Scientific misinformation and disinformation are not only dangerous, they’re deadly. Over the past 15 months, the sheer volume of conflicting, confusing, and misleading information communicated during the pandemic demonstrated how scientific “facts” can be molded to advance personal agendas.
People outside the scientific community learned the hard way that science—at least sound science on which personal and policy decisions should be based—takes time to get right. It is a process of trial and error, and sometimes the most important lessons are embedded in those errors. In fact, the majority of scientific hypotheses are proven wrong.
Immediate answers to complex scientific questions are rare, and knee-jerk reactions to new knowledge are often misguided and can do more harm than good. In reality, definitive answers evolve as additional research is conducted, and the truth slowly reveals itself.
This tests our patience as individuals and as a nation. Americans tend to want answers now! Frustration with changing mask mandates, social distancing requirements, lockdowns, and treatment options boiled over from questions about medicine to political ideology. Trust in science and scientists was damaged.
But I am hopeful that damage was not irreparable. After all, the pandemic is ending and our lives are returning to something close to normal for one reason—science. The Covid vaccines are allowing us to unmask, hug friends and family, attend concerts and ballgames, to be human again. I don’t know that many of us realize what a scientific accomplishment this really is.
We should take a moment to ponder that. We’ve also highlighted a few other times when science “got it right” in a report on the Center’s website. From the eradication of deadly diseases to the supply of fresh produce in our grocery stores, science makes it all possible, and we take it for granted nearly every day.
One of the items discussed in our report is lead, a metal used by humans for over 4,000 years. It wasn’t until the 1950s that scientific researchers found lead to be dangerous to human health. The publication of landmark research papers from 1979 to 1996 inspired bans on the manufacturing of lead-based paint and leaded gasoline, as well as tighter regulatory restrictions on other uses of lead.
Thanks to scientific research, we also discovered there is no safe lead exposure level for children, as lead poisoning can lead to permanent brain damage. Researchers found nearly 90 percent of U.S. children in the 1970s had blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter (the “level of concern” under then-federal guidelines). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that number has dropped to two percent of U.S. children today, representing a major public health success story. And efforts continue to reduce that number to zero.
While the slow and steady nature of the scientific process can be frustrating, speed cannot supersede accuracy. For some of the examples in our report, whole centuries passed before sufficient research was conducted to save lives and make sound public policy, regulatory, and judicial decisions. We are getting better and faster at achieving this, but the process is not perfect and demands patience.
Think of it this way. It took more than 70 years since scientists discovered the health hazards of lead to nearly eliminating our exposure to the metal. And yet, it took only 15 months from identification of the Covid-19 virus to widespread vaccination of the American public. That is incredibly impressive.