All of Us

The Best Reason to Trust Science

by Mike Critelli

We created the MakeUsWell Network three years ago because we are deeply committed to critical thinking. We want to follow the facts wherever they may lead us.

One tragic consequence of the pandemic has been the abandonment of scientific principles by authority figures. We cannot let inconvenient or negative consequences from following scientific research divert us from getting the facts.

Three years ago, when President Trump called Covid-19 the "China virus," he was widely criticized for the xenophobic implications of the label. His careless and inflammatory language was especially concerning coming from the President of the United States.

However, any inquiry into the origin of the virus was also suppressed, including discussions of whether it resulted from a Wuhan wet market or a weapons lab leak. Multiple US government agencies, including the FBI and the Department of Energy, have since concluded that the more potent version of the virus was created in a lab and leaked from there.

A recent report shows that the DNA of the SARS Cov-2 virus was found in 2020 on a raccoon dog in the Wuhan market. While this evidence is not definitively contradictory, it is a reminder that the search for truth on the virus' origins and other medical forensic questions must continue as new evidence surfaces.

If the source of the virus was a lab leak, no one knows whether the leak was accidental or deliberate and the Chinese government has not cooperated in the inquiry. But we need to know whether a virus this deadly could have arisen in nature and whether a similarly lethal SARS virus could emerge in nature. We also need to know whether the Chinese have proper safety protocols in place to prevent another lethal lab leak.

When I discussed this issue on another platform, one respondent raised the issue that the research could still result in xenophobic attacks on innocent Chinese visitors or even innocent Chinese American citizens. In a nation of over 330 million people, we must assume that some part of our population will over-react violently to any announcement of a bad outcome from an action taken by another government. But the consequences of suppressing inquiry or sharing the truth with the public are far worse.

Many Americans want to trust the consensus from authority figures renowned in scientific fields and get on with their lives without having to do any further critical thinking. But that would not only be ill-advised; it would also be inconsistent with the best reason to trust science and our scientists.

In the March 11-12 weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal, theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli discussed science and the scientific method. Two sentences caught my eye:

"What makes modern science uniquely powerful is its refusal to believe that it already possesses ultimate truth. The reliability of science is based not on certainty, but on a radical lack of certainty."

As someone who was part of a generation taught in schools to look for the "right answer" and to get rewarded for supplying it on examinations and in classroom inquiries, I know that it is unnerving for many Americans to be uncomfortable with the idea that what was seemingly "settled" at one time is no longer accepted as "truth." We want to learn something and be done with having to relearn it, but that is not how science works.

This upending of "settled science" is not a new phenomenon as it relates to research on lethal viruses. Simon Flexner, of the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research, the most prominent and respected medical researcher of his time, announced in 1911 that, based on his animal studies with a particular breed of monkey, the polio virus was transmitted through nerves in the nasal breathing apparatus. Unknown to him and other scientists, while that conclusion was defensible relative to a particular breed of monkey, it was not correct as applied to humans.

Polio research and vaccine development were set back for over three decades because Flexner's conclusion was considered "settled science." Countless lives were lost or severely impaired as a result, and it was not until 1955, when the Salk vaccine became available for broad public use, that progress was made. Challenging "settled science" may be uncomfortable, but it is necessary to continue making progress.

Furthermore, it should not take a member of the medical research establishment to be a catalyst for challenging "settled science." Dr. Albert Sabin, comparable in reputation to Flexner or Dr. Anthony Fauci, believed that only weakened polio viruses could produce an effective vaccine.

Dr. Jonas Salk, not as well-respected or credentialed as Dr. Sabin, believed that a dead virus could be used in an effective vaccine. The only reason his vaccine saw the light of day was that Basil O'Connor, President Franklin Roosevelt's law partner and the founder and President of the National Institute for Infantile Paralysis, was willing to fund Salk's research.

Despite the Salk vaccine's initial success, it was removed from the market for over three decades in favor of the later developed Sabin vaccine. After both men died, the CDC re-examined the merits of both vaccine formulations and restored the Salk vaccine as part of the vaccination protocol for polio prevention.

This is not a unique occurrence. Much of what we believe about medical science will change and be replaced by diagnostic or treatment protocols that would have seemed completely contrary to reality when initially proposed. In fact, much of what we believe about how the world works follows the same path. New evidence upends our mental map of the world.

The more comfortable we become with continuous adaptation, the better off we will be.