An Important Part of Science is Admitting When We’re Wrong

This post was originally published on here by staff writer Mary Beth Griggs.

This week started with a whole lot of people getting very angry about someone being wrong on the internet. This time, it was computer scientist Steven Salzberg, who wrote a blog post on Forbes arguing that people should start vaccinating now — phase 3 clinical trials had just started. They seemed to be going well. Why not start passing out doses to willing, informed volunteers?

Well, a whole bunch of reasons, most of which boil down to some variation of that’s what the trials are there for. The evidence that’s needed to move something into the third level of human testing is pretty high — but not high enough to justify use on the broader population, as biostatistician Natalie Dean pointed out in a New York Times rebuttal of the Forbes post.

“It’s just fundamentally wrong to think that because there’s an emergency, that we should somehow throw out aspects of scientific research,” Alex John London, director of the Center for Ethics and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University told Verge reporter Nicole Wetsman this week.

In fact, Wetsman writes, sticking to the process, gathering the evidence, and making sure the vaccine actually works is what makes the vaccines we have today so safe. There are some things we can speed up, but widely distributing untested vaccines would be reckless.

Hundreds of people showed up online to point out the error of Salzberg’s ways. But instead of this dissolving into drama, or fading into the background of new Twitter fights and controversies, something very different happened.

“I was wrong,” Salzberg wrote in a new Forbes post. “After reading many of the responses to my article, some of them outlining the risks in greater detail, I have concluded that (1) the risks are greater than I presented them, and (2) the benefits are not as great as I had thought.”

It’s always a better feeling to be right on the first try. Doing background research first and challenging your own biases can avoid screw-ups before they happen. But having the flexibility to admit that we were wrong, like Salzberg did, will serve us well as we head through the next phase of the pandemic.

Many of the things we thought at the start of the pandemic were wrong. Asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people can transmit the virus. The virus probably does spread through the air. There’s a whole lot more that we just don’t know yet. Everyone is learning about this new, world-altering virus in real time, and that means that sometimes we get lost, or head down dead ends, or want to speed ahead, if only to make the suffering stop.

Rigorous examination of evidence and beliefs is part of what makes the entire process of science work, and it’s what brings us back toward the truth, even when we veer away from it. There’s only so much we can do to speed up science — but by working together, we might be able to keep ourselves on the right track.

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