EDITORIAL: Good science means accepting new information and adjusting accordingly

While COVID-19 has been making international headlines since early 2020, the day it suddenly mattered to most Yukoners was March 7.

On that day, the Yukon government took the rather unusual step of scheduling a last-minute weekend press conference.

Dozens of people — including reporters from nearly every media outlet in town, volunteers, organizational staff and government officials — gathered together to hear the news that the Arctic Winter Games would be cancelled.

A little over a week later, many were incredulous that the chief medical officer of health would sign off on the large parade and rally held to pay tribute to all the effort put into the now-cancelled games.

The CMO’s office was correct, of course, in its risk assessment of the situation and the masses were wrong, as is so often the case.

No cases emerged linked to that event.

Part of what makes things like pandemics, plagues and pestilence so upsetting and disconcerting for the average person is our lack of understanding.

Science is hard.

Research is hard.

Interpreting research is even harder.

Though watching a YouTube video with flashy graphics and pictures may make us feel like subject matter experts, the reality is quite the opposite.

Armed with key terms and phrases, to experts, we sound less like experts ourselves and more like parrots — capable of learning what to say, but clearly lacking any understanding beyond surface depth.

Unfortunately the misunderstandings don’t stop there.

Many people have voiced concerns with the changes in recommendations over the course of the last two months.

A prime example is the guidelines surrounding masks.

First the recommendations were that masks were more likely to be misused than not, so no need to wear one.

Then masks were recognized as a way to prevent the spread, even if many were not wearing them correctly.

Forecasts for both virus spread and severity have changed as well.

Rather than being taken as a sign of hope, evidence the measures in place were working or proof the system works, it was seen by some as another attempt by some group (be it the left, the right, or some secret global cabal) to take over the world.

Those changes, in reality, were the scientific method in action.

In broad strokes, scientists make hypotheses, test those hypotheses and try to come to a conclusion through analysis about what the results of those experiments show us about the world.

Those results are then typically shared in journals following a process called peer review, where other subject matter experts assess the findings.

Other scientists also typically try to replicate those findings.

In science, unlike in politics, changing your view on something when presented with new information is expected and applauded.

With public health bodies being so inherently linked to government in the eyes of the public, many see those officials as government operators rather than scientists and doctors.

So when a doctor stands up at a podium and says the guidelines are changing, it’s understandable why some are skeptical.

Misplaced fear perhaps, but certainly understandable.

Anti-intellectualism, too, has always been a strong undercurrent in society, but with all this talk of shifting paradigms and “new normals” maybe this is the chance we didn’t know we needed to finally take a collective deep breath and acknowledge we don’t know everything.

Do your own research, whatever that means to you, but if you find yourself diametrically opposed to the prevailing scientific consensus, perhaps it is time to consider your own hubris.

What is truly exciting from an analysis perspective is we’ve never had such accurate data for a pandemic in history.

Years from now, when COVID-19 is either preventable or at least better understood, the meta analysis on the global response will be fascinating.

With 195 countries and at least as many different plans to deal with the crisis, there will surely be examples of nearly every course of action imaginable.

If nothing else, we should have better information to go on for next time.


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