Science in the Time of COVID-19

There was an interesting BBC Radio 4 item, hosted by Sonia Sodha, on Science in the Time of COVID-19. If you can’t access it, there is a related Guardian article. I’ve listened to it a few times, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. It essentially focuses on issues with the science, and with scientists, highlighting how some of the scientific analyses have been flawed, how scientists can have quite contentious discussions on social media, and how some double down even when it’s clear that what they presented was wrong.

My first thought was, haven’t people been paying attention to what’s been going on with climate change? What’s happening now with COVID-19 seems to be mirroring what’s been happening in the climate debate for years. Also, the basic narrative seemed to be that presenter was surprised that the process wasn’t as simple as: the scientists do the science, then they tell the rest of us what to do, and lives get saved. However, few think that that is really how things work, so why do people still get surprised when it becomes clear that the actual process is much more complex than the supposed ideal?

Also, many of the examples of flawed science were things that were strongly called out at the time. I even wrote a post about one the examples myself. Yes, it’s not great that some scientific analyses are horribly flawed and that some double down when challenged, but it is an unfortunate reality of what is ultimately a social process. This is why one should be cautious of trusting single studies, or of paying too much attention to an individual’s credentials. It’s one reason why I think it’s important to have some idea of what the consensus is. It could be wrong, but it’s probably a reasonable guide at that time.

The suggestion was that this is all an example of post-normal science, when science takes place in conditions of great uncertainty, where values are in dispute, stakes are high, and decisions are urgent. My problem is that I don’t think it is; it’s just normal science. Science isn’t perfect, scientists do sometimes promote ideas that are wrong, scientists do sometimes refuse to acknowledge their errors, and scientists are clearly sometimes far less objective than we might expect them to be.

This might be more obvious when the stakes are high and decisions are urgent, but I don’t think it’s unique to these situations. I don’t think we benefit from suggesting that under these circumstances science is different to what it is when stakes aren’t as high, and decisions aren’t as urgent. In some sense, what this seems to do is validate flawed science. We should be calling out flawed science, not suggesting that it’s just a part of post-normal science.

There’s more that I could say, but I realise that this is now getting rather long. This is clearly an interesting, and important issue, and I do agree with some of what is presented, but think some of it missed the point, or was too simplistic. I also tend to think that some of what was presented was essentially knocking down strawmen; criticising a simplistic caracture of science/scientists that isn’t really consistent with reality. I’m going to stop there, though, but would be interested in other peoples’ views.

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63 Responses to Science in the Time of COVID-19

  1. izen says:

    The analysis was very US/UK centred and tended to sensationalise the more sensational, and contentious, aspects of the scientific/political discussion in the Anglophone world.

    In those Nations in S.E. Asia who had some experience with SARS, and a more communal/authoritarian social setup the actions were much more direct and effective. That pragmatic example should have led, but the dominance of social individualism and economic autonomy coupled with the in-effectiveness of the healthcare systems and inequality in the West, and parts of S America took over.

    By the time the Barrington Declaration was made, Brazil had already been following that process, while China, S Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and Taiwan had already controlled their outbreaks by following the opposite program. Australia and New Zealand also gave a good indication of what works compared to what some of the western science/political/media were advocating.

    That science can be influenced by imbedded social tropes is not a new ‘Post Modern’ problem. It would have required a significant change in the social structure for the US, or the UK or Brazil to follow the example of S Korea. That they did not, but instead emphasised the scientists who supported the status quo on the social front is a product of the economic setup, enabled by a captured political system.

  2. RickA says:

    Scientists disagree – that is just part of the scientific process. Over long periods of time, a consensus emerges, until the next major advance, which starts the disagreement all over again. Totally normal. Plate tectonics is a classic example.

    What is different today (I think) is that the layperson has much more access to the disagreements among scientists, which before were fairly private. Since laypeople cannot really decide who is correct – it confuses and frustrates them. Who should they believe? Follow the science – sure – but the scientists disagree. What should the lay person do with that? Naturally the press gloms onto that uncertainty and writes a lot of unhelpful articles trying to sell clicks and papers and magazines. Most of the time, the press misrepresents what the scientists are actually saying and so the public gets a filtered misrepresented version of what the scientists are actually saying (as they disagree with each other).

