Some lessons from the pandemic

Image: Brett Sayles


Science, the best option among all the ways to make mistakes

There are at least two science-related lessons the pandemic leaves us with. The most obvious is its power: in less than a year we were able to develop a dozen different vaccines, all of them successful, with the potential to find a way out of these nightmare times. Less evident, however, is the fact that there is no point in finding a solution to a serious problem if the population, out of ignorance, not only does not follow the process but also boycotts it.

The muscle of the scientific community contrasts dangerously with the flabby complexion of citizen scientific culture. This problem happens, to a greater or lesser extent, in all countries. There are many people who distrust the discourse of science because they associate it with power, and for this reason they meekly indulge in delirious and unfounded preaching. The paradox is that, despite their sheeplike meekness, these people perceive themselves as free and questioning beings. They believe that flat Earthism is not only as valid as any other hypothesis about the shape of the Earth, but also that they are libertarians themselves, who are not fooled by the authoritarian discourse of the Academy. The herd – they believe – is us, the rest. They support this fantasy where, in fact and luckily, most people walk along the sidewalk opposite.

The fact that these anti-scientific communities grow, that neutral and reasonable people end up swelling their ranks has to do, in a way, with a misperception of what science is. It is commonly associated with "the truth". And given that there is a certain amount of enlightened people and institutions that have claimed to have it throughout history, resolving any type of controversy with the bonfire or other types of violence, there is a certain logic in which this factor is more excluding than inclusive. On top of that, science often communicates with society as if, in fact, it was dealing with “the truth”, thus fueling misunderstanding. From there, certain myths spread, such as that of the scientist's arrogance and his connivance with power.

In primary and secondary schools, we teach the “scientific method”, a recipe book that almost never corresponds to the reality of research, as a guide to getting close to the truth. Far from that, in my opinion, science deals with error and falsehood rather than with truth. The "scientific method" offers us the best way to be wrong, so to speak.

Error is almost always more likely than success. So finding a form of equivocation that we can take advantage of, finding a strategy that allows us to capitalize on mistakes seems like a path worthy of exploration. In our daily activity, we scientists, the scientific community, dedicate most of our time to making mistakes. However, we do it in such a way that today's mistake is not tomorrow's. There is method to this exploration, but also creativity, audacity and perseverance.

And, in this effort to perfect the best way to make mistakes, very rarely does success happen. Given that every answer is accompanied by several new questions, unthinkable before the settlement, the volume of what we know increases, but also, paradoxically, what we ignore grows even more. The adventure of science is endless.

There are few occasions when we reach the oasis of a hit. But even worse is the fact that we are only enjoying it for a few moments. Soon we resume the path of mistakes that may lead us to a new epiphany. We know that agreements are always provisional and that they will end up showing their limitations and fissures. So the imperative is to keep researching. “Scientists make mistakes,” said Carl Sagan; “Science is a collective enterprise with a machine oiled[1] of their correction”.

Since error is the central object of science – more representative than success, at least from the point of view of its abundance – it is essential to speak about it without compunction or prejudice. In this way, perhaps more people will understand the value of scientists' successes, something similar to the arrow that circumstantially hits the target. The backbone of science is much more in questions – structural and imperishable beams – than in conjunctural answers, levers that can be supplanted. Questions are the engine of creative thinking.

Such is the cult of error that we have in science that when we believe we have achieved a hit, no matter how small and regardless of the level of euphoria provoked, the first thought that dominates us is more or less the following: “what should happen to prove me wrong?” This question hides both the suspicion that, one way or another, the oasis to which we ascended is a passing mirage, and the veiled intention to continue on the path of research.

Flat-Earthers and anti-vaccines live in idiocy because of the conviction of having embraced “the truth”, of having reached their destination. They don't even think about the possibility of asking themselves the previous question. Your way of making mistakes is sterile and permanent: the same today and tomorrow. Block all questions. Their argument is immune to any kind of evidence because they simply keep the gates of their citadel locked – a weak building, lacking beams, structurally condemned to collapse – and there is nothing that can prove to them that they live in error. It is all too easy to see the vitality of science and also the wasteful immobility of antiscience.

“Without science democracy is impossible,” wrote Bertrand Russell nearly a century ago. I imagine he thought that, under the premise that human beings are prone to error, nothing better than a framework of thought that allows us to account for this. A society made up of citizens incapable of identifying their own mistakes is doomed. Science is not a matter of truth or power. It's just about the best option among all the ways to make mistakes.

* Jose Edelstein is professor of theoretical physics at the University of Santiago de Compostela.

Translation: Maria Cecilia Ipar.

Originally published in the newspaper Página12.

Translator's note

[1] Other translation options: active machine, fully functioning machine.


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