There has been a lot of discussion in recent weeks about the scientific community’s about-face on wearing of masks to reduce viral transmission during the COVID-19 pandemic. While some have attempted to paint this as a kind of weakness, the truth is actually something more heartening about the scientific process. Namely, that science can get things wrong. But because scientists continue to push for new knowledge and follow the data, as they learn more they can acknowledge their mistakes and move quickly to correct them.
Early in 2020, the advice coming from the Centers for Disease Control was straightforward: No evidence exists that masks would protect otherwise healthy people from contracting the virus that causes COVID-19. Moreover, health officials worried a massive public movement to procure masks could actually hurt the ability to get scarce and much-needed PPEs to the healthcare front lines. These were messages in February and March.
But as the scientific community responded with unprecedented speed to learn more about COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, they developed a more accurate understanding of how masks could play a key role in slowing viral spread. We learned the broad prevalence of asymptomatic carriers and their ability to unknowingly spread the virus. We learned that the most common way the virus is spread is through close quarters indoors, and a cloth mask would limit respiratory droplets from becoming airborne. Additional evidence backed up the importance of masks. Places with high levels of mask usage had appreciably lower infection rates than places with poor mask compliance. With this knowledge, the scientific consensus quickly pivoted by April to strongly recommending mask usage.
Why do I bring this up today? Because it tells us something important about how science works. We don’t work in absolutes; scientific knowledge is constantly building on itself and correcting previous assumptions. If we were afraid to admit we were wrong about something, scientific discoveries would grind to a halt or, worse, we would succumb to fraudulent approaches to avoid being “wrong.” Our reputation as scientists doesn’t depend on always being right the first time; it relies on the integrity of never stopping the search for answers and correcting our knowledge according to what we discover.
This is something the general public really needs to understand about the importance of trial and error in the scientific process. It’s one of the reasons we value public engagement so much at the Morgridge Institute for Research, because it gives people a real window into how science is done. When people understand that scientists are constantly building on our often incomplete understanding of how biology works — and that new information tomorrow could change the way we think about something important — we stand a much better chance that they will continue to have confidence in the scientific enterprise.
I would like to think that most people trust someone more when they know that the person will admit when they have been wrong. It’s even better when we learn something from being wrong, and that knowledge helps us understand the way things really are. Hopefully the evolving knowledge about masks will help people better understand how science works, and in so doing, build trust.
Brad Schwartz, M.D.
Chief Executive Officer
Morgridge Institute for Research