    It is not really surprising this happened with climate science, or with vaccines. It happens with all science.

    People will be human and that is that. Everybody has confirmation bias and so we all make decisions about which way we lean on any science issue based on what we read, and based on the opinions we respect and don’t respect. Again – that is human. Sometimes our decisions are wrong. Sometimes the policy decisions made are wrong. Oh well – that is life.

    I suppose the public and policy makers will learn to make decisions even with the more publically available disagreements we now see via social media.

    We all have to learn to deal with the disagreements amongst the experts in order to make policy decisions – because they surely are not going away.

  3. Steven Mosher says:

    It’s not normal. As I’ve pointed out deadlines change everything

  4. Deadlines are as about normal as normal gets.

  5. And there I was thinking that this post would be all about how science itself gets done in an era of social distancing. Now that would have been rather interesting imho.

  6. Ron Shadewell says:

    In your opinion, what percentage of Climate Science / Covid-19 Science is correct?
    – almost all
    – most
    – about half
    – not much
    – almost none

    How did you arrive at that answer?

  7. Ron,
    I don’t think that’s a question to which there is a simple answer (well, it’s almost certainly not the last two). The key point, in my view, is to get some idea of where the consensus lies, if there is one. In climate change, the consensus is clearly that humans are causing global warming, that doubling atmospheric CO2 will probably cause global warming of between 2C and 4C (with a best estimate around 3C), that we’ll see an increase in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves and extreme precipitation events, that sea level will rise, and that there will probably be an increase in the frequency and intensity of some other extreme weather events.

    For COVID-19, the consensus is that this is a highly transmissible virus, that some people will be asymptomatic while others will have symptoms, that some will need hospitalisation and that (depending on the age distribution) between 0.5 and 1% of those who get infected will die. There is also, as I understand it, a consensus that if you want to limit the spread of the virus, you would need to implement interventions that limit contact between people, but how restrictive these interventions should be is partly a judgement that science can’t answer.

  8. Dave_Geologist says:

    Science is like Dr. Johnson’s sausage factory. Don’t ask what went into the sausage.

    Most people haven’t participated in generating or even teaching science and have an over-simplified and idealised view of what is is and how it’s done. As someone with a PhD who worked for decades in a sector where most have vocational MSc’s (and has been an external examiner for MSc’s, and has supervised a number of interns in work-experience projects as part of their studies), I’d say that is true even among most with science degrees at sub-PhD level (exceptions being places like the USA where the practice is to do a research MSc as a gateway to a PhD).

    And outside of topics with implications beyond science, like Covid or climate change, they have no interest in finding out. When they do find out, they wrongly think it’s not normal science, because they have no idea what normal science actually is.

    That sounds elitist but it’s just the way life is. You could say the same about opera singing, elite sports or novel-writing.

    In addition, there are some scientists who know better but who exploit that lack of understanding of normal science for personal, religious, commercial or political ends. No names, no pack drill.

  9. Dave_Geologist says:


    Almost all.

    Knowledge and understanding.

  10. Clive Best says:

    Things become contentious once you apply science to social issues. The science of COVID-19 and epidemics are classic science. The post-normal bit is applying lockdown measures to contain infection rates within a population. These NPI models are inspired guesses and of course don’;t actually solve the underlying problem. They just slow down the disease progression from months into years. Only an effective vaccine can short circuit the epidemic.

    Climate Science is similar. The basic physics is well understood although a full understanding of ice ages is not quite there. The contentious bit is again when you try and apply it to social issues. Somehow we have to cut CO2 emissions without destroying human wellbeing. Glib national Net Zero proposals don’t actually solve the problem because there is no rational roadmap to achieve zero emissions with a few exceptions like Iceland and perhaps Norway. Of course there has to be a global to make any difference. That means we need a long term zero carbon energy source which does not destroy the environment to achieve it.

