Episode Summary

The scientific process has the power to deliver a better world and may be the most monumental human achievement. But when it is unethically performed or miscommunicated, it can cause confusion and division. Ferric Fang, Professor in the Departments of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, Microbiology, Medicine and Global Health at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and Arturo Casadevall, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in the Johns Hopkins Schools of Public Health and Medicine, discuss good science, bad science and how to make it better.

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Ashley's Biggest Takeaways

  • Science is special. It provides the discipline not to fool oneself.
  • Science provides a structure for trying to get closer to the truth using reliable sources of information. 
  • Science is something to be respected, taken care of and reformed.
  • Engaging with society requires transparency and humility. 
  • In order to be prepared for the next pandemic, we will need to have a clear understanding not only of the science, but also the social science of how we responded and what happened during COVID-19.

Featured Quotes

Casadevall: We met over 20 years ago.

Fang: We were both editors at an ASM journal Infection and Immunity. And when we were working together as editors, we were brought together by our common interest in aspects about how science worked and about the opportunity that we might have, as editors, to write commentaries on different aspects of science. And through this, we really became great friends.

I have to tell you, Arturo is the easiest person in the world to collaborate with. I've never had a more pleasurable collaboration. So, we've been writing essays together, really, for over 15 years now.

Casadevall: I was just going to add, you know, Ferric said that I was easy to work with. The reason I'm so easy to work with is because Ferric's ideas are always better than mine. So it's very easy to just accept them. 

For me, English is my second language. And I find English very hard. But I have come to really fall in love with language. And what I find is that when I write, it helps me clarify my thinking. So, I often write to figure things out, and then I send it to Ferric, who fixes it.

Fang: I have to agree with Arturo that it really helps you to dissect out a complicated problem by sitting down and trying to organize your thoughts in writing, and the way that you write is really a different use of language than when you have a conversation. 

But I think in writing these essays was a different kind of writing, because we were really trying to synthesize and express thoughts that we had in general about things that we were doing, and thoughts that we had unconsciously. And we were trying to, by putting them on the page, kind of make these concerns concrete and to do something to engage other people.

One of the reasons we called the book Thinking About Science is because we saw it as something we were doing together that we wanted to engage our larger scientific community.

We didn't think we had the last word, or necessarily the best take, on some of these questions, but we thought we could start a conversation with some of these essays that could lead to better and better contributions from others in our community.

Casadevall: These essays have made me a better scientist. Going through all these issues, has really shaped what I currently think. And I feel I have personally benefited tremendously from the intellectual aspects of this collaboration. Maybe other people can benefit also.

Fang: One of the interesting, unexpected things that happened while we were working on the book is there was this worldwide pandemic that killed millions of people and completely turned everyone's lives upside down. And we felt that we couldn't put out a scientific book in 2023 without really facing the issue of the pandemic, and how science had fared and the fracture lines that appeared between science and society at large, in terms of translating the lessons from science into policies to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

And I think another thing we discovered is that through the pandemic, that it's not really science and the rest of society, but everybody felt they had a perspective and an opinion that was valid on what should be done. Things like wearing face masks, getting vaccines, taking drugs, socially distancing, opening or closing schools—these are things that everybody was engaged in, everybody was affected by. And there were a lot of opinions expressed, and it wasn't just by scientists.

And this got us to thinking about, you know, why should we believe what scientists say as opposed to other sources of information in society? What are the ways that we get information about things and think we understand things? And why do we think that the scientific way is, perhaps, better than some of these other ways in dealing with these kinds of problems?

And we realized that the pandemic was really bringing together a lot of the themes that we had been thinking about for a long time and exposing some of the problems with contemporary science that we had been concerned about. It was kind of a stress test for science, and in some ways, science did great, and in other ways, I think scientists would like a do over.

Casadevall: When you engage with the public, I think the first thing to do is to be humble. And I will begin the answer to your question by saying, I don't know. I don't know for sure. I do think that we have to engage. And I think that there is a lot of discussion going on today, among scientists that participated in talking to the media, into what went right and what went wrong. A lot of things went right. You know, we went from within 1 year, you had vaccines, you had monoclonal antibodies, you have small molecule drugs.

