10 June 2021
Follow the Science
But which way?
By Neil Tidmarsh
Some years ago I did jury service in a murder trial at the Old Bailey. It was a complex case. For various reasons, three separate autopsies were performed on the unfortunate victim’s corpse by three separate pathologists in the week after his death. And they all discovered different things. Some found bruises and some didn’t, for instance. They couldn’t agree on the number of broken ribs. One even found unmistakeable signs of defibrillation, even though the medical team which had treated the poor patient hadn’t used a defibrillator. It was almost as if they had been looking at three different corpses.
The diversity and contradictions of this scientific evidence were surprising, just as the diversity and contradictions of the crime’s eye-witnesses weren’t surprising; eye-witnesses are only human, after all – subjective, emotional, biased, compromised, with fallible memories – of course their evidence would be confusing. But surely the scientific evidence should be objective, rational, unequivocal, clear-cut, consistent?
The medical experts who appeared in court to interpret the pathologists’ findings weren’t surprised, however. They stressed that science – and particularly medical science – isn’t always precise. The human body isn’t an entirely predictable machine. It isn’t even a completely understood machine. It still has its mysteries and its secrets (although it’s known that bruises can appear and disappear at different times after death, and broken ribs are notoriously difficult to count). Science’s place is at the frontiers of knowledge, after all; its purpose is to explore and investigate the new and the unknown, and the first maps drawn up by the first explorers in unknown territory will almost inevitably be provisional, inconsistent and contradictory.
It’s as well to bear this in mind now, over a year into the pandemic, when commentators such as Mr Cummings are looking back and blaming others for ignoring the science (‘they were wrong’) while congratulating themselves for embracing a rigorously scientific approach (‘I was right’). Much appears to have been forgotten over the last year and a half. Just as there was more than one scientific opinion in that court-room at the Old Bailey, so there was more than one scientific opinion about the coronavirus in the spring of last year. Early in 2020, a team of scientists in Oxford was arguing against lockdown just as a team of scientists from Imperial was arguing for it. Both had the virological expertise, the data and the modelling to back up their arguments.
And it isn’t just hindsight which seems to have blinded some people to this inconvenient fact, this plurality of opinion. It wasn’t universally recognised at the time. Last summer, three scientists were invited onto Newsnight when the end of lockdown seemed to be a few weeks away; the confusion and alarm on the presenter’s face were all too evident when two of them – one from Oxford, one from Edinburgh – called for an immediate end to lockdown and condemned its imposition in the first place. She clearly wasn’t expecting anything other than a defence of lockdown, and visible guilt joined her confusion and alarm when the two scientists condemned the media for panicking the government into the U-turn towards lockdown that March.
This isn’t to say that those two scientists were right. It’s just a reminder that decision makers, then and no doubt now, did not have a single, clear-cut scientific path to follow. The competition between economic considerations and scientific considerations is complex enough, but the choice between competing scientific opinions makes the decision-making even more complex.
There are perhaps three reasons why scientific evidence is muddier, less consistent, less complete and less pure than it could or should be. The first is as discussed above, that scientists are explorers reporting back from unknown territory, so their findings will be only provisional and at times inconsistent; a consensus can only come later, once the territory has been thoroughly explored and all the evidence has been considered and debated.
The second reason is more problematic. The areas investigated by science can be controversial, and other powers could have a vested interest in keeping science out of it. Scientists investigating the origins of Covid-19 have been frustrated by limits and restrictions set by Beijing and Wuhan. Until recently, any suggestions that the virus might have escaped from a lab – might even have been created in a lab – were condemned by most scientists as irresponsible and groundless conspiracy theory. But now, many scientists are beginning to wonder if China’s reluctance to co-operate and open the Wuhan virology institute’s records to the wider world might mean that it has something to hide. The gagging of Chinese scientists and the imprisoning of journalists investigating the pandemic since the start of the crisis doesn’t inspire confidence.
The third reason is that scientists are only human themselves. And again, it’s the scientific debate and growing diversity of opinion about the origin of the virus which highlights this rather nicely. Jamie Metzl (a member of the WHO committee on human genome editing who has written on genetic engineering and who knows Wuhan) was one of the scientists who “even in the earliest days of the pandemic… felt it was unlikely that the outbreak began in the Huanan seafood market” and considered it “obvious that a lab accident should be considered as at least a possible origin of the pandemic”, and who were subsequently condemned and marginalised as dangerous conspiracy theorists by the scientific establishment.
In last weekend’s The Sunday Times, he considers the attitude of that establishment and asks why it has been so entrenched in its defence of the virus as naturally occurring, so dogmatic that it won’t even consider the mere possibility that it might have been engineered and / or escaped from a lab. He concludes that it’s because those scientists are all too human, with the same human fallibilities as the rest of us. He points out that “a small cadre of scientists… however strongly they believed in their conclusions… also had a lot to gain from promoting the natural origins theory.” He highlights a “significant” conflict of interest; one of the prominent scientists who signed the famous letter to the Lancet in February 2020 (declaring that they “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife” and “stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin”) was the president of an organisation which, Metzl points out, “had funded virological research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology”.
Metzl also suggests that simple human vanity and self-protection might have played a part; the idea that scientists might have accidentally allowed the virus to escape from their lab – and even perhaps to have created it themselves – risks turning scientists (and virologists in particular) from the heroes of the hour into the villains of the piece.
Nevertheless, we should reassure ourselves that science is founded on the belief in objective facts and that its mission is to bring them into the light. The truth – whatever it is – is out there somewhere, and sooner or later it will be found. Science will eventually reveal all there is to know about Covid-19, just as that murder trial revealed the facts of the case in that Old Bailey courtroom. Justice was done, and the mystery of that defibrillator – well, no, actually, that mystery was never solved…
tile photo: Jim Champion / Guidepost at the crossroads / CC BY-SA 2.0.