The public’s trust in science


Having been a bench research scientist 30 years ago, I am flabbergasted at what is and is not currently possible. In a few weeks, scientists sequenced a novel coronavirus and used the genetic sequence to select candidate molecules for a vaccine. But we still can’t reliably say how much protection a cloth mask provides. Worse yet, even if/when we could reliably quantify contagion, it isn’t clear that the public will believe us anyhow.


The good news is that the public worldwide did believe scientists about the threat of a pandemic and the need to flatten the curve. Saving lives has not been about the strength of an antibiotic or the skill in managing a ventilator, but the credibility of medical scientists. The degree of acceptance was variable and subject to a variety of delays caused by regional politicians, but overall the scientific advice on social distancing has had a gigantic impact on the spread of the pandemic in the February to June time frame. The bad news is that the public’s trust in that scientific advice has waned, the willingness to accept onerous restrictions has fatigued, and the cooperation for maintaining these social changes is evaporating.

I will leave pontificating about the spread of COVID-19 to other experts in other forums. My focus is on the public’s trust in the professionalism of physicians, nurses, medical scientists, and the health care industry as a whole. That trust has been our most valuable tool in fighting the pandemic so far. There have been situations in which weaknesses in modern science have let society down during the pandemic of the century. In my February 2020 column, at the beginning of the outbreak, a month before it was declared a pandemic, when its magnitude was still unclear, I emphasized the importance of having a trusted scientific spokesperson providing timely, accurate information to the public. That, obviously, did not happen in the United States and the degree of the ensuing disaster is still to be revealed.

Scientists have made some wrong decisions about this novel threat. The advice on masks is an illustrative example. For many years, infection control nurses have insisted that medical students wear a mask to protect themselves, even if they were observing rounds from just inside the doorway of a room of a baby with bronchiolitis. The landfills are full of briefly worn surgical masks. Now the story goes: Surgical masks don’t protect staff; they protect others. Changes like that contribute to a credibility gap.

For 3 months, there was conflicting advice about the appropriateness of masks. In early March 2020, some health care workers were disciplined for wearing personal masks. Now, most scientists recommend the public use masks to reduce contagion. Significant subgroups in the U.S. population have refused, mostly to signal their contrarian politics. In June there was an anecdote of a success story from the Show Me state of Missouri, where a mask is credited for preventing an outbreak from a sick hair stylist.

It is hard to find something more reliable than an anecdote. On June 1, a meta-analysis funded by the World Health Organization was published online by Lancet. It supports the idea that masks are beneficial. It is mostly forest plots, so you can try to interpret it yourself. There were 172 observational studies in the systematic review, and the meta-analysis contains 44 relevant comparative studies and 0 randomized controlled trials. Most of those forest plots have an I2 of 75% or worse, which to me indicates that they are not much more reliable than a good anecdote. My primary conclusion was that modern academic science, in an era with a shortage of toilet paper, should convert to printing on soft tissue paper.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell, a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant in St. Louis.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell

It is important to note that the guesstimated overall benefit of cloth masks was a relative risk of 0.30. That benefit is easily nullified if the false security of a mask causes people to congregate together in groups three times larger or for three times more minutes. N95 masks were more effective.

A different article was published in PNAS on June 11. Its senior author was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995. That article touted the benefits of masks. The article is facing heavy criticism for flaws in methodology and flaws in the peer review process. A long list of signatories have joined a letter asking for the article’s retraction.

This article, when combined with the two instances of prominent articles being retracted in the prior month by the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet, is accumulating evidence the peer review system is not working as intended.

There are many heroes in this pandemic, from the frontline health care workers in hotspots to the grocery workers and cleaning staff. There is hope, indeed some faith, that medical scientists in the foreseeable future will provide treatments and a vaccine for this viral plague. This month, the credibility of scientists again plays a major role as communities respond to outbreaks related to reopening the economy. Let’s celebrate the victories, resolve to fix the impure system, and restore a high level of public trust in science. Lives depend on it.

Dr. Powell is a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. He has no relevant financial disclosures. Email him at [email protected].

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