Limits of science

As the search for the magic bullet that will stop the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues and the global death toll from COVID-19 climbs ever upward, it’s time to talk science.

The good news is that science has been slowly winning the war against the pandemic.

As the number of cases steadily rises, the odds of survival are improving even more significantly. More than 12.1 million people have now suffered through the disease brought on by SARS-CoV-2, according to the Worldometer tracker , and nearly 11.5 million have survived.

As of today, 94 percent of the people whose cases have been resolved are alive.

When the pandemic began, the survival percentage was down in the mid-80s. Some of the increase in survival rate is likely due to more testing uncovering more of the less serious cases, but there is little doubt that doctors have gotten a better handle on how to treat severe COVID-19.

The bads news is that a vaccine to prevent the disease is months away, never to be found, or expected to be of limited use, all depending largely on the hopes of who is talking.

And this pretty much defines science, which answers few questions in the short term but provides a path to answer many questions over time.

A long, winding road

COVID-19 is underlining both science’s strengths and its weaknesses.

As science exists in the moment, it is scoring big marks for adaptively managing medical treatments and finding effective uses for old drugs. Modern science has become highly skilled in this regard.

Properly conducted, randomized controlled trials (RCTs), sometimes also referred to as randomized clinical trials, are very good at sorting out which chemicals work to fight disease and which don’t even if the researchers can’t always figure out how the drugs work.

RCTs have become the gold standard for managing the “placebo effect,” which can appear to make some drugs effective even if the effect is really in someone’s head. The placecbo effect is the ultimate in humans believing what they want to believe even if the scientific evidence is lacking.

President Donald Trump’s favorite drugs – the old malaria treatments hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine – are a case in point here. Some early observational studies appeared to indicate these could help treat COVID-19; some later studies indicated the drug could cause deadly heart problems.

A later randomized clinical trial concluded both of those observations were wrong.

“The trial results, which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, determined that hydroxychloroquine was not able to prevent the development of COVID-19 any better than a placebo. Further, 40 percent of trial participants taking hydroxychloroquine developed non-serious side effects – predominantly nausea, upset stomach or diarrhea. However, the trial found no serious side effects or cardiac complications from taking hydroxychloroquine,” reported the University of Minnesota, which led that RCT.

Trump, however, continues to believe in hydroxycholoroquine because some doctors still believe in hydroxycholorquine, and it is possible that a future RCT might ferret out some benefit to the drug.

That sort of thing has happened before, which is why the use of the meta-analysis to look at the conclusions of many studies began trending in science decades ago.

“Since the term and modern approaches to research synthesis were first introduced in the 1970s, meta-analysis has had a revolutionary effect in many scientific fields, helping to establish evidence-based practice and to resolve seemingly contradictory research outcomes,” scientists tracking its 40-year history observed in Nature in 2018. “At the same time, its implementation has engendered criticism and controversy, in some cases general and others specific to particular disciplines.”

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Disagreeing is fundamental

Almost everything in science spark pushback because science is more about questions than about answers. By its very nature, it questions everything because so few things prove definitive over time.

Once the smallest particle of matter known to man was dust, and then along came Robert Boyle in 1661 with a hypothesis suggesting clusters of far smaller “particles” creating what he hypothesized to be “corpuscles,”  or what we now call molecules.

What followed were ever smaller particles of matter: the atom, the electrons spinning around the atom, then quarks and leptons, and the hunt continues for ever smaller particles because that’s what science does.

It is a search for answers destined to spawn more questions.

Still, most Americans believe in science, and why wouldn’t they?

Science helped the United States become a world power and more. Science drove the engines of commerce that helped win the war to save the world from the Axis powers.

Science built the bomb that finally brought that war to an end and in the process created the fear of mutually assured destruction that has kept the globe free of another world war since 1945.

Science put a man in space and men on the moon, and in the process spun off much of the technology that makes modern life so easy and comfortable that were someone from the early 1900s to come back to life tomorrow he or she wouldn’t recognize these United States.

