Reflections on the pandemic

Image_Elyeser Szturm

By Lucas Machado*

It is not enough to disseminate scientific results, but to make them understandable to the general public; it is necessary to make accessible and understandable the very processes and methods that led to them

knowledge and reality

Faced with the current pandemic situation, I would like to make some observations that I think are important, not only for going through this very difficult time, but also for us to rethink a series of aspects of our society and our attitude towards knowledge and the production of knowledge .

In the first place: do not disdain scientists and health authorities if they change their position on effective treatments and prevention methods. Quite the contrary: know how to value precisely the fact that they are willing to change their position, if the reasons for this change are based on the very change in the knowledge we have about the facts.

Suppose, for example, that a treatment that was previously not recommended is now recommended by scientists and health authorities. Does this mean they are unreliable? After all, why would they change their minds if the treatment is ultimately effective?

To understand this, it is necessary to remember that there is a fundamental difference between reality and our knowledge of it. Even if something is true (such as, for example, that a certain treatment is effective against the coronavirus), it does not follow that we are (at least, at the moment) in a position to know that it is true. Our action, however, can only be guided through our knowledge, since we have no way of accessing reality independently of it and, therefore, we cannot decide what we are going to do or how we are going to behave in the face of this reality, regardless of the knowledge we have of it.

Imagine, for example, that you are lost in a forest. You see a tree full of fruit. Since you're hungry, you might assume it would be a good idea to eat them. You don't know, however, if this fruit is poisonous, if it couldn't hurt you, or even kill you. Due to the lack of knowledge about this, therefore, *even* if the fruit is not, in reality, poisonous, even if it were, on the contrary, extremely nutritious, it would not be advisable to simply eat it. Rather, the recommendation would be to look for ways to try to expand your knowledge about this fruit, perhaps observing whether other animals eat it, smelling it, or even putting it lightly in your mouth, but without ingesting it, in order to be able to somehow way to acquire more information about it. In any case, it is easy to understand why, knowing absolutely nothing about the fruit, it would not be advisable to simply decide to eat it.

But let's just say the fruit wasn't poisonous after all. Does this mean that all that care to learn more about it, before deciding to ingest it, was in vain? No; after all, while it isn't poisonous, it *could* be; there is nothing in the fact that it is ultimately not poisonous which implies that we could be sure from the outset that it was not. And if we risked eating it, even without having any prior knowledge of it, we could certainly benefit from it; but we could equally harm ourselves. And, more than that: if we made it a habit to make decisions of this type, without any prior knowledge about what we are deciding on, the most likely thing is that, most of the time, we would get along very badly.

To understand this, I find it very helpful to use the casino example. The casino is the perfect example of a business that survives on a planned lack of knowledge, and that shows precisely that if we make it a rule to make our decisions without basing ourselves on a carefully obtained knowledge of the facts in question, the balance of this attitude will be, via as a rule, negative. Casino games are fundamentally based on a randomness that prevents the player from having knowledge that allows him to effectively predict the final outcome of the game. Precisely because of this, however, that most players, most of the time, lose. Will there be instances where any player wins? Certainly. But, the vast majority of the time, he will lose, just like every other player. Who wins, when decisions are made without knowledge, is not who makes the decision in this way, but who is on the other side of that decision, that is: the casino. Hence that famous expression: “The house always wins”.

(This is also why, whenever any gambler avails himself of methods and knowledge that allow him to perfectly or almost perfectly control the game, they are not allowed and are expelled and banned from casinos; casinos operate on the fundamental assumption that if you are willing to play them, you are willing to play them in a condition of so little information and knowledge that you are more likely to lose than to win.)

Therefore, it is not enough that something is, in fact, beneficial to us; before we can decide to use it to our advantage, we need to collect and acquire knowledge about it, so that we can *know* (or be more sure) that it is beneficial, since it could also not be. Nobody would recommend you to eat the fruit in the forest before you have some idea if it is poisonous or not. If, however, after collecting information and seeking to acquire knowledge about this fruit, it could be established with more certainty that it is beneficial, then it is natural that we change our thinking, and go from not recommending it to recommending it.

Changing position, in this case, is not a sign of instability or unreliability. Quite the contrary: it is a sign of maintaining a consistent posture in the face of the fact that we can only guide our actions in relation to reality based on the knowledge we have so far of it. And knowing how to recognize that the increase in knowledge often implies a change of position.

