Living in an Upended World: Science and the scientific method

Living in an Upended World: Science and the scientific method

By Natalie Taylor


Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could turn to science and get concrete and consistent answers? Unfortunately, that is not the case, because that’s not how science works. In very brief terms, the scientific method means gathering data (always a lengthy process), drawing a working hypothesis (idea), then testing until the results validate the hypothesis. But this leads to many detours along the way as researchers follow different paths in the quest for an answer. Like truffle hunting dogs let loose in a field, they scatter in different directions, stopping to sniff the ground, then breaking to one side, then another, until they finally come to the right spot. There it is, under the earth, the elusive, precious mushroom waiting to plucked. 


It’s very frustrating, for scientists and the public, that the novel coronavirus has been so elusive in providing answers about itself. A major part of the problem is that it is fairly recent, with insufficient time to study all its characteristics. Another problem is that it’s a shape-shifter, not just in its own makeup, but in the way it reacts in different people. Some individuals become infected and never show symptoms, others have a mild response, and some become severely ill and die. Until we know why some are affected one way and others differently, we will not be able to take the precise steps to fully counter it. 


There are some answers. We know that some populations (the elderly, and people with certain underlying illnesses) are more vulnerable. We’ve learned that the virus is airborne; universal masks to protect yourself and others are effective for those types of viral transmissions. Good ventilation and social distancing appear to minimize the potential of infection. A healthy body—not obese, non-diabetic, good lung function uncompromised by smoking or other pulmonary illness—seems to offer protection. 


But there are still myriad unanswered questions. Why do so many who fall within the vulnerable categories do not suffer major consequences; and others outside those parameters are struck with the ultimate defeat—death. Two other important questions are still up in the air, the answer to them can represent a significant path in one direction or another. The first is whether the amount of virus (viral load) you take in is related to the severity of the illness. That is the case with many other viruses, but in the case of this one, the answer is inconclusive. The second major question, related to the first, is whether a mild exposure to the novel coronavirus has the same effect as a vaccine; that is, it makes you immune without having gone through a severe manifestation of the disease. This is called variolation, and we will take that up in the next article. 


Not having exact answers is not the scientists’ fault. Remember, they are in that metaphorical forest, following clues, losing their way, until they find what they were looking for.