How a comet taught me to not blindly trust experts and science.

in #sciencelast year


Have we not learned the lesson yet?

I remember back in 7th grade, I gave a speech on the imminent arrival of the Comet Kohoutek. It was for a speech class and I had researched all the expert predictions and models, excitedly waiting to deliver my findings to my class. From the research I did, I expected the comet to be the brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon. Of course, this was based on my research, and I had no reason to disbelieve the science right? My sources were from highly esteemed "experts" and I was just an ignorant 7th grader that didn't know any better.

Well, it turns out that I had a lot holes in my knowledge, and a heck of a lot to learn. My classmates teased me with "Where is this brilliant comet you spoke of?" which to this day burned the lesson into my brain. It wasn't a traumatic lesson, and over time, I had learned to brush it off with humour, but what was clear was that experts are not always right. Infact, they're wrong a lot more than they're readily going to admit. It's foolish to follow what they say blindly, just because they're "experts." After all, they are no different from us, they are human, we are human. We are all prone to error, and like me, they also have their own interests to serve.

But what turned out to be a lesson for me in the 7th grade, was not apparently a lesson learnt to many Americans. Because across the country, Americans are willingly sacrificing their natural Constitutional rights to life, liberty and freedom (high five to Dan Larimer). The result of which, is a historical record in unemployment and an excuse for congress to continue their massive overspending spree. Last I checked, it was another $2 trillion over the $1 trillion already over budgeted for the year. And aside from the fact that they don't have this money, and it will be borrowed and paid back with tax dollars from the American people, the majority of this spending appears to help very few people actually out of work or businesses that are on the verge of bankruptcy through forced shutdowns. It is being spent on what it's always been spent on, the perpetuation of political pork. We submit to the politicians interests, and we the taxpayer always lose.

Trust the experts, flatten the curve!

The majority of Americans fell to this narrative. Instead of embracing herd immunity whilst using our resources to protect the most vulnerable, we cowered away into our own homes. We shut down all the businesses where people gather. All the parks were closed, even the swings in the playgrounds were confiscated. Then came the onslaught of public shaming for those who wanted to go outside and socialise. This is despite the fact that outdoors is much less likely to transmit viruses. The government forced us all to stay inside, and anyone who violated these rules were duly shamed and reported to the authorities. This was for everybody's own good, or so they said.

The experts led us to believe that our sacrifices were justified because we needed to prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed. In the event that they do, supplies of PPE, ventilators, and millions of Americans would die. The media followed along and hounded this narrative to us day in day out. We all listened because their predictions horrified us, and we don't want them to play out right?

But why did nobody play devils' advocate? What if flattening the curve by forceful lockdown causes more deaths and misery in the long run? What if it causes the vulnerable and elderly to retreat into isolation for many months, rather than just one or two? What if it forces tens of millions of Americans out of their jobs instead of shorter term interruptions?

No place for discussion

Throughout this lockdown, I brought up all the questions mentioned above because I felt they were worth asking. I remained cordial and respectful at all times. People are always entitled to their opinions, and it's not my goal to strip them of that freedom. Ironically, many of my friends who objected to my questions in the earlier days, are now being vocal themselves on exactly the same issues. Instead of being publicly shamed, and met with hate, all the virtue signallers are now voicing their concern over the exact things I voiced concern over all along.

What is clear, is that scientific models are just that, models of something much more complex. And at this early stage, they are almost certainly wrong. Science doesn't shame people for posing questions orthogonal to the main narrative.
And just like real freedom doesn't exist because people follow the crowd like sheep to avoid conflict, real science is about acknowledging that models cannot be treated as axiomatic truths but rather a stepping stone for further study. Proving models wrong is a crucial step towards developing better models and a vital part of the learning process. We can't go about this process if people with differing ideas are insulted, if people are afraid to present these ideas out of fear of being lynched by the mainstream.

What did I learn from Comet Kohoutek?


I never actually got to see the Comet, the weather conditions were not favourable and the skies were far from clear. I'm not Charlie Brown, who ends up believing Lucy will really let him kick the football, nor am I Linus waiting in the pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin that never arrives.


Charles Schulz was a pioneer because he dared to mock those who wanted to believe in something rather than look at the evidence, learn and adapt from mistakes. He achieved this with mild humour such that even the naysayers could appreciate the irony most of the time.

Comet Kohoutek may have been my version of Linus' great pumpkin then, but it isn't now. I don't blindly look to scientists and experts and assume everything they put out is 100% right. I trusted them before, but I don't trust them this time. They will pull the models away before we can kick them, and then proceed to present a new one. Because that's how real science works.


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