What will change in science?

science: Nothing is set in stone

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It is a hit among "Corona skeptics": the video with the ironic title Believe only official sources. It shows how casually the experts interpreted the corona risk at the beginning of March. The virologist Christian Drosten speaks of a "mild cold", which is "in principle no problem for the individual", the Robert Koch Institute explains that wearing a face mask is completely "unnecessary", and Health Minister Jens Spahn reassuringly recommends that normal behaviors "like having a cold or flu". Look here, the creators of the video want to say that the experts cannot be trusted, and all the corona excitement is just fake.

You don't have to be a conspiracy ideologist to be amazed at the researchers ’turnaround. Isn't it strange that something is now considered a global danger that a few months ago was supposed to have been just a mild cold? What does this teach about the credibility of the experts and the power of scientific argument? Don't researchers maintain this today and that tomorrow - as their respective interests require?

In the course of the Corona crisis, such doubts have seeped deep into many minds. They are reinforced by the protesters of the Corona demos as well as by the Picture-Newspaper that repeatedly reported with great indignation about contradictions within science; Politicians also railed against the virologists who would change their minds every few days.

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It's about more than the pandemic. It's about the reliability of science in a rapidly changing world - in medicine and climate research, in energy policy and in dealing with artificial intelligence. Which judgment can you trust? In the end, are even those right who - like the incumbent US President - prefer to rely on their gut instinct rather than scientific advice and serve a longing for simplicity?

It is now often said that the corona crisis in particular has strengthened the reputation of scientists. But a Europe-wide study published in June casts doubt on this. "Our survey shows that the majority of citizens in most member countries do not trust the experts and authorities," write political scientists Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard. The mistrust is most pronounced in Poland, France and Bulgaria; But even in Germany, only 44 percent of those surveyed believe that the Corona crisis "made clear the benefits of expert knowledge and authorities in the country". The majority is unsure whether scientists are secretly in league with the government or are pursuing hidden interests.

Why do researchers contradict each other so often, why do findings change so quickly? A search for an answer in seven chapters.

1. Black swans

The corona video mentioned at the beginning is so irritating because it reflects the state of knowledge from the beginning of March, before the outbreak of the corona pandemic in this country. At that time, experience with the new virus was limited to reports from other countries; nobody knew how it would spread under German hygiene and social conditions. With increasing knowledge, the researchers then turned around. They no longer placed the calming aspects in the foreground ("a mild course for 80 percent"), but rather the unsettling ones ("latently fatal for high-risk patients").

Even more important was a finding about the coronavirus, which was confirmed in the course of March: The new pathogen is often transmitted "asymptomatically", i.e. without the infected showing symptoms of the disease. However, this property makes containment dramatically more difficult, because it can potentially pose a threat to others.

Of course, one can ask: Couldn't the experts have foreseen this? And Health Minister Spahn did not take his mouth too full when he announced at the beginning of the year that Germany was "well prepared" in the event of a pandemic. The answer: Yes, Spahn was on the wrong track; the researchers were overtaken by the events.

But such surprises are in the nature of new, unknown phenomena: Since our knowledge is always based on past experiences, we are often blind to unexpected twists and turns. A few months earlier, experts believed that German reunification would take place in 1989 as unlikely as the financial crisis and the reactor accident in Fukushima. Or let's take the strange wall of water that rolled towards the shores of the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004: Because the phenomenon was so unusual, many beachgoers stared blankly at it, some even filmed the spectacle calmly - because they did not notice that because a tsunami of the century raced towards them, which in the end killed over 200,000 people.