Scientific data and Covid-19

Please see this article from a new science journal called Patterns that deals with “big data” in the sciences. While technical, it points out the essential need to have good data in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and gives many links to other scientific articles. Here I quote two sentences from the article that make a very important point, with which I as a scientist agree: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that all models are wrong but some are useful. Data science is needed to not only develop the models but also to determine in which ways they’re wrong and which ways they’re useful because the results of these models will inform, along with data, the decisions that are made to combat the spread of this pandemic.”

In other words, to make good decisions, we need good well-attested facts, and good assumptions about how to let the facts (data) inform wise decisions, which will always require fallible human judgment. No model is sufficient to fully capture reality, but some models can get much closer than others and are much more trustworthy and worthwhile. Some models give important qualitative insights, others can give quantitative expectations. Some are simply wrong. But no model can be any better than the assumptions and data on which it is based. Thus, the need for getting good data regarding the multifaceted medical, scientific, and social/economic aspects of Covid-19. The lives and livelihoods of literally millions of people are at stake, and we need accurate facts and data on which to base decisions that have widespread impact.

Now to get to my own thinking. It becomes tragic if we “politicize” thinking about the pandemic, and go to “ad hominem” arguments (known to be inherently fallacious from the time of Aristotle), whether these come from the political “left” or “right” or anywhere in between. I identify with no political “party.” “Political polarization” is singularly unhelpful and destructive. We need to come together to fight a serious disease based on the best information we can put together on it. A virus particle has no knowledge of “politics” and will impose its own reality upon us in its ways if we do not respect the actual facts about its nature and impact, based on real, verifiable data. Part of the problem, as the article rightly notes, is that we do not have all the data we need yet. Although we have much data, what we know points to many open questions still to be answered. Science can help pose and answer open questions.

No amount of “wishful thinking” or recourse to inherently unverifiable “conspiracy theories” will make the disease go away. This is a deadly and serious pandemic. Fact-based mitigation can lessen its impact, and mitigation needs to be based on the best facts and models we can get, not on figments of an overstimulated imagination. Seek sober facts together, not angry blame apart, and try to help each other fight this thing well! May we bring out the best and not the worst of our humanity in confronting a threat to us all.