Health & Wellness

Science, Skepticism, and COVID-19

The facts don’t change, but our knowledge and understanding do

By Caitlin Finlay

Thousands of scientific papers related to COVID-19 have been published since the start of the pandemic. Generally, the publishing process involves peer-review—a study is reviewed by other scientists before it’s published. Given the urgency involved with COVID-19, however, many papers are being published without peer-review, and as a result, the preliminary findings quickly become available to scientists and decision-makers.

Through online channels and social media, these findings are also conveyed to the public. The danger is that this access to preliminary findings can lead to public skepticism because as more research is conducted, more information is discovered—information that may contradict what we thought we had learned. This is a normal process in science, but one that’s not always well understood or easily accepted.

It’s important to remember that science is fluid. As more is discovered, more questions arise, more studies are conducted, and theories are thus supported, contradicted, or disproved. With COVID-19, it’s especially important to understand the scientific process because we had no prior information about this specific disease. Scientists are learning about it as fast as they can, but discovering and understanding a disease and its effects is a lengthy process.

“Almost all of the world’s scientific and medical focus right now is on understanding this disease. And so we’re really digging into everything we can possibly learn about it,” Dr. Ellie Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University, told CBC Radio in May. “One of the things that’s really frustrating is that because everyone is really hungry for answers, there’s this tendency to pounce on the first information that becomes available.”

With information about COVID-19 always evolving, official recommendations often change as new evidence is discovered, confusing the public and fuelling skepticism. The reaction is understandable when information is changing so frequently, but remember that scientists are always discovering new evidence and we want the official recommendations to be based on a strong collection of data.

To prevent misinformation, it’s important to follow reputable news sources and adhere to the latest official recommendations on how to reduce the spread of COVID-19. We’re all trying to do our best in this unexpected situation, and these recommendations are the best methods we currently have to keep yourself and those around you safe.

Photo: iStock/wildpixel.