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Science in real time

Science centres are among Canadians’ most trusted sources for accurate, fact-based information. Therefore, it is imperative that science centres like The Exploration Place follow up-to-date, reliable science and communicate accurate information to the public. Although many scientists work on The Exploration Place’s team, there are no immunologists or epidemiologists among our ranks. However, scientists from other fields understand the scientific method and how to find accurate scientific information. Doing so is an absolute must when communicating science to the public.

We’ve been faced with a barrage of science over the past year and a half. We’ve heard about studies revealing more about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, studies on the effects of COVID-19 on the human body, PCR testing, studies leading to the development of COVID-19 vaccines, and studies on the safety and effectiveness of those vaccines. Scientists have made significant progress over this period, and we’ve all had a glimpse into how the process works as we watch science play out in real time. However, even despite the saturation of science in the media and our daily lives since early 2020, the average layperson may not have a solid understanding of the scientific method and how it actually functions. I’m sure we’ve all heard people in our lives complaining about how scientists have “flip-flopped” on their recommendations or how things we held as true a year ago have changed. This can be frustrating, but it doesn’t mean scientists don’t know what they’re doing or that they’re lying to the public. Instead, it means that science is working the exact way it was designed to.

The speed with which SARS-CoV-2 became a global pandemic, and the way it continues to rapidly spread all over the world, are the reasons we have had this insight into parts of the scientific process that usually remain behind the scenes. During a pandemic, things often move too quickly for important processes like peer review. When research is evaluated by one or more peers, peer review functions as a form of self-regulation by qualified scientists in the relevant field and is essential to maintain quality standards and establish credibility.

At the end of the day, the scientific method is largely self-correcting. Good results are separated from bad fairly quickly. Reliable studies are those that are peer reviewed and those that other scientists can replicate. However, a global pandemic doesn’t always allow for self-correcting processes, as they can slow down the dissemination of critical information. Researchers also don’t always choose to replicate reliable studies as the demand for answers to other questions is so high.

As well, as a result of the pandemic, many of the studies we may hear about in the media are “preprint” studies, meaning they have not yet been peer reviewed. Preprints can be valuable, and most will eventually pass the peer review process. But sometimes, preprints can contain inaccurate information if the research was not performed correctly or ethically. Due to the urgency of sharing information during a pandemic, as well as the public’s surging interest in science, this information reaches us anyway. Unfortunately, this can lead to misunderstanding of the results by the media and its consumers, or (even worse) the manipulation of the data and its conclusions by those who seek to disinform the public about the virus, the vaccines, or potential treatments. This disinformation and misinformation target uncertainty and can cause harm.

Scientific studies or reviews are largely written for other scientists to analyze and interpret. They are often not written in plain language that is easy for non-scientists to understand. Accessibility of scientific data is imperative right now, and many initiatives are underway to explain scientific studies and concepts in plain language. One of these projects is the Canadian ScienceUpFirst initiative. ScienceUpFirst works with a collective of independent scientists, researchers, health care experts, and science communicators to share the best available science in understandable and creative ways to help stop the spread of misinformation. Follow them on your favourite social media channels or search the hashtag #ScienceUpFirst to view and share expert-vetted posts.

It’s also important to know how to see if a study was performed correctly. For example, checking sample size, the researchers’ credentials, how the study was funded, how the data was collected, or whether the data can be generalized are all ways to check for credibility. For instance, a preprint study conducted out of Egypt espousing the effectiveness of the antiparasitic drug ivermectin for COVID-19 was just withdrawn and is being investigated due to ethical concerns, including plagiarism, protocol, and fudging the numbers when irregularities were noticed and reported to the preprint server’s staff (https://www.researchsquare.com/article/rs-100956/v4). Yet, the damage from this study was done long before it was taken down, as many people all over the world now believe ivermectin is safe and effective when taken to treat COVID-19. The reality is that ivermectin is intended to treat parasites such as roundworm, not COVID-19. Research has not supported its effectiveness when used in this way. It can also be very dangerous when taken in improper amounts or for purposes not listed on its label.

Everyone has confirmation biases, even scientists. However, confirmation biases are ruled out quickly and easily when doing actual scientific research. The research process involves compiling literature reviews, writing abstracts, collecting random samples of sources, and performing independent probability statistics. Researchers then scrutinize each source, look into the author, the publisher, and the funder, and then critique the writing for logical fallacies, distortions, and inaccuracies. Research then goes through institutional review boards, independent ethics committees, and ethical review boards. It is also subject to peer review and meta-analyses. While skepticism is important, researching and determining what is true means using our critical thinking skills and eliminating our biases as much as possible.

So why have scientists and public health officials seemingly changed their minds on so many things regarding COVID-19? For one, all of us, even scientists, are learning about this virus as we go. COVID-19 is a novel virus, meaning no one had ever seen it before. Scientists have learned a lot over 18 months and are still learning more every day. When new information comes about, sometimes recommendations must evolve.

Ultimately, good science actually requires some flip-flopping. In any study, researchers enter their inquiry with a hypothesis, a preconceived “guess” of what they think the results will be. The goal is to generate data that either support the hypothesis or not while learning more along the way. Even if the data shows the hypothesis to be wrong, new knowledge has been gained. If scientists were to cling to their ideologies, never being open to learning new ideas, science just wouldn’t work. If that was the case, we might still think the earth is flat (it isn’t), that smoking isn’t bad for you (it is), or that alchemy is possible (nope). However, being open to new information, whether gained because of innovation in equipment or improvement in methods, often results in the evolution of science and the conclusion that what we once thought was true no longer seems likely.

Steer clear of anyone who ever claims that a study has absolutely “proven” or “disproven” anything. This is why you hear scientists using words such as “likely,” “suggests,” “supports,” or “probably.” No one study can ever categorically prove anything, and even concepts like gravity are still only theories, not laws. We must all be open to the possibility that new information has changed what we thought we knew and that what we currently believe to be true could be shown to be otherwise in the future. What we can trust is the scientific consensus—that is, when the majority of credible, reliable scientists in that particular field come to similar conclusions. This is not collusion by scientists to discredit the small minority that disagrees in order to hide the truth from the public. This is a general agreement to guide us towards objectivity and remove personal biases from scientific research. When the collective opinion of the scientific community informs our response, we can be confident the science is sound.

Yes, media, all media, interprets scientific data in their own way and may sometimes report it in a biased manner. This is why it is not only important to always thoroughly check your sources of information for reliability but also to consume a wide variety of media. In a similar way that the scientific consensus tells us what data is trustworthy, if most reputable media outlets are reporting the same or similar information in the same or similar ways, we can likely trust that the information is correct. If the fringe theories are indeed the correct ones, do not fear. Researchers will see the same results coming out of more and more studies and will be sure to look into them, using any relevant data to enlighten the process as they work to bring us to the other side of this pandemic.

To learn more about The Exploration Place, including the Living Evolution renovation project, reopening dates, and memberships, visit our website at www.theexplorationplace.com.

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