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Friday, October 30, 2020

What we know, what we do not know: Science, anti-science


A well-educated person commented recently that we do not know anything about this corona virus which is causing so much havoc. I said: “No, no, we do know lot about this virus; but we also do not know many aspects about how it affects human body, why some get it and some do not and what it will do in the future. That does not mean we do not know anything.”  She said:  “they make too much of this virus”. It was obvious that this was getting to be a political view of the matter and so I did not pursue.

It is amazing that educated people develop their views on the basis of what they hear repeatedly on the channel they watch on TV or the social media “bubble” they are part of. Ever since the cigarette companies started making “doubt” a central piece of their advertising strategy, several groups have taken up that approach to challenge anything they do not like or want to cast a doubt on.  With the advent of social media, it has become easy to spread false claims and alternate theories. Wordsmiths and persuasive psychologists use visual and audio aides to spread these false and unsupported claims. What is worse, these false claims and rumors demand equal attention – attention equal to what is given to facts and properly obtained evidence.

It is generally wise to act on the basis of what we know and not on what we do not know. It is more likely to be beneficial. As long as human knowledge was limited in its understanding of virus infections such as smallpox and polio, millions of lives were lost. Millions suffered life-ling disabilities. Both these diseases are part of history, thanks to science. Civilization took several millennia to reach that stage.

Within a few months of recognizing this novel corona virus, its genome sequence was identified, and several vaccines are getting ready, thanks to scientific methods and other advances. How can anyone say that we do not know anything about this virus? How can anyone say that this is all exaggeration after we have lost so many million lives to this virus?

I am amazed that a country which built enormous intellectual stature by following scientific methods and gave so many advances to mankind has fallen to such low level. Sometimes I wonder what the next decade is going to look like, particularly if the anti-intellectuals, non-believers, and conspiracy theorists win the information war. That is not a baseless worry. I read that 12 states in the US are discussing anti-science education in their legislatures!

I wish everyone, particularly political leaders and policy makers read two classic papers which set the tone for all the advances we have seen in the US over the past several decades.

The first is a report to President Harry Truman by Mr. Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1945. This report  ( was in response to a set of questions President Roosevelt asked. One question was “What can the Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?” The report, entitled Science: The Endless Frontier includes the following statement: “ Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world”. 

The other is a small monograph entitled The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge. This book is important at this time when the push is for immediate practical application at the expense of fundamental, basic research. This was written by the famous Prof. Abraham Flexner, who reorganized the entire medical education and practice in this country with his now famous Flexner Report. He also founded the Institute for Advanced Study at the Princeton University. This monograph is available now in a new version with an introduction by Robbert Dijkgraaf. (Princeton University Press, 2017).

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