  11. Clive,
    Ignoring that you’re making value-laden claims yourself, the problem is that those who promote post-normal science are not saying that it’s the bits that come after the science that are post-normal, they’re suggesting that the science itself becomes post-normal. The issue I have with this is that there is no real reason to think that the science itself is operating in a way that differs substantially from how normal science operates. Yes, there are clear societal factors that may influence how the science is used. Yes, some may promote scientific ideas that are clearly flawed. But, this is still essentially normal science.

    I think we should distinguish between aspects that are essentially still normal science, and aspects that are strongly value laden, rather than lumping it all into something new that we call post-normal science. The reason I think this is because the latter runs the risk of suggesting that it’s all strongly value laden, when some probably is not.

  12. Dave,

    And outside of topics with implications beyond science, like Covid or climate change, they have no interest in finding out. When they do find out, they wrongly think it’s not normal science, because they have no idea what normal science actually is.

    Yes, I agree. I think many have an idealised sense of how science works. Hence, when something like climate change, or COVID, highlights the messiness of the process, they assume that this is somehow different to how science normally works and, hence, we should call it post-normal science.

    I’m perfectly in favour of highlighting aspects of the process that are clear value judgements, but I don’t think we should be regarding contentious science of societal significance as somehow being distinct from normal science. As I said above, I think the problem with this is that it runs the risks of suggesting that it’s all strongly value laden and, hence, people can pick and choose what they prefer. It’s still important, in my view, to distinguish between the normal science of (for example) estimating climate sensitivity and the value judgements associated with (for example) setting climate targets. Similarly, there is a difference between scientific analyses estimating how coronavirus might spread, and judgements about what we should, or should not, do to limit this spread.

  13. Dave_Geologist says:

    Our discussions a few months ago about phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere being a perfect example ATTP (disappointingly, it now looks like no was the answer). Oops, a value-judgement!

    Also a cautionary tale about argument from authority at an early stage in any new topic. IIRC you were sceptical, but allowed that you couldn’t think of a better bunch of people to analyse ALMA/JCMT data.

    My own PhD topic was extremely messy, in part because you could do radiometric dating, and elemental analysis and thermodynamics, on the same rock but not on the same mineral grain or part of a grain. So you had to indirectly relate the one to the other. Now (and for the last 20 years) you can, partly due to hardware advances, partly due to THERMOCALC and its cousins which allow you to simultaneously solve large arrays of equations by computer and get the statistically best result. I mostly used a desktop calculator with one memory register. The answer to a lot of the unresolved debates was that we were both half right (or all a third right), but that it was more complicated than any of us thought. We were like the blind men describing an elephant.

    Another example I came across recently was the century-old debate about the nature of a Devonian organism called Prototaxites. Basically, an 8m long, 1m wide “tree trunk” which looks internally like a fungus not a tree. The main point against it being a fungal fruiting body was the argument from incredulity: “what, an 8m tall fruiting body?”. And probably a touch of nightmare fuel. I salute our new mycelial overlords! Turns out it is. It was going that way 20 years ago with improved microscopy, but the clincher was micro-scale isotopic analysis of carbon in preserved organic matter within silicified examples, which had to wait for the technology. In parallel improved genomic sequencing had identified some huge fungal individuals living on modern forest floors, the record breaker so far being estimated at 400 tons, more than 2 miles across and covering more than 2,000 acres. All a single clonal organism, which took thousands of years to reach that size. Tracking of mutations showed that it had spread vegetatively from a single point, rather than dispersing by asexual budding. Something that big could indeed feed an 8m tall fruiting body. The height was no doubt useful in dispersing its spores far enough not to compete with itself.

    It’s thought the evolution of boring insects and later browsing animals led to selection for multiple small fruiting bodies, not having all your eggs in one basket. Indeed some fossil examples were quite heavily bored.

  14. Well, you scientists can police yourselves. Looking around at my fellow non-scientists, it seems that some have transferred their belief in religion to belief in the utterances of those in white lab coats, a phrase that could actually be part of a Moody Blues song (Knights in white lab coats…), while another portion of my fellow non-scientists look at it as a sport, or even a soap opera. Who’s winning and what will happen next?

