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The Return of Science?

Science is enjoying is enjoying its moment in the sun. Rarely in recent memory, have the names of scientists been as much at the forefront of our consciousness as they are today nor have their opinions been followed with such breathless anxiety. The world looks anxiously for science to deliver its magic, and every little progress reported is cheered enthusiastically, and every setback is rued. Research papers full of obscure scientific language are devoured, and graphs, data, the changing shape of the ‘curve’ are at our fingertips. We have been schooled in epidemiological models, notions of ‘herd immunity’, antibody-based serological surveys, the transmission and doubling rates, can hold conversations fluent with acronyms, and casually talk about the relative merits of HCQS and Remdesivir.

In a reversal of a current trend, there is a renewed respect for experts. While social media warriors are not willing to cede their own self-appointed positions as people-who-understand-everything-better-than-everyone-else, given that these are potentially matters of life and death, grudging space has been accorded to people who have actually spent a lifetime studying this subject. Of course, listening does not preclude fierce disagreement, and those are frequent. Conspiracy theories too abound with their own alternative constellation of experts.

The absence of science and the questions that it pursues from mainstream consciousness is a relatively recent affair. Through the centuries, the work of scientists and inventors has been followed with keen interest with so many of its leading lights being household names. Scientific findings created widespread excitement, fuelled fierce controversies; questions of science were an integral part of the intellectual life of the times. That involvement with science seems to have waned. Perhaps the last time that the world was truly enthused by a scientific quest was 50 years ago, when human beings landed on the moon.

Perhaps it our interest in technology rather than science that has led to this growing indifference. While technology and science would appear to inextricably linked, they are coded quite differently. Unlike science, technology delivers outcomes without

troubling us with deeper understanding. Today, for reasons of necessity, we are rediscovering our interest in science. Even if we follow its progress not so much with shiny eyes as with white knuckles.

There is also the strange inability of technology to do its magic. The digital giants who know own substantial chunks of our lives, continue to be a critical part of our lives, but only in the sense that they always were. We are dependent on them for our video chats and the streaming platforms, which have made sustained lockdowns tolerable. But beyond their existing capabilities, they have had nothing terribly significant to offer at a time when the world is desperate for answers. Even as far as information goes, there have been no radical predictive breakthroughs. No magic AI answers, no dazzling algorithms.

The problem lies with our expectations. We have created the technology myth- one of relentless limitless magic. Of progress as an inevitable response to our growing needs. Science is hard, it takes us inside to understand why things happen the way they do. There is no escape from deep and causal understanding. Technology on the other hand is made to look easy. We can’t take it apart today to figure out how it works. We only enjoy its fruits. Things improve all the time. Upgrades happen routinely. We have no curiosity about what goes behind these advances.

Thanks to our current circumstances, we are enjoying a close-up view of the scientific process- following its progress through a series of small incremental steps, not all in the same direction, prospects of breakthroughs, setbacks, misjudgements, retractions, a torrent of new research all adding up a little bit constantly. It is an untidy, often fractious process, with different schools of thought competing in real time and in public. Varied models of possible ways of controlling the pandemic play out in different geographies, drugs offering possible treatment options are hotly debated, vaccines being developed across the world are using a range of different approaches, different testing methods are throwing up their own streams of data; so much is happening crammed in such little time. And in the meantime, the clock is ticking.

But science is not really in control; politics is. Information is guarded zealously, released selectively, modified to suit narrow political ends. One would have thought that widespread testing would be a no-brainer, but that is far from being the case. Part of the reason why testing has been so tightly controlled in so many parts of the world has to do with concerns about inadequate capacities, but a lot of it has to do with putting up better appearances.

The management of the pandemic is of course is a deeply political question. Scientists may have played a larger role in the initial parts of the crisis, but today, it is the politicians that are taking the calls. This is necessary to a certain extent, for the administrative consequences of trying to contain this exponential growing beast can be overwhelming. But to leave out experts from the decision-making altogether, which is beginning to happen, is fraught with tremendous risks.

Instead we watch the spectacle of science as it grinds into action. We are told that what we are seeing unfold is actually happening at warp speed. No vaccine has ever been attempted to be developed in such short time frames. The avalanche of research on the subject is without precedent. This is a live human experiment in problem solving at a scale that has never been seen before and it has needed science in its most traditional avatar to do what it has always done. Dig deep and find fundamental answers.

If at the end of this nightmare, we will have regained a measure of respect for science and the methods that it employs, the kind of rigorous thinking that it demands and the absence of promises that it makes, the pandemic would not gone in waste.

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