Jacob Berkowitz is an author and playwright in Almonte, Ont. He is the writer-in-virtual-residence at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy.
As parents worry about the school lessons kids have missed because of the pandemic, there’s one dinner conversation about COVID-19 that can make-up for any lost science lessons. Talk about all the uncertainty and doubt, from changing rules about wearing masks to efforts to create a vaccine. Explain that what we’re living through is science in action.
Because, if your kids come out of this pandemic knowing in their bones that science is as much about what we currently don’t know, as what we do, it will be the most important science lesson of their lives.
If this feels counterintuitive, it’s because most of us leave high school, and any study of science, with a fundamentally skewed vision of science’s nature. We tend to think of science as a noun, as facts in textbooks, but not also as a verb, as the doing of research. This is a crucial difference.
The word “science” comes from a Latin root for “to know.” Yet on the way to knowing, science is ultimately about the right, responsibility and challenge of living with doubt. As Albert Einstein quipped, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research.”
The reason we call the period in Europe around 1600 the Scientific Revolution is exactly because it was an intellectual rebellion against the primacy of received knowledge from the church or the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers such as Aristotle. The first scientists, such as Galileo, were fundamentally heretics (from the Greek, “to choose”) because they asserted that the nature of reality could be perceived by individuals in the present through careful experimentation and observation.
But what gives science its power as a way of knowing is that it’s collective knowing – it’s the facts that we can collectively agree on through repeated experimentation and observation. It’s why Britain’s Royal Society (the world’s oldest science club) has the motto Nullius in verba, Latin for “take nobody’s word for it.” This isn’t about being bull-headed and arrogant, it’s because scientists know that while the truth is out there, it is more often than not incredibly difficult to figure out.
No more so than when it comes to understanding the human body – we can’t stop time, take a person apart, see how all the bits work and then put a living body back together again. So we do our best with medicine, whose track record, the editor of the distinguished British Medical Journal wrote in 2003, “is mostly a history of ineffective and often dangerous treatments.”
Last week, the first made-in-Canada vaccine trial started in Canada, one of more than 165 separate research efforts around the world to develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Why so many? Why not a single, massive effort? Because no one (from the smartest graduate student to Nobel laureates) knows which of the 165 approaches will work. Or if any of them will. Or if one will provide only temporary immunity.
Yet, as science itself has become the establishment, we have come to expect nearly divine and instantaneous levels of knowledge from the priests of science on any topic. This is especially true in the context of politics and public health. Politicians naturally want to appear definitive and in control and the best ones during this pandemic have managed to convey both calm and hope, while acknowledging doubts and the necessity to develop policy on the fly using the latest and best – but imperfect – evidence.
This is why the pandemic, for all the confusion and suffering, is the ultimate teachable science moment. Science is the best intellectual tool we have for dealing with COVID-19. But it’s not magic. Talking with our kids, we can acknowledge the vaccine hopes, the changing mask rules, the uncertainty and share that this is what it is to be human, seeking to know in a complex, mysterious world.
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