    Sadly the third portion consists of those determined to enlist the more congenial findings of science to further political goals and ambitions.

    Newspapers need better readers. Politicians need better voters. Scientists need…?

  15. Willard says:

    > The contentious bit is again when you try and apply it to social issues.

    Anyone who contends that science is not contentious should pay more diligence to the history of science. Take Planck’s principle, according to which science progresses one funeral at a time. Scientists being the eternal curmudgeons we all know and love, of course some of them tried to challenge it:

    We examine how the premature death of eminent life scientists alters the vitality of their fields. While the flow of articles by collaborators into affected fields decreases after the death of a star scientist, the flow of articles by non-collaborators increases markedly. This surge in contributions from outsiders draws upon a different scientific corpus and is disproportionately likely to be highly cited. While outsiders appear reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star is alive, the loss of a luminary provides an opportunity for fields to evolve in new directions that advance the frontier of knowledge within them.

    Thy Wiki also mentions the case of tectonic plates as a counterexample to Planck’s principle, for older researchers adopted the theory before the youngsters.

    There’s nothing abnormal about scientific disputes. They are as natural as contrarians trying to inject their pet topics in any Climateball exchange. Witness Clive and his “but Net Zero.”

  16. Willard says:

    > Scientists need…?

    Better contrarians. A better world depends on having better contrarians. I’d settle for anything better than a team getting played over and over again by troglodytes, e.g.:

    My involvement in this started on December 21, when I received an email from Ray Cantor seeking my evaluation of the Rutgers Report. After a phone call to discuss, a small amount of funding was approved on January 28 for me to assess the Rutgers Report. They needed my evaluation report by February 28. With one month, a small amount of funding, and a schedule that was already heavily committed, I put together an evaluation report with the help of a very capable assistant. This project was just too irresistible to turn down.

    Judy’s evaluation is of little concern here. One day she might learn to read. All Ray required is a lab coat to rubberstamp his shrieks, and he got one:

    DEP is not following the science, while simultaneously dictating economic policy. Regulators are relying on a flawed report based on faulty assumptions of climate change and nearly impossible scenarios in order to exaggerate the risk, without considering mitigating factors.


    Ray Cantor is vice president of government affairs for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

  17. Bob Loblaw says:

    Dave_G says “That sounds elitist but it’s just the way life is. You could say the same about opera singing, elite sports or novel-writing.”

    Well, based on observations of sports fans, it would seem that huge numbers of them – who are incapable of much physical activity beyond going to the fridge to get another beer – are absolutely convinced that they know far more and are far more capable than the coaches and players that have spent years developing actual skills.

  18. verytallguy says:

    There’s an awful lot that could be written here.

    Firstly, the parallels with climate science are apparent – where people’s ideology or values conflict with science they’ll either ignore the science or cherrypick it. Libertarian ideology is anaethema to societal responses to COVID and climate change equally, so whilst rather depressing, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the same people are involved in both. The “Great Barrington Declaration” is the poster child.

    Secondly, whilst contrarian voices in science are at least sometimes useful and arguably even essential to keep a field moving (see Willard above on funerals, just for instance), they are not a sound basis for public policy. Understanding the overall weight of evidence is critical. Here, Ioannidis could be the best example.

    Thirdly, science is full of uncertainty. Some of the communication has been very amusing (“AstraZeneca vaccine 94% effective, Pfizer 84%! Ignoring that the confidence intervals were very wide and indeed almost coincident for the two vaccines in the study in question). The view on the relative importance of handwashing and masks has changed dramatically as evidence has come in, just for instance.

    Finally, of course, without the scientific foundations we benefit from, the pandemic would have been far, far worse. We would have been unable to track, treat, and now prevent through vaccination in anywhere near such an effective way. Far more would have suffered and died.

    Here endeth the lesson.