On the journey from then until now, the country has also become in many ways a technocracy. As a society, we’ve forfeited a lot of our decision making to “experts” because we’ve become conditioned to want the help of experts and then to need the help of experts.

Few people today can fix many, if any, of the things on which their lives depend.

If the computer on which this is being read goes down in the middle of the story and the problem isn’t solved with a simple reboot, most people will be done reading until they find a good tech.

The situation is much the same if their motor vehicle of choice fails or most anything else goes kaput. Most Americans today are helpless without experts.

We have in some ways become hostage to them. Many people can’t even train a dog. They need an expert.

Truths, likelihoods and beliefs

These are the people who in the midst of this pandemic crisis chant “listen to the scientists” with little understanding of the weaknesses of science most especially in the short term.

Science is not geared toward fixing today’s problem on the morrow. The science of the moment is to scientific knowledge what journalism is to history – the first, rough draft.

The only truly definitive things science knows about SARS-CoV-2 today are based on what knowledge was accumulated through 100 years of the study of infectious diseases:

  • Viruses spread most easily from person to person, and if you keep people apart you can slow or stop their spread.
  • Good hygiene kills “germs,” and dead germs can’t spread disease.
  • Animals (and humans are animals) develop anti-bodies against disease, and once enough of them develop anti-bodies, you get what is called “herd immunity.”

The theory of herd immunity is credited to British researchers, William Topley and Graham Wilson, who in 1923 recognized that when a certain number of mice were vaccinated against a bacteria the spread of the bacteria through the mouse population slowed and eventually ended.

Their conclusion was that once a population of animals contained enough members resistant to an infectious disease, the disease would be unable to spread for lack of available hosts.

There is a big debate about herd immunity now because of some studies indicating COVID-19 specific antibodies don’t last long. Of course, there are also studies arguing those antibodies hang on for quite some time or program our so-called “T cells,” which organize the bodies defenses against disease, to battle SAR-CoV-2 – the COVID-19 causing virus – for an unknown length of time.

How this all plays out has major implications for how the virus circulates through the global population in the future with or without a vaccine.

Who knows, it might even restart the debate Topley and Wilson are crediting with ending when they published their work on herd immunity. Up until then the scientists had been arguing over how and why epidemics end.

“This controversy was between those who believed that epidemics terminated because of changes in the properties of the infectious agent (e.g., loss of ‘virulence’ resulting from serial passage) and those
who argued that it reflected the dynamics of the interaction between susceptible, infected, and immune segments of the population,” Paul E.M. Fines wrote in a history for Epidemiologic Reviews decades ago. “Each argument was supported by observations and by mathematical reasoning. It was the latter explanation that won the day; and its simple mathematical
formulation, the ‘mass action principle,’ which has become a cornerstone of epidemiologic theory, provides one of the simplest logical arguments for indirect protection by herd immunity.”

Despite the massive spread of SARS-CoV-2 around the globe today, there have been no suggestions of any country coming anywhere close to achieving the number of infected individuals, generally considered somewhere above 50 percent and possibly as high as 70 percent, necessary to reach herd immunity.

The big experiment

Sweden has been widely criticized for following a more liberal response to COVID-19 and gambling on herd immunity. Swedes were told to social distance, and limits were put on the size of public gatherings. But in general Swedes went on living their lives, albeit a bit more cautiously.

Almost 6,000 Swedes are now reported dead of COVID-19, and there has been much talk of the death rate of almost 57 per 100,000 residents in that country.

“Sweden hoped herd immunity would curb COVID-19. Don’t do what we did. It’s not working,” USA Today headlined a commentary on Sweden a couple of weeks ago. 

“Sweden has also created interest around the world by following its own path of using a “soft” approach — not locking down, introducing mostly voluntary restrictions and spurning the use of masks,” the Swedish scientists who signed onto that commentary wrote.

