I’d like to introduce you to the virus that spent two weeks occupying my head and my lungs, forcing me to stay home and to avoid breathing the same air as my family. Its name is L452R and it is a mutation of the B.1.617.2 variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The World Health Organization (WHO) refers to this variant as Delta. It was first identified by scientists in India and its attributes include “increased transmissibility” and “reduction in neutralization by post-vaccination sera.” That is, two shots of vaccine are not always enough to keep it out of one’s body. I’m living proof.
This image is from an article by Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta, illustrating binding of the mutated spike protein to the surface of, say, my lung. Dr. Dutta is one of a large number of scientists around the world who have studied and sought solutions for this terrible pandemic caused by COVID-19. This past week, Time Magazine named Kizzmekia Corbett, Barney Graham, Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman “2021 Heroes of the Year” for their research into mRNA and the fast development of highly effective vaccines.
My Delta case, while somewhat annoying, was relatively mild. A few weeks later, I still have a rough voice and an occasional cough, but I am no longer contagious, back at work and feeling fine. I know I owe this to the vaccine. Without it, my condition could easily have been much worse, possibly fatal. Such has been the case for those who chose to forego a vaccine or who did not have access to one.
We are all fortunate these heroes had been studying SARS-type viruses for years before the pandemic hit. As a result, they were able to find solutions and make them accessible in record time. And, thanks to them, we now have the means to protect everyone on our planet. Yet, despite the clear and growing evidence, there are still those who choose not to take it and/or those who tell others not to.
These antiheroes are a mixed bag. Some profit from the suffering, gaining finance and fame by sowing fear and selling false solutions. Others see this as political opportunity, using the pandemic to create confusion and division. But most are those who have simply been duped by the others and truly believe they should avoid the vaccine.
If we want to return to normal, we need to address the concerns of this last group, and that’s not easy. Some are friends or family, others are political adversaries, still others are famous politicians, musicians, comedians and athletes, who really ought to have had the time and resources to know better. Seeing them spread lies to millions of others, often at the cost of lives, is painful and frustrating. But that only makes the cause more urgent. How do we stop the pandemic of lies? Can we?
Economists know the shortcomings of supply-side solutions. For every influencer we remove from the public limelight, shutting down their business or banning them from social media, more will appear. Each learns from their predecessors the loopholes that allow them to carry on. That is, the pathogen mutates, spreads and gets harder to stop.
Much like our scientist heroes, we need to find a way to reduce our susceptibility to these lies by identifying and rejecting them when they appear. Vaccines succeed at this by producing antibodies and training certain cells (T-Cells) to produce antibodies when they are needed. Interestingly, a similar mechanism can be found in science education.
I currently have the privilege to co-chair the International Particle Physics Outreach Group (IPPOG), a worldwide network of scientists, educators and communicators. Each year, we visit classrooms and invite students to our institutes to discuss science and the processes we use to measure and discover. While the specific goal of particle physics is to understand the building blocks of the universe, our methods are common to all science. We measure, we pose questions, we remeasure, we analyze, and we report our findings.
The advantage of coming into the classroom as a researcher, and not as a formal teacher, is that we can focus attention on exploration and the process of discovery. As we are currently involved in active experiments, occasionally featured by the media, this grabs the attention of the students and frees them to explore their own curiosity with us.
Arguably the most important lesson we bring to their desktop is that of the inherent messiness of our work. Unlike rolling a ball down a ramp, what they measure does not always fit pre-supposed hypotheses. Sometimes two oppositely charged particles will have been produced by the decay of another. Sometimes they won’t. All they can do is calculate the mass of the particle they might have come from and look for a peak. There is signal, there is background and there is uncertainty.
This echoes our understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those world leaders who have chosen to protect their populations by following the science have made an important, but politically challenging decision. Science is messy. It naturally changes as the data grows and trends evolve. That can be due to increased precision of the results or because new evidence indicates the situation warrants different action.
Yet, politics prefers a straight path. A leader sets policy and is expected to stick to her decisions. Constituents unfamiliar with the circumstances or hosting alternative motives are unhappy when changes are made. This rigidity leads to tribal entrenchment, creates division and blinds us from reality, even when it is in front of our eyes.
Students learning to appreciate scientific process are more likely to understand and adapt to change. They have seen anomalies appear and disappear in their data, and have learned that the significance of a signal depends on the circumstances. These students will tend to tolerate policy adjustment and elect officials who make decisions grounded in reality. They are also more likely to be able to identify the lies and conspiracy theories developed to deceive them, even as new variants of propaganda are transmitted each day.
In short, the scientific processes learned by the students are the antibodies they need to immunize them from these radical and invasive attacks. As their ability to differentiate fact from fiction is strengthened, their young minds will become the T-Cells humanity needs to secure a healthier future. Whether or not the students pursue careers in science, they will become informed, valuable citizens, and this is the good news we could all use right now. Consider it a shot in the arm.
Well done and well written Steve, your piece is echoed by this one that I recommend everyone to read: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jan/01/death-threats-covid-disinformation-public-health-expert-pandemic