  19. Dave_Geologist says:

    RickA, Plate Tectonics is perhaps not the ideal example of a rapid paradigm shift. Continental Drift had been around for fifty years, but lacked a plausible physical mechanism. Continents ploughing through the solid rock of ocean floors obviously wouldn’t cut it. It was a recognition of what was moving through (or, mostly, over) what that swung it. And magnetic stripes, which as in my examples required new technology.

    And it took a decade or more to bed in. See Naomi Oreskes’ two excellent books, one a popular-science account, the other a collection of essays by a dozen scientists who were at the sharp end. Both are excellent reading for someone wanting to learn about “normal science” and how it’s actually done. Even down to “office politics” and nationalism. The USA was late to the party, and the USSR as a whole never arrived, although scientists in peripheral places like the Caucasus did. I was surprised in the 70s to hear Americans say “a few years ago you couldn’t get a job if you accepted plate tectonics, now you can’t get one if you reject it”. I said “what, I thought it was all done and dusted in the 60s. I was taught it as an undergraduate. The Geological Museum even has a glossy book and exhibition for laypeople”.

    Pre-plate-tectonics continental drift was like global warming would be if all we had were temperatures and CO2 concentrations but didn’t understand the mechanisms. Of course in reality global warming was never like that, because, well, Then There’s Physics, and we’d known the mechanisms for a century.

  20. Dave_Geologist says:

    Bob, I often use the analogy of an armchair fan who never played, someone like me, who played bounce games into my twenties, my brother who played amateur at a top level, won Scotland Amateur caps and whom I watched playing at Hampden, an experienced full-time professional, and a Premier League player and World Cup winner.

    Another one I like is between someone who watches TV documentaries, me, who studied some palaeontology at Uni and did some specialist courses in industry, our micropalaeontologists who had PhDs and did a tiny subset of it professionally for decades, and a post-doc neighbour from my PhD days who is now a senior curator at the Natural History Museum, a world expert in his specialist field, but no doubt also has the broad, up-to-date knowledge needed to perform his curator role. Each of those steps, based on personal experience, represents at least a ten times step up in knowledge, so it really is possible for someone to be thousands of times more knowledgeable about a subject than you are.

  21. RickA says:

    I think the vaccines are going to turn out great and we will probably hit herd immunity sometime in April or May (in the USA, maybe a bit later in Europe). So despite the arguments about masks and social distancing and lockdowns, the scientists have hit a home run by providing so may effective vaccines. The pandemic will just dwindle from here (I think). So that is a very good thing. Go science!

    Climate change is a much more difficult problem than a pandemic. Common sense solutions are rejected in favor of impossible pipe dreams – but that is a human failing also.

  22. Willard says:

    > Common sense solutions are rejected in favor of impossible pipe dreams

    I could not agree more:

    The collection of evidence is compelling that reducing food waste, increasing plant-rich diets, practising conscious consumption and improving food systems can help to improve mental and physical health and displace anxiety.

    Collectively and individually we can heed the best in science, while also bringing out the best in humanity, by adopting proven strategies to address these pressing challenges.

  23. RickA says:


    Impressive! I didn’t even mention nuclear power and you went to the food thing. Nice. Your memory is incredible.

  24. verytallguy says:

    I may have a post in moderation? If not, I fear my pearls of wisdom on the subject may be forever lost to humanity. ‘Tis your loss, earthlings.

  25. Willard says:

    Twas in spam, Very Tall.

    If that happens again, contact Akismet:

  26. Clive said:

    ” The science of COVID-19 and epidemics are classic science. “

    Yes, mainly because it’s possible to do controlled experiments with a reasonable turn-around time in medical research. Climate science and earth sciences that study models such as plate tectonics are unable to do either (lab control or fast-turnaround) very well. So with no means of experimental control, research advances very slowly unless the breakthrough has multiple means of cross-validation. See next month’s EGU meeting.

