was possible, or that the researchers were unable to consider certain aspects for any reason.
Dirnagl said scientific transparency also means publishing studies in a way that allows other researchers to replicate the results. A swallow doesn’t make a summer, after all.
Refuse – do not prove
Science does not intend to establish the truth. “It’s much easier to reveal an assumption as wrong,” Dirnagl said. “The assumption that swans are white is valid until the first black swans are sighted.”
If the purpose of science was to test a hypothesis – to prove that a hypothesis is true – then, to stick to our swans, you should see all the swans in the world. And it can never be ruled out that those looking for birds might miss one, even if they were as thorough as possible.
Very few of us are researchers ourselves. Our possibilities to reproduce the experiments and calculations presented in a study are limited. And, even if we were all virologists, we would have few ideas about atmospheric physics. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of trust.
In a study, Imhoff and his colleagues Pia Lamberty and Olivier Klein looked at people’s trust in experts. They found that people less drawn to conspiracy theories were more likely to trust hypotheses when scientists supported them. The content of the hypotheses played a secondary role.
“For a long time this was viewed as irrational,” Imhoff said. But, in fact, it makes a lot of sense. “As a society, we depend on building consensus and building trust in that consensus,” he said.
Virologist Christian Drosten is widely recognized by Germans because he was involved in the discovery of SARS-CoV-1 – the virus that caused the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic – in 2003, and has since carried out research on coronaviruses. He is also the source of several publications on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Online research databases, including pubMed, can help people find out if the alarming theories presented in the YouTube video their grandmother sent them are being addressed in specialist research on the topic.
“No one is declared a pope or made an aristocrat like that,” Imhoff said, referring to the regular accusations by anti-vaccines and pandemic deniers that only certain voices are heard in particular areas of research. Even Drosten’s publications must withstand the scrutiny of his fellow scientists. And he is only considered an expert because they are holding up.
Rummaging through databases can be more work than most of us would like. However, there are a few things that non-scientists should be raising our alarm bells for.
“Anyone who announces that something is 100% true is exhibiting questionable scientific behavior,” Dirnagl said. “And anyone who comes up with an extreme hypothesis, such as saying the spike protein is toxic, should also be subjected to extreme standards of proof.”
And a YouTube video alone does not meet standards.
This article has been translated from German.