“It is possible that the Public Health Authority actually believed that the Swedish approach was the most appropriate and sustainable one, and that the other countries, many of which went into lockdown, would do worse. Perhaps this, and not herd immunity, is the main reason the authorities are desperately clinging to their strategy. Or perhaps an unwillingness to admit early mistakes and take responsibility for thousands of unnecessary deaths plays into this resistance to change. Nevertheless, the result at this stage is unequivocal.”

Since then, however, the situation has changed in Sweden. While the U.S. and some other countries have experienced a rising, second wave of COVID-19 deaths, daily deaths from COVID-19 in Sweden have continued a downward trend that started in late April.

The number of new infections has not fallen nearly as fast as the death rate, but most interesting is that the number of serious cases – those forcing people into intensive care units (ICU) as doctors try to save them – have flatlined. 

Since July 24, Sweden reports the admission of only six people to UCIs despite reported new infection rates lingering at 200 to 300 people for most of July.

What does it mean?

In the short term, Swedish national epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, the man at the eye of the storm hammering that nation’s COVID-19 policy, has argued it mainly means Sweden is doing more testing and catching more of the less serious cases.

In the long term, who knows. Sweden has asked those who can to continue working from home through the end of the year to stem the spread of the virus, reported Radio Sweden.

But Tegnell has also sounded optimistic. At the end of July, he dismissed the need for new measures to stem the pandemic in Sweden calling such measures “not necessary.”

Masked Vikings?

“Asked if he prefers waiting for a potential negative trend, i.e. a spike in cases, before considering new measures, Tegnell said: ‘I think that’s what you normally do and the reason why so many countries have started with face masks is because they’ve taken away other measures and then you need to do something more,’ Tegnell said. ‘If you don’t want to have a complete lockdown, go for face masks instead. Sweden is not there.”’

Masks have now been ordered in public places in many U.S. states where infections are on the rise, and masks are helping to add fuel to the country’s raging political tribalism given scientific disagreement as to their significance.

Apparently, the U.S. is not alone.

“Masking lack of evidence with politics” is how the directors of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at England’s Oxford University headlined their analysis of an issue driving “increasing polarised and politicised views.”

Some studies have concluded masks can make a big difference. Others have questioned that conclusion.

Researchers from John Hopkins School of Medicine who drilled down into the behavior of Maryland residents concluded the big risk is close interactions between people. They could find no statistical significance to masking and noted that “collection of data related to mask use is nuanced as there are several factors that can affect the efficacy of masks that are challenging to collect via this online format such as fit, type of mask,
frequency of touching/adjusting mask, etc.”

It also depends on how one crunches the numbers.

“In sensitivity analyses that restricted analyses to recent mask use and recent SARS-CoV-2 infection,” they reported, “consistent indoor mask use was significantly associated with a lower likelihood of infection.”

Their work was published on the MedRxiv preprint server and was not peer-reviewed as is the case for much of the science being published now. The floodgates have opened, and the confusing and convoluted path that science winds on its way to finding answers has been exposed.

It takes a considerable amount of time and a lot of effort to turn the unknown into the known. And in the interim, public policy stumbles on.

National, state and local leaders make decisions on science that might seem largely right today, largely wrong tomorrow, and sure to be second-guessed if the outcome is less than perfect.

And overlaying all of this is the politics of the moment. Some people now have so much faith in public masking – though there is no science to truly prove you should have much faith in public masking at all – that they believe anyone who isn’t wearing a mask is trying to kill them.

Norwegian scientists – who like most government scientists do not subject their work to peer review – calculated the odds of that as pretty low.

Risk assessment

“Given the low prevalence of COVID-19 currently (in Norway), even if facemasks are assumed to be effective, the difference in infection rates between using facemasks and not using facemasks would be small,” they reported in a rapid review. “Assuming that 20 percent of people infectious with SARS-CoV-2 do not have symptoms, and assuming a risk reduction of 40 person for wearing a facemask, 200,000 people would need to wear facemasks to prevent one new infection per week in the current epidemiological situation.”