  27. Dave_Geologist says:

    Getting on for half the population (more than half of adults) vaccinated now in Scotland, and infections have flattened so no herd immunity yet (more than half should have had antibodies already based on 10-20% infection rate across the two or three waves). First dose but AZ trials show good protection out to 12 weeks, Moderna to, IIRC, 103 days so although Pfizer doesn’t have that data, being the same tech as Moderna I’d feel confident. Caution is that although AZ is a different tech (inactivated adenovirus vector), the in-cell tech is the same (engineered to make spike protein in cells). So that may not extrapolate to inactivated coronavirus vaccines where the immune system is presented with a smorgasbord of triggers. It will be interesting to see how they play out as new variants arise. Does the rapid updating of the spike-protein vaccines outweigh the possibility that the inactivated virus vaccines may not need updating because selection is for spike protein escape but they also target shell components? Science in action, post-normal or not!

    What is clear is that it is protecting against death. There’s a nice graphical website,!/vizhome/COVID-19DailyDashboard_15960160643010/Overview, go to the daily update tab and scroll down to the graph. Cases have flattened as we opened up slightly, but deaths have continued to plummet. Go vaccines! (I’ve had my first dose 🙂 )

  28. Dave_Geologist says:

    More than half by adding vaccinated to previously infected. Of course antibodies from natural infection seem to wane after 6-8 months so those infected in the first wave may have lost their immunity by now.

  29. Chubbs says:

    I’d argue that the science of climate change is straightforward and classic. The basics figured out in the 19th century. The science has been largely proven out in recent decades; yet, the “post-normal” angst increases, as the implications get harder to ignore.

  30. Chubbs,
    I agree that the angst increases, but I think framing climate science (which, as you say, is at a fundamental level quite basic) as post normal science, rather than as normal science, is sub-optimal.

  31. Chubbs says:

    ATTP, yes, agree with your post. Nothing special about the science. Its the reaction to the science that is unusual.

  32. Russell Seitz says:

    ATTP ‘My first thought was, haven’t people been paying attention to what’s been going on with climate change? ‘

    Be careful what you wish for. it might be intersectional-

    My first thought was, haven’t people been paying attention to what’s been going on with climate change?

  33. Russell Seitz says:

    My first thought was, haven’t people been paying attention to what’s been going on with climate change?

    here’s the link’

  34. Dave_Geologist says:

    Willard, part of the delayed (or rather diachronous) plate-tectonics paradigm shift was indeed the need for the USSR to wait for one funeral. That of Vladimir Belousov. Although the funeral of the USSR and the end (at least for a time) of centralised state control and thought police would probably have reduced his influence had he lived longer.

    One of the ironies is that Belousov was actually something of a visionary in other ways and visited the West extensively during the International Geophysical Year of 1957/1958. I’m sure that we can all think of other examples of highly esteemed physicists or structural chemists who stick resolutely to wacky ideas about medicine or climate change, Nobel Prize winners included.

    The USSR was obvious – we had the much more deadly precedent of Lysenko to refer to. It was harder to understand why scientists in The Land Of The Free couldn’t see their noses in front of their faces. Oreskes’ book attributes the delay to the influence of powerful figures and a sort of scientific culture war, not just in the modern era but going back the the early 20th century, but that may be because it makes for a much better read than the slow piecing together of evidence.

    I remember thinking it was to do, in both cases, with living on a humongous continent where, observationally at surface, most of what you saw was indeed things going up and down not sideways. Foredeeps as a flexural consequence of mountain belts (ah but, what built the mountains?), uplift due to emplacement of huge volumes of magma (ah but, where did all that magma in the Cascades come from and why?), and “interior sag basins” (ah but, what made then sag?). In that last case I had a bet with myself in the 1980s and 90s that they were all the horns of steer’s head basins, and it was only a matter of time before the underlying rift was drilled or imaged seismically. I’d have won that bet.

    Essentially, in a continental interior the vertical movement consequent on the causative horizontal movement causes the evidence for that cause to be deeply buried or eroded. Offshore, everything is preserved in exquisite detail. In the case of steer’s head basins onshore where the evidence didn’t hit you in the face, the fact that in his previous existence McKenzie had been a pioneer of plate tectonics probably didn’t help his credibility with “fixists”.

