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Elisabeth Marnik is an assistant professor of molecular biochemistry at Husson University.
On social media I see posts about scientists and medical professionals not knowing what they’re talking about in terms of COVID-19. I get the confusion — we are living in a difficult period of time and information is changing so rapidly. However, as a scientist myself, I think a lot of the general population just see the end product of a scientific study in terms of a media report and they don’t know the process to get there.
So, let us imagine that you are handed an envelope containing a fraction of the pieces for a specific puzzle. You have no idea what picture is on it, and no idea the total number of pieces. All you can do is take out the pieces you have and try to assemble them as best as you can.
Once you do, you realize you are missing many pieces and you aren’t quite sure you can determine what the puzzle is showing. However, you can start to formulate some educated guesses, but what you need are more puzzle pieces to be sure.
You eventually get handed another envelope and you can add these new pieces to the puzzle. You now have more pieces connected and can start to make better educated guesses about the picture on the puzzle. Perhaps you realize your first guess was wrong, or perhaps you realize you were right. Either way, you get closer to knowing the answer.
This is the process of science. Scientists are always trying to answer a specific question (e.g. how to cure, prevent or treat COVID-19) and to do so they conduct experiments that result in new data and findings (puzzle pieces). Scientists use this data to form new conclusions (guesses about the puzzle’s picture). Scientists are always conducting experiments and obtaining new findings, so these conclusions are always being updated and built upon.
Sometimes the new data confirm things we already suspected. Other times new data shows us that we were wrong. When that happens, we reevaluate all the information and form new conclusions based on all this information combined. The important thing to realize is that this does not mean that scientists don’t know anything, this just means that we don’t know everything. No one knows everything.
Before December 2019, no one knew anything about SARS-CoV-2 (the virus) or COVID-19 (the disease it causes). We are still learning as we go. Right now, scientists and medical professionals are giving out the best information currently available. These recommendations are based on new information being rapidly generated, as well as things already known.
For example, we know about other coronaviruses, we know how to help control infections and we know a lot about the immune system. However, since this is a novel virus, recommendations and conclusions will continue to change as more is learned.
At the beginning of this pandemic not that many people had been infected yet, so very little was known about COVID-19 specifically. As more people get sick, more is learned. These findings result in new knowledge and recommendations that might change previous findings. This does not mean scientists don’t know what we’re talking about or that what we say is not valuable or important. Normally, findings would be slower to be reported until scientists had more information. Since this is a global emergency, we have to work with the information currently available, and update once more is known.
Science is working to solve the puzzle of COVID-19, but for now some puzzle pieces are still missing. While we wait, we need to use what we do know about controlling infections to keep everyone safe. So please wash your hands, wear your masks, keep your distance and don’t touch your face. One day this puzzle will be solved, but for now we must work with what we know.