During an interview on the “60 Minutes” television show on March 8, 2020, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said to medical correspondent Jon LaPook, “Right now, in the United States, people should not be walking around with masks … there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.” Later, of course, Fauci would go on to extol the importance of everyone wearing masks, including at one point suggesting that it would be prudent to wear two simultaneously. Critics seized on Fauci’s prior comment and dubbed him a “flip-flopper.” Were his critics right to do so? Was Fauci not to be trusted?
It is instructive to consider the Fauci “flip-flop” in the context of how the scientific process works. Let’s examine two historical examples noted by political scientists Paul Kellstedt and Guy Whitten in their text, “The Fundamentals of Political Science Research.”
In the early 17th century, Galileo, through his telescope, discovered that there were moons revolving around Jupiter. His finding lent credence to the Copernican belief that the Earth was a planet like the others rather than at the center of universe around which everything revolved, as Aristotle and others believed, in what was known as geocentrism or the Ptolemaic system (named after astronomer Claudius Ptolemy). In reaction to Galileo’s finding, many astronomers shifted away from geocentrism to what became known as heliocentrism — the belief that the Earth revolves around the sun, which is at the center of the universe.
Some shifts in thinking are more dramatic than others. A political example, with not as far-reaching consequences, but significant nonetheless, occurred upon publication of a book titled “The People’s Choice” by social scientist Paul Lazerfeld and two of his colleagues in 1948. Based on survey evidence, Lazerfeld et al. found that most voters are not very influenced by political campaigns. Individuals tend to develop a partisan affiliation early on in life and vote in accordance with their affiliation regardless of the campaign messaging they are exposed to. Lazerfeld and his colleagues’ findings led to a shift away from focusing on political campaigns in research on voting behavior. It was more important, in light of their findings, to gain an understanding of how partisan attachments form in adolescence, among other things.
Both examples illustrate how science evolves. What was once believed to be true may be adjusted or even discarded in light of new evidence. The important thing is that beliefs change in light of new findings rather than the evidence being rejected because it does not conform to what has generally been assumed up until that point. Not all new findings should be immediately and uncritically accepted as valid. Additional studies need to be conducted following an initial finding, allowing for a broad assessment of where the weight of evidence falls. Over time, as additional data is gathered and hypotheses are further tested, a scientific consensus may emerge that displaces one way of thinking with another.
A skeptic might say at this point, if scientific knowledge is contingent and subject to change, why should I believe what is generally accepted at any given point in time? If what is “true” today might not be true tomorrow, why accept what is generally believed to be true by the scientific community today?
A key commonality across the examples mentioned is that initial beliefs were theoretical, coming prior to the rigorous gathering of data/evidence. Astronomers prior to Galileo were technologically limited in the extent to which they could test Ptolemy’s belief that the Earth was at the center of the universe (telescopes had not yet been developed). When COVID-19 first emerged, it was a novel virus. Scientists did not initially know with certainty how COVID spread and what best practices were for preventing infections given an absence of prior research.
To fill the research void, scientists conducted rigorous, controlled trials. Researchers at Hong Kong University, for example, carried out a study on the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of COVID. In the study, two groups of hamsters, one group that was infected with COVID-19 and one group that was not, were placed in cages close to one another with a fan blowing air from the infected cage to the healthy cage (hamsters were used in the study given obvious ethical considerations involved with exposing humans to COVID for experimental purposes). The researchers found that when an outstretched mask was placed between the two cages near the healthy hamsters, infections within a week went down from two-thirds to one-third. When an outstretched mask was placed between the two cages near the infected hamsters, only one-sixth in the other cage became infected. The experiment demonstrated that masks tend to reduce the spread of COVID and that they are particularly useful for preventing transmission when filtering the air close to those who are infected.
Fauci’s so-called “flip flop” was not discrediting. His later stated views were simply reflective of the scientific consensus that emerged.
It should be noted, furthermore, that Fauci’s comments in early March concerning masks were influenced by the personal protective equipment shortage that the United States was facing at the time. In the interview, Fauci stated that the point was that masks should be prioritized for those who needed it most — health care workers and those who were infected, to prevent the spread of the virus. As the fear of running short on supplies began to fade and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) updated its guidance, urging American citizens to wear a mask when in public, Dr. Fauci updated his messaging.
As the United States continues to emerge from the pandemic, keep Dr. Fauci’s “flip flop” in mind. Some skepticism towards COVID-19 vaccines was perhaps understandable prior to the rigorous scientific testing of COVID vaccines. But the weight of scientific evidence has now consistently shown that vaccines such as Pfizer BioNTech’s and Moderna’s are safe and effective. So let’s update our beliefs on things such as masks and vaccines if need be. Doing so might require some humility. But, following the lead of astronomers, social scientists, and public health officials, let’s let the scientific process guide our thinking rather than hanging on to beliefs despite contradictory evidence. It is the best shot we have at relegating the COVID-19 pandemic, like the geocentric notion that the Earth is at the center of the universe and the belief that campaigns tend to determine how individuals vote, to the dustbin of history.
David R. Dreyer is a political science professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University.