    I think there’s an element of that in climate scepticism: if you live mid-Continent where seasonal and annual weather extremes are enormous, it’s hard to internalise the idea that yes, we really can tell the world has warmed by 1°C, or that it even matters if it’s true.

  35. Steven Mosher says:

    Deadlines are as about normal as normal gets.


    i put a lot of this well here

    note this is largely an observation about different observable behavior nothing more

  36. Steven,
    1. How do you know the behaviour of scientists changes in PNS situations?

    2. Even if there is a change in behaviour, it still seems that one can distinguish between work that sits right on the science/policy boundary and may well be value laden, and work that is policy-relevant but not policy prescriptive.

  37. an older code says:

    I think the obvious explanation is that people are simply not used to seeing science being done “in the raw”

    What 10 odd years of observing the climate wars has taught me is too be very careful when listing to arguments over science in the media.

    For example we get interviews / discussions between scientists on our BBC flagship radio news show – the Today Program.

    The two “protagonist” will be introduced – both will have impressive sciency credentials from prestigious academic institutions (very pointedly read out by the presenter – box clearly ticked) the scene is deliberately set to present them as equals, although a careful listen will show that only one is a domain expert on the actual subject of discussion – epidemiology or infectious disease for example.

    As the discussion starts it becomes abundantly clear that only one is talking about the science (the domain expert) – the other is simply shilling the economics of the science and usually has links to all the same old same old think tanks anyone reading this blog can reel off.

    Now clearly the economics aspect is important and worthy of discussion – but not when the topic is supposed to be about the science behind the subject – and introduced as such.

    If it’s a discussion about the economics / wider societal implications of the science make that clear and don’t bring an epidemiologist on to talk about epidemiology.

    So in fact they were talking past each other – I sometimes wonder whether the domain expert even realises they have been set up as a patsy tbh.

    The average listener is left with the impression that scientist simply can’t get their shit together and are always at odds because one side says this and one side says that.

  38. Willard says:


    I have been contacted by a UK politician about climate policy in the UK,

    We have a zoom call scheduled for next Thursday to discuss.

    I know that at least some of the Denizens are from the UK. So here is a thread where we educate each other and discuss this topic.

    Brace yourselves. “But Net Zero” is coming.

  39. an older code says:

    could it be

    Nigel Farage

    “He has criticised Greta Thunberg for “alarmism” and wind power as “economic insanity” – but Nigel Farage appears to have made a U-turn on climate change, after signing up as a lobbyist for a Dutch green finance firm, in his first commercial role outside frontline politics.”

    Strange times indeed

  40. izen says:

    “note this is largely an observation about different observable behavior nothing more”

    The basic science of climate change was established by the late 1970s. The quibbling and PN behaviour since has almost entirely been an attempt to avoid the economic discussion by focusing on the scientific minutiae.

  41. verytallguy says:

    “I have been contacted by a UK politician about climate policy in the UK”

    Funny that. Almost as though they go looking for people to confirm their prejudices.

  42. verytallguy says:

    On science in the time of COVID-19, this seems to be about the worst of it.

  43. verytallguy says:

    Plea to mods to make that last tweet display in line if poss?

    [Mod: Sorted (was the mobile tweet that seemed to be the issue).]

  44. vtg,

    On science in the time of COVID-19, this seems to be about the worst of it.

    Indeed. I saw that this morning. Bizarre.

  45. “really?”

    Yes. Stated deadlines often slip, due to a myriad of reasons, but that has nothing to do with pomo. Deadlines are met or exceeded, due to a myriad of reasons, but that has nothing to do with pomo. Unstated deadline are just that, unstated, due to a myriad of reasons, but that has nothing to do with pomo.

    deadlines != pomo

    Only lazy people engage in pomo. I guess that makes me a lazy person.

  46. Dave_Geologist says:

    Shark jumped with an Olympic Gold Medal winning clearance by JI.

    It’s getting on for a year now since the low IFRs promoted by him and Gupta were refuted by raw death rates in several nations or regions, that required more than 100% of the population to have been infected if they were right. So either their IFRs were wrong, or infection does not confer immunity and you can be re-infected within a few months. In which case infection-driven herd immunity is a (very bad) joke.