They offered no details on how they arrived at that conclusion, and Norway is somewhat unique in that it has kept its infection rate fairly low with an emphasis on social distancing and an aggressive program of testing, tracing and isolation of those suffering from COVID-19. 

Its death rate of 4.7 per 100,000 is among the lowest in Europe. Poland is at 4.6. The U.S. is ten times worse at 47.8. 

The state of New Jersey is an order of magnitude worse at 179.2 per 100,000; and the state of New York is close to that at 168.5 per 100,000. Masks are standard apparel in both states.

Both states are also densely populated and depend heavily on mass transit to move people. Both of those are problems in the current situation, the John Hopkins researchers concluded.

“The more people move the more likely they are to test positive for SARS-CoV-2,” they reported. “If you must travel, practice social distancing as it reduces the likelihood of testing positive.

“Avoid public transport to the extent possible.”

Alaska – a state in which it is pretty easy to social distance (if not totally isolate) and where there is almost no public transport – has a death rate of 3.3 per 100,000. Wyoming, which is similar, has a death rate of 4.5 per 100,000.

Both are doing better than Norway, which is widely considered to be doing very good in fending off the pandemic. But maybe it’s just luck.

A lot of studies are starting to suggest demographic factors largely beyond government control – population density, the number of old people in the population, the general movement of people between homes and jobs, the general health of the population, socioeconomic status and more – could turn out to be the big determinant factors in how deadly the pandemic from country to country and state to state.

Only time will tell if that is the case because that’s what science requires. What we know today in the fluidity of the movement might be proven to be largely wrong when everything is sorted in the future.

As scientists from the U.S. universities of Stanford and Northwestern, and Australia’s University of Sydney warned their colleagues in a study titled “A Tale of Two Models,” congratulating “ourselves on our decision to implement lockdown, citing the number of lives that were saved, we should resist this temptation, and examine other possible explanations. Failure to do this and therefore misattribute causation could mean we fail to find the optimal solution to this very challenging and complex problem, given that complete lockdown can also have many adverse consequences.

“Observational data need to be dissected very carefully and substantial uncertainty may remain even with the best modeling.  Regardless, causal interpretations from models that are not robust should be avoided. Given the analyses that we have performed using the two models that the Imperial College (of England) team has developed, one cannot exclude that the attribution of benefit to complete lockdown is a modeling

Science: it’s a messy and complicated business.



























17 replies »

    • Yes, I know. But the maskers would tell you that is influenza and this is SARS-CoV-2, and given the situation, any action government believes has a possibility might make a difference should be instituted.

      My personal worry is that masking could be making things worse. We really don’t know much about fomite transmission of SARS-CoV-2, but from what I’ve seen peoples’ hands are now all over their masks all the time.

      I saw a guy take his off in the parking lot of Lowe’s the other day, use it to blow his nose, and then stuff it back in his pocket. If there was any SARS-CoV-2 in that snot, it easily could have jumped to his hands, and then he could have spread it anywhere.

      Fomites would nicely explain the cases that appear to pop up from nowhere: “I’ve been so careful,” Warbasse said. “…I didn’t leave the house except to train. I only went to the grocery store once. It’s strange. I have no clue where I might have gotten it.”

  1. Funny how all those climate deniers who reject 98% of scientists that state fossil fuel use is warming our planet are also the first old timers to strap on a mask as soon as they leave their homes because “science proves they help stop the spread of the virus”?
    “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”. – Voltaire

    • Steve, my personal observation is just the opposite. Those folks I know who are most resistant to wearing a mask are also those who either vehemently deny climate change or deny that climate change is due to human activity.

    • good point monk . You shouldn’t read information presented by Mr Medred because it might confuse your fantasy land narrative with viable knowledge. We cant have that can we? You’d be so confused. Definitely -in your case stick with reading the daily beast and John oliveer , keep it simple and foolish . Monk said – “ dont confuse me with the facts ! Because this is the story im telling!”

