The public does not understand that there is no “settled science.” Science is always on the move. Previously accepted notions are challenged. What were consensuses are replaced by new “paradigms,” enjoying their time in the sun and waiting for their turn to be challenged.
Most scientific disputes are fought behind closed doors, “peer review” refereeing for scholarly journals, and in opaque scientific conferences.
Occasionally, especially when the stakes are high, scientific battles are fought in the open. In Germany, two dueling scientists are battling over the effect of covid on children, especially whether children can be carriers of the coronavirus.
As Germany opens its schools and its Kitas (Kindergartens), its politicians very much need “science” to tell them whether Kindergarteners can infect their parents and grandparents. Science’s answer is: Yes, I know the answer, and those who think otherwise are wrong.
The chief virologist of the famed Charite Hospital in Berlin, Christian Drosten, is the closest equivalent in Germany to the US’s Dr. Fauci. For weeks he has featured on the regular Coronavirus update on the nightly news. As he answers questions from worried viewers, he gives the impression of authority and assurance.
In the past few days, his disagreement with Alexander Kekule, virologist and Director of the of Medical Microbiology of the University Clinic of Halle, has burst the boundaries of scientific discourse. Their duel is featured in nightly news, TV reports, and newspaper interviews.
What is the disagreement about? In a preliminary (preprint) publication not intended for media publication, Drosten reported that his study found that children can transmit coronavirus as readily as adults. Dr. Kekula begs to differ. Dr. Drosten’s study, he claims, is deeply flawed.
The Drosten-Kekule debate has turned into twitter exchanges and personal insults, but the outcome of the debate could not be more important. Kekule attacks Drosten for faulty statistical analysis and demands that the paper be withdrawn. Drosten counters that Kekula’s weak scholarly credentials should destroy his credibility.
Families with young children anxious to return to their schools are verunsichert (unsettled). All they know is that two credentialed specialists in virology are coming to opposite conclusions.
In an attempt to come to the rescue, the Berlin Tagesspiegel consulted a series of scientist-virologists in the hope of deciding who is right and who is wrong. What the Tagesspiegel got was a lot of hemming-and-hawing. Yes, there may be some problems with the Drosten study, but it should be understood as a “part of the scientific process;” e.g., there is no right and no wrong.
I do not see the German debate as politically motivated. It is instead an insider’s glimpse into the world of science and scholarship that has spilled over into social discourse.
In an interview with network TV, Germany’s Parliament President Wolfgang Schauble addressed the problem of the interactions between elected officials, responsible for policy, and scientists. Schuable admitted what American politicians do not want to say – science is unsettled, scientists disagree among themselves but policy must be made, decisions must be taken. All politicians can do is do their best with inadequate scientific information and disagreement.
In Germany, there appears to be room for scientists to disagree and for policy makers to be informed of their disagreements and do the best they can. This may no longer be possible in the US where questions, such as school openings, business shutdowns, protective masks, and tests of hydroxychloroquine become so politicized that few are willing to hear both sides of scientific arguments. Actions are agenda driven, and the agenda need not be informed by science anyway.