Therefore, if scientists and health authorities change their recommendations, and if they do so because of the results of experiments and research being carried out to gain more knowledge about the virus, they should be admired for it, instead of disdaining it. them, and respect their position more precisely because, as scientists, they are recognizing that our knowledge of reality can always be improved and, in this way, our position regarding it can also change. Value the change of position that is based on the vigorous, rigorous and methodical search for knowledge about reality, and not on arbitrary, personal, political or any other reasons. If we make our decisions about the pandemic without basing it on effort and the continuous pursuit of knowledge, have no doubts: the virus will always win.

“But Lucas, are you saying then that scientists and health authorities always change their position only for good reasons? That they never do so for arbitrary reasons, or that they have nothing to do with seeking and gaining knowledge?” Not at all. Recognizing that our knowledge is fallible is necessarily also recognizing that human beings are fallible, and that scientists, therefore, are as well. That's why I said: know how to value the fact that they are willing to change their position, *IF* the reasons for this change are based on the very change in the knowledge we have about the facts.

But how can we decide on what to base a change in positioning? How can we know whether it is based on arbitrary reasons or is, in fact, well-founded in the research and research results that are being done? That's what I'd like to talk about next.

In addition to disclosure

I talked about the importance of valuing the change in the position of scientists and researchers about the appropriate treatments for the coronavirus, if this change is based on new evidence acquired through scientific research. However, I asked the following question: since scientists and researchers are also human beings and, therefore, their reasons for changing positions may not necessarily be scientifically justified, how can we distinguish between an evidence-based change of position and one that isn't?

Now, in order to know if there is evidence that supports the change, it is necessary to know how to evaluate the research available on the subject. And here, we enter a central point that, in my view, is, along with other things, at the heart of the crisis of knowledge, of fake news and “post-truth” that we are currently experiencing: the separation between dissemination and research training .
In a very rough way, we can say that our society is separated into two groups: those who know how to conduct research and know its procedures, and those who are only concerned with knowing the results of research, without paying special attention to the methods used to carry it out. if you get to them.

The problem with this is that we focus a lot on the RESULT of the research, without, however, paying due attention to the PROCESS through which it is obtained. And since we are ignorant of how a survey arrived at its result, we are also unable to assess its quality and reliability. This, however, has ended up making us forget something that a certain German philosopher once understood very clearly: that if we seek knowledge about something, the process by which we arrive at some conclusion about it is at least as important as the conclusion itself.

It is not enough to publish the results and make them understandable to the general public; it is necessary to make accessible and understandable the very processes and methods that led to them. It is not enough, in other words, to publicize the research: it is equally necessary to *train* for it. It is necessary to teach how it works, its assumptions, methods and procedures, and do it in an accessible way, so that everyone can assess for themselves the quality of a research and the reliability of its results.

That's why I would like to make an appeal here to everyone who works with research: start focusing on teaching the processes of research *at least* as much as on the results, exposing, in an accessible and understandable way, not only the conclusions to which arrived, but how they arrived at them. Explain how the scientific research process works, both in particular areas and in general. We need to overcome the idea that the world is divided between those who know how to research and those who don't. If not everyone needs to *do* research on everything, everyone needs to *know* how it's done, and be trained to do so.

In our digital age, we are all researchers; that doesn't mean, however, that we are good at it. For that, training is necessary; and, for training to take place, the scientific and academic community must not treat its methods and procedures with pettiness, as something that should be its exclusive possession and privilege, but rather make a fundamental part of its project as an institution to make these methods universally accessible and understandable. This is the only way to effectively fulfill the mission of enabling everyone to participate in the collective construction of knowledge.


Here, again, perhaps you might ask: “But then, if everyone has access to knowledge of research procedures, does that mean that we can, finally, have an absolutely sure knowledge of reality? Are we thus protected from any error?” Once again, the answer can only be negative. There is nothing that completely eliminates our fallibility, and more than that, it is inherent in any research method. That's why, in the next article, I'll discuss a little more deeply the question of the fallibility of our knowledge, and what it implies for the process through which we acquire it.

*Lucas Machado He holds a doctorate in philosophy from USP.

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