  2. Please take a look at this YouTube clip before they ban it. Funny how this 75yo video explains what is going on with the virus, BLM and ANTIFA. You will see they are all related.
    “Color Communism and Common Sense list history”. Type it in Youtube if you do not trust the link.

    • Surprisingly accurate video. Only glaring miscalculation is bringing America to its knees in 90 days .

  3. Another article that provides no useful information and lots of speculation. You imply those who say follow the science do not understand the limits of science. What data do you have to support that conclusion? None. Maybe those who say follow the science know exactly the limitations and doing a risk analysis have charted their course of action. What do you follow if not the science? Articles interpreted by journalists who have no medical training or who are selective in extracting data? In your article you keep quoting the death rate in New York which happened at the start of the pandemic before actions were taken – what is it today? You quote Sweden which is a culture totally different that the United States and again are selective in what data you use. You ignore time and the learning curve. You also use death rates when in fact the measure of how effective something is a combination of factors and the papers you cite are not peer reviewed. Also they are dated. One has to look at the empirical data on the ground. The United States did not follow CDC guidelines and look what happened? You tend to ignore Texas, Florida, Arizona, California, and now the rise in the more rural parts of the country. All CDC measures should be followed and that is following the science. Masks may be a small percentage of the effectiveness of stopping the virus but it has an effect. Why should anyone ignore the health experts for every state that say wear a mask in public? They are not basing that on speculation but on their years of experience and expertise. What cost is there to the public – none except in some rare cases. Wearing a mask may be uncomfortable but the risk of this pandemic far outweighs that concern. So what was the purpose of your article? To provide an argument for those who oppose mask wearing? To confuse people more on whether to follow their health experts? One thing a scientist looks for are errors of omission in a study or article. In you case you focus on death rates and omit the long term impacts of this virus on health of individuals who survive. You ignore the hospitalization rates increasing in States that opened up sooner than later? You ignore the impact on the ability of our health care system to deal with ICU’s that are full and turning people away. Given what is happening in this country health experts are looking for anything to slow this virus down as the costs are too high both medically and economically. If one is not safe they are not going to return to normal activities. The airline industry is seeing that today. People can fly – they are not because of the risk of infection and knowing people will not social distance and wear a mask in the airports. Same with with eating places and public events. Right now wearing a mask and following the other CDC guidelines are the best route to go. Finally what if studies that are peer reviewed show masks are very effective? Not sure you looked for those which is another omission. However, what if they are? Look at the cost of not wearing one vs. of wearing one? The balance right now favors wearing a mask just based on risk.

    • I don’t think that Medred claims expert status about Covid 19. His pieces contain opinions and thought provoking commentary. And like all reporters and opinion writers they get to pick what they think is relevant. And it is pretty challenging to be factual accurate now days because of how divided experts are. And it seems that one’s politics now strongly dictates how they view the issue.
      There is an argument that suggests that it financially benefits some economic or political agendas to claim the sky is falling. Others claim it is no worse than other diseases or other things that hurt or kill us on a regular basis.
      It is interesting that this country’s infections seem to have maintained close to the same ratio to world wide infections over the past three months. Same with the ratio of deaths. And while some countries were doing better most are now experiencing increased rates.

      What were we told? Masks were considered unnecessary by experts and now are considered just the opposite. We were told that if you touched a metal object within 48 hrs that had the virus In It you would get infected. That has been debunked. Gloves were among things that would protect us. Now, not so.

      Imo we still know little about this virus. And certainly not how to stop it from spreading. But does that mean we need to shut down the economy or schools? We don’t stop driving even though we know it kills and hurts hundreds of thousands each year. We don’t stop use of alcohol consumption even though we know it has devastating consequence in many ways. We don’t shut economies because of seasonal flu even though it kills hundreds of thousand and is transmitted easily.

      Some will argue that we should let this virus run its course until we get herd immunity or a vaccine. Kind of like a Darwin approach. Many “experts” claim that the collateral damage is that will occur with the collapse of the economy worldwide has far greater negative impacts to the lives of humans than does the virus.
      So, who is right Ken. I think” follow the money “ or examine the political outcomes is a good place to start.

