My freshman year of college, I had to read a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. It blew my mind. I was the science loving kid who talked in her college essays of the random science experiments she did with her makeup set when she was 5 and the hours spent watching clouds pass overhead, her inner meteorologist wishing for a storm. Science was truth. Facts. Unbiased. Solid.
Kuhn, a University of Chicago professor, had a different idea. Ever hear the term, “paradigm shift?” That was his idea. What we think today about science can change, based on new information and data. When he wrote it in the early 1960s, it took off enough that “paradigm shift” entered the modern vernacular, but his second idea didn’t. It was that science is a series of paradigm shifts that take us closer to the truth.
I loved it. Whether looking at Galileo and Newton or the science section of the Sunday newspaper, every discovery, small or large, shifted the paradigm. The study of facts and laws had become a journey of problem solving to get closer to the truth.
It was the start of four years where science wasn’t the study of facts but the study of what truth could be. Classes where I manipulated virus DNA and played with organic dyes, and a senior year studying the paleoclimatology of the Lake Winnebago region of Wisconsin for an attempt at an honors thesis I was just too exhausted by May to finish. In that process, I learned the journey toward the truth wasn’t always easy or kind or simple.
Fast forward to this January, as I started hearing about a novel coronavirus appearing in Wuhan, China. Having a friend living there, I followed the story fairly closely as it traveled to Europe and Kirkland, WA, and New York City. Suddenly, the paradigms that had served the CDC well during SARS and MERS and H1N1 didn’t work, and we were plunged into lockdown, with everything closed except the essentials.
Kuhn, it seems, served me well. I understood that we were in a situation with so many unknowns—so many variables—that we were far from the truth, and as such, were in for a roller coaster of paradigm shifts. I expected changes and conflicting information as the scientists worked tirelessly to get closer and closer to the truth.
Which comes to masks. With so little known about what would be called Covid-19 (or Covid for short), the question became, “Will wearing a mask prevent getting sick?” At first, scientists didn’t know how Covid was spread. Was it droplet? Was it surfaces? Was it close contact? How close? Plus, the largest producer of N95 masks, the ones being used in hospitals, was Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the Covid pandemic, so there were serious concerns about shortages from panic buying on an item that was critical for those treating Covid patients. The official recommendation back in March was “No.”
Everyone accepted what the scientists were saying back in March as truth and made do with our new normal, but then the paradigm shifted. What was true in March wasn’t true in May, including that the scientists learned that transmission was through droplets, so wearing a mask, especially in interior, confined spaces, would reduce infections. The CDC shifted their recommendation, governments started to put in mask mandates, and citizens…scratched their heads at what they saw was an about-face.
Let’s not forget that masks are hot and uncomfortable, especially in the heat of summer. People feel so suffocated that I see someone every day who is pulling off their mask every minute or so to breathe.
While one population was struggling with wearing masks, another group of people were keeping on top of each and every news story about the virus. These people were scared—even terrified—of getting sick and ending up in the ICU with Covid. Whether they were high risk due to medical conditions, knew someone who had gotten sick, or just saw the reports from Italy and NYC, their fears were real and valid, and even one person dying of Covid was one too many, because it could be them next.
When the paradigm about masks changed, they breathed a sigh of relief, something that was visual and tactile to alleviate their fears. If everyone wore masks, they don’t have to be scared.
However, there was more than the mask paradigm shift. We were learning a lot about the little balls of protein that had taken our country hostage. They didn’t live on surfaces. It was actually safe to go to the grocery store (provided that you wear a mask). You needed to be within 6 feet of someone for more than 15 minutes without wearing a mask to risk being exposed. Being outside was safer than being inside. Doctors in hospitals were learning better ways of treating patients so they didn’t require ventilators. We got smarter in how we protected our most high risk, vulnerable populations. The refrigerated trucks were no longer needed. The makeshift hospitals were taken down.
Covid, it seemed, wasn’t the black death we thought it would be in April, as long as we continued to wear masks. The people reading every news story, struggling to make sense of it all, couldn’t. There were too many shifts, too many changes….and we were still very far from the truth.
We forget how few people in this country haven’t taken a formal science class in decades, probably in high school or to fulfill a requirement in college. Even then, those are classes focused on teaching the basics, which don’t change much year to year. When I started tutoring chemistry, I was concerned how much had changed since the 1990s. At the high school level, not much, and for the most part, are things that they were predicting were true 30 years ago.
We also forget that for a lot of people, getting through those classes was a challenge. I’ll never forget my chemistry teacher first introducing the concept of the mole my sophomore year in high school. I saw classmates’ eyes glaze over in confusion, and some of them struggled for the rest of the year. Even now, when I tell people I have a degree in chemistry, people respond with appreciation because high school chemistry was just that hard for them.
It was too much to understand why a hot, uncomfortable mask was necessary when nobody they knew had gotten sick. It was too much to understand why people couldn’t take the illness that brought New York City to its knees just a few months ago seriously. In this heated, divided environment we call the United States of America, the anger simmered over.
From angry posts on social media to protests about government overreach to actual confrontations in stores, people scared—of government overreach, of dying, of getting sick—lashed out in anger, creating more fear, more defensive behavior, and more doubling down on the divide. We find the sources of information, the articles, the facts that support our viewpoint, and pontificate to the masses, accusing each other of “not believing in science.”
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but science isn’t black and white, or right and wrong. When it’s something new and unknown, it’s fluid, and it will take a long time to figure out the truth. It took scientists until World War II to figure out that the influenza virus that caused the 1918 pandemic….was caused by a virus. Like, they were trying to save people’s lives and couldn’t agree whether it was a bacterium or a virus.
We may be faster now, but we are still many, many paradigm shifts before the science of covid is part of the hard facts in a high school biology textbook and we’re back to our pre-covid lives. For me, “believing in science” is believing that until we get to the truth, science will be filled with unknowns, conflicting information, and change, something very different than what we learned in high school.
I know it’s scary, but it’s time to ride the wave of paradigm shifts, being okay with what is truth now and being okay with when it shifts. Even if it doesn’t make sense, it will soon, and sooner if we all start working together instead of against each other. Starting with…..be nice, be kind, and wear your mask.
(Oh, and if you want a great mask that does good in the world, check out 2 Little Mask Makers. Custom masks for $5, which goes to the Northern Illinois Food Bank and local school districts in need.)