That only happened because society had invested in having a scientific enterprise that could deliver at that time. Aircraft carriers didn't help you, bombers didn't help you. But research labs were able to do things very, very rapidly. That worked. However, how we messaged a lot of the needs and what we thought was often muddled, and in retrospect, it may have cost lives...because people stopped listening. For example, the vaccine uptake was not what it should have been. And today, we know that 1000s of people died because they didn't take the vaccine. Well, how could we have done better? We had a remarkable vaccine, that it was highly effective and very safe. And yet, we couldn't communicate that.

Fang: It's not enough to have good scientific research and strong scientific publications. It has to be translated, and translation effectively means that you really can win over the public and explain to them what you're trying to do, and why. And you don't get that credibility automatically. I think a lot of people just assumed that there was an emergency, and people would come running to scientists and physicians and do whatever they said. And maybe this happened for a little while, but pretty soon afterwards, scientific recommendations were being questioned. Public health measures were being challenged. And I think we weren't really well-prepared to defend these positions, to explain what we thought should be done. 

And I think it early on, there were mistakes made—of course, that's not surprising. But I think that we didn't collectively do as good of a job as we could have done about being transparent about these mistakes, about expressing, honestly, regret for things that might have been recommended that had to be reversed later. And conveying the uncertainty that goes into these recommendations. I think, paradoxically, when you express uncertainty and humility, people believe you more. If you express supreme confidence, and then you clearly make a mistake, and you don't acknowledge that mistake, you actually end up losing credibility. 

Casadevall: One of the things that I really worry about is that, by historical standards, this was not a bad pandemic. We had less than 1% mortality. And yet, in a very complex world that we live in, look how it hobbled society.

How are we going to respond to the next one? And it's not going to be science alone. We have to understand the social science of what happened. That's going to take a few years because, even though we started to put distance from that, there's a lot to learn—not only about what happened, but also how we all reacted to it.

Fang: Humans have very big brains, you know, so we can change our minds. And I think that these kinds of things don't happen all at once. But I think we should never give up. Because we can be very wrong. We can be 180 degrees in the wrong direction, and we can realize that and we can turn around. And the same people who have crazy ideas can have great ideas. And so, I think right now, it seems like things have swept in the wrong direction. But I think there's still a lot of time for us to try to recover that sense of common purpose and common humanity that was there at the beginning of the pandemic. And these things kind of wax and wane through history.

Casadevall: I'm actually very optimistic by nature. And when I think about this, it was only 3.5 years ago that humanity was united against this virus. And what I would say is that if we could do it then, we could do it again. But what we need to understand is how the unified response came. So, one of the ways it began was through personal networks, scientists reaching out to scientists, public health departments reaching out to public people that knew each other. So what do I think going forward? We need to learn how we got fractured. And we need to refertilize those contacts so that they are there the next time.

Fang:  What science does is it gives you the discipline not to fool yourself, as Kahneman said, you have fast and slow thinking. And it prevents us from falling into certain kinds of traps that the human mind can fall into without that sort of discipline. It gives us a way of structure for trying to get closer to the truth and to have reliable sources of information. 

Casadevall: I believe in the better angels of our nature. I believe that if we keep science going—and this is going to require every generation working at it, and investing in it—that it will deliver a better world.

Links for the Episode

Explore the riveting world of science with the recently released ASM Press and Wiley title, Thinking about Science: Good Science, Bad Science, and How to Make It Better, by authors Ferric C. Fang and Arturo Casadevall. A must-read for anyone curious about the present predicaments and future potential of science, this new title is more than just a book; it's a roadmap to understanding and improving the scientific endeavor for the benefit of society at large.  

Get your copy today with $1 flat rate shipping within the U.S. or order the e-book! ASM members enjoy 20% off at checkout using the member promo code. 

Good Science, Bad Science and How to Make it Better With Fang and Casadevall