      • That’s the thing about a novel disease, it’s new and we don’t know much if anything about it. What are the long term effects…we don’t know we have 8-9 months of data on this disease. History can teach us somethings if we know it or learn it. The last great historical global pandemic has a lot of lessons, if we care to use and learn from them. Social distancing was employed, schools were closed, people wore masks, sporting events and large gatherings were shutdown…basically everything we are doing now was done before, even this social unrest involved with it. About the only difference is there was a World War going on during the last pandemic, oh and now we have the internet and should be able to learn from passed events…if only we care to.

    • “So what was the purpose of your article?” Tarbox, it’s always the same: To give the appearance of being someone smarter than he is.

      • Monk , Take your seat next to Tarbox ,your free ticket has been received,the train is getting started on your trip to candy land . Your special chocolates are waiting .

    • Kennth E Tarbox – Another commentor who provides useless empty words with lots of speculation and inability to comprehend a written article. Mr. Tarbox do you have anything enlightening to present or are you stuck worshipping the common narratives that keep the sheep satisfied as they ride the boxcar to their own slaughter. Keep it up and become complicit in humanity’s demise . You will soon rise to a seat of great honor at the forefront of the train . Put on your conductors hat 🎩

    • That Craig questions the effectiveness of masks is troublesome. He haphazardly cherrypicks from various sources to render the article more confusing than illuminating. Case in point – “Where Now?”

      • Of course, it is confusing, Michael. That is the point.

        Science seldom delivers black and white, most especially in the near term. It’s invariably 50 shades of gray.

        So don’t try to bully me with nonsense about Craig not being enough of a mask advocate. I’ll leave it to Michael Osterholm to defend my basic position:

        For all we know at this point, masks may make the situation better, do nothing, or make it worse. The two 30-something women I encountered in the local Carrs hugging because they apparently hadn’t seen each other for a while would make the case for the latter.

        I couldn’t keep my mouth shut and suggested to them that “you know that hugging probably isn’t a good idea given the situation.”

        They corrected me: “Oh, it’s OK. We have our masks on.”

        Ah yes, the masks magically collect all viruses and vaporize them. That’s why no one in health care anywhere in the world has caught the disease, right? Oh wait, they have.

        If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. Wear it all you want. I wear one as little as possible and only to make others feel comfortable. But I’d suggest you put yours on and never take it off except to swap it for another mask. That would make me feel much safer.

  4. Why does no one in the media up here research any of the events and documents that have led up to this current “plandemic”?
    These documents are all public knowledge.
    From the Rockefeller “Lockstep” document released in 2010 along with the UN’s agenda of 2030 in correlation with John’s Hopkin’s “Event 201” that was organized in NYC back in 2019.
    This coordinated response to a virus was planned and prepared for years…think folks, all of this did not just happen over night, it is an orchestrated response to a dismantling of society as we know it and changing our behavior & travel ways for years to come…if not indefinitely?
    What we are seeing is a complete manipulation of the annual deaths in America along with a constant fear campaign from media providers across the board.
    The lockdowns have caused the U.S. GDP to crash and loose 1/3 of it’s total production…more than ever in the history of our country?
    Think about the world players who will benefit from this loss of American trade and power.
    The China model is being pushed upon us…first are masks and social distancing. Next came travel restrictions and mandatory testing to travel. Next will come a mandatory vaccine and travel “passports” that declare immunity. This was never the American way of life and goes against everything our grandfathers fought so hard for.
    Here is a link to last year’s table top event that was hosted by the John’s Hopkins center in NYC.
    The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation was a key supporter and participator at the event along with the CDC, Marriott and several other key players from around the globe.
    Everything was discussed at this round table event right down to the civil unrest that would come out of the “Lockdown” phase, right up to the housing of federal agents (in Marriott hotels) across the nation?

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