The Pandemic and the Limits of Science

The Pandemic and the Limits of Science

Perhaps one clear lesson from our pandemic is that science works when it is allowed. Not flawlessly and not always at a pace suitable for a global emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was slow to recognize the coronavirus as a threat in the air. Even now, medicine has a better understanding of how to prevent coronavirus infection – masks, social distancing, vaccination – than how to treat it. But that too is edifying. The public has been able to observe science at its most chaotic, iterative, and imperfect side, with researchers striving to draw conclusions in real time from growing amounts of data. Science has never been so obviously a process, more muscles than bones.

And yet the virus spread. Travel restrictions, school closings, home orders. Illness and isolation, anxiety and depression. Loss after loss after loss: from dear friends and family members, from employment, from the simple company of others. Last week the C.D.C. concluded that 2020 was the deadliest year in American history. For some, the past year seemed like a century; For far too many people, the past year was the last.


March 15, 2021, 10:30 p.m. ET

Another lesson from our pandemic is: Science alone is not enough. It takes a champion, a pulpit, a spotlight, an audience. For months, the wholesome and overt advice – wear a mask, avoid gatherings – was downplayed by government officials. Don't worry about the social fabric; Throwing off the mask was seen as an act of defiance and personal independence.

Read today, Soper's essay is initially characterized by its curious medical advice. He sensibly urged readers to "avoid unnecessary crowding" but also to "avoid tight clothing and shoes" and to chew food thoroughly. He added, "It is undesirable to make the general wear of masks compulsory."

Most striking, however, are the key lessons he has learned from his pandemic, which apply all too well to ours. First, respiratory diseases are highly contagious, and even the most common ones require attention. Second, the burden of preventing their spread rests heavily on the individual. These three create the overriding challenge: "Public indifference," wrote Soper. "People don't appreciate the risks they are taking."


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