By Laura Hoemeke, Kevin Nortrup, Joachim Sturmberg, and Jeanette Bennett , members of the board of the International Society for Systems and Complexity Sciences for Health
On March 6th, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted, “COVID-19 is an enemy of the human species [that] requires a global effort to combat, guided by science and not by magical thinking.” Unfortunately, the distinction between science and magical thinking is not clear. This is particularly evident in the daily bombardment of sensational news about the coronavirus pandemic. As noted in the abstract of an article by John Ioannides:
The challenge [of communication and decision-making in the face of evolving data around COVID-19] is compounded, however, by exaggerated information. This can lead to inappropriate actions. It is important to differentiate promptly the true epidemic from an epidemic of false claims and potentially harmful actions.
When lacking vital context, even valid data and visualizations can miscommunicate information: number of deaths and number of (new) cases can be misleading without also knowing population size, testing criteria, and demographic breakdowns (including pre-existing conditions). If a significant percentage of infected (and infectious) individuals have no or mild symptoms, primarily testing symptomatic individuals will understate the number of actual cases, thereby understating the rate of transmission and overstating the rate of fatality. Conversely, demographic breakdowns may suggest more targeted prevention and treatment of infected individuals, in place of blanket actions.
Even more subtle yet damaging are misrepresentations – particularly when combined with sensationalism – in science reports and blogs. Writers are making incorrect assumptions and declaring them as facts—and getting their assumptions published as factual in well-regarded publications. Here’s a few paragraphs from an article in Live Science titled The coronavirus did not escape from a lab. Here’s how we know.
Scientists have studied how SARS-CoV differs from SARS-CoV-2 — with several key letter changes in the genetic code. Yet in computer simulations, the mutations in SARS-CoV-2 don’t seem to work very well at helping the virus bind to human cells. If scientists had deliberately engineered this virus, they wouldn’t have chosen mutations that computer models suggest won’t work. But it turns out, nature is smarter than scientists, and the novel coronavirus found a way to mutate that was better — and completely different— from anything scientists could have created, the study found.
Another nail in the “escaped from evil lab” theory? The overall molecular structure of this virus is distinct from the known coronaviruses and instead most closely resembles viruses found in bats and pangolins that had been little studied and never known to cause humans any harm.
“If someone were seeking to engineer a new coronavirus as a pathogen, they would have constructed it from the backbone of a virus known to cause illness,” according to a statement from Scripps.
There are multiple areas of concern here, whether in the original paper, in the Scripps news release, or in the Live Science article.
- Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The reported data and reasoning do not support a man-made origin of the novel coronavirus – but, neither do they preclude it. Logically and scientifically, the title and premise of the article are unsupported by its content.
- Difficulty is not impossibility. The existence of one particular model (which?) with unrecognized flaws – and of one group of scientists (who?) that might have been dissuaded from a particular direction of investigation by that flawed model – doesn’t preclude other models that were more accurate or other scientists that were more insightful or determined.
- Selective conclusion is unethical. While the primarily rumored motivation for laboratory development is intentional biowarfare, others have suggested well-intentioned (if misdirected) pursuit of a SARS vaccine, which is compatible with the reported data and reasoning: believing the modeling-results, scientists could have developed what they thought would be a less-dangerous virus that thereafter escaped from the lab.
- Even the appearance of an agenda can undermine credibility. Phrasing such as “Another nail in the ‘escaped from evil lab’ theory” conveys a dismissiveness that tends to fuel conspiracy theories, not to defuse them.
- Preconceptions can overlook alternative implications. One significant stone unturned: models are flawed representations of limited human understanding, and “real-life” turned out much differently from the predictions of computer simulations. A thoughtful, even-handed analysis of models in general – including the perils both of ignoring them and of trusting them absolutely – would be a timely admonition to a public that seems divided between complacency and panic.
The assertions of the human-laboratory origin of SARS-CoV-2 appear speculative; there yet appears to be no compelling scientific evidence either proving or disproving such speculation. Exaggerated or erroneous scientific claims are damaging to the integrity and credibility of science itself. We seek comfort in certainty, and for the moment, science cannot provide that certainty regarding COVID-19.
However, perhaps we can gain valuable perspective even from a hypothetical scenario involving catastrophic, unintended consequences – and redouble our efforts to avoid them. Perhaps this is just one of several lessons emerging from a crisis that is fast becoming a “stress test” for health systems around the world. Never has “health systems” figured so prominently in global media and public awareness. It’s crucial that all such discussions be guided not only by science but also by wisdom. The future of our health systems and the health of the world’s population depend on such.
Image credit: Kevin Nortrup