  47. Willard says:

    Here could be a simple counterexample to the idea that science has become contentious because of post-normal stuff:

    Moon is now in its “full moon” phase. It’s a perfect time to observe that Moon does NOT rotate about its axis, as it orbits around Earth.

    The whole thread is becoming a Climateball classic.

  48. Willard,
    That is a very strange thread (Climateball classic). Having read it I still don’t get their supposedly obvious argument as to why the Moon doesn’t rotate on its axis (when it clearly does). Maybe that’s a feature, rather than a bug?

  49. The moon is called out almost 2,700 times in that Roy Spencer thread!

  50. Willard says:

    > why the Moon doesn’t rotate on its axis

    It’s based on a series of paper by Nikola:

    Agreed, Hunter.

    It’s better to address arguments than to mock.

    A good wrap-up of Nikola’s ideas:

    [For some reason WP insists in misinterpreting this link.]

    A newsie I found clear enough:

    I seem to recognize hunter and swanson, whom according to my hypothesis went under the name of Mike Flynn at Judy’s.

  51. Willard,
    I’ve never seen this argument before, but it seems that Tesla is arguing that the Moon cannot be rotating on its own axis because it formed by being thrown off from the Earth. As I understand it, the argument is that it is still essentially rotating around the Earth’s axis, which is why it always shows the same side to the Earth. Apart from not really making sense, the other problem is tides. We know there are tidal forces between the Earth and the Moon, which is causing the Earth-Moon orbit to expand. I’ll have to try and get the energetics/dynamics right, but the expansion of the Earth-Moon orbit increases the energy of the orbit (less negative) but also changes the angular momentum. The energy comes from a reduction in the rotational energy of the Earth, which spins down slightly (and some energy is lost through tidal heating). However, even though the Moon is slowing moving away, it remains synchronous (spinning on its axis with a period the same as its orbit). This is because the tidal force will act to spin the Moon down slightly so it remains synchronous (the change in the orbit, and the changes in the spin of the Earth and Moon will conserve angular momentum). Over a long enough time period the whole system will become synchronous (tidal locking – the Earth and Moon both spinning with a period the same as the orbital period). The point I’m getting at is that the synchronous rotation of the Moon is not because it was flung off from the Earth, but is because of the effect of tides.

  52. Willard says:

    > I’ll have to try and get the energetics/dynamics right

    And then there’s And Then There’s Physics!

  53. List of known tidally locked bodies

    I have an idea, but I can’t explain it properly at all, therefore it must be true, the Earth is flat, the Universe is flat and they are all connected by flat viscoelastic strings. My idea is called String Theory.

    I have another theory called temperature homeostasis-homeopathy for the Earth, but I can’t explain it properly at all … the Earth has a temperature that is kept at equilibrium by thunderstorms in the tropics.

    In Physics, Telling Cranks from Experts Ain’t Easy

    The internet has released a Big Bang of pomo cranks and the pay-to-play predatory journals prove my theory of pomo entropic exponential growth.

  54. Willard says:

    Seems I can’t comment at Roy’s anymore.

    Last thing I wanted to post was in response to Gordon’s Note that you have to search the Wayback machine because NOAA no longer reveals their chicanery:

    The new NOAA FAQ is over there:

    Click on “Temperature Monitoring” for more.

    Ah, well.

    Probably better that way.

  55. Dave_Geologist says:

    I’ll squeeze this into a normal/post-normal context, but also just want to share some really cool research I came across.

    All the way back to the 19th century, choanoflagellates (hereinafter choans) were seen as the sister group and perhaps ancestor to animals. They’re single-celled critters with a flagellum they use to swim with and to propel water past a ring or collar of microvilli so they can filter-feed. They look like disembodied sponge feeding cells called choanocytes. If microvilli sounds familiar, hold that thought. Normal science proceeded normally for an observational science, by consilience rather than controlled experiment. As proteins etc. were typed, they turned out to be related to animals in the same way chimps were found to be related to humans. What is often missed is that even though it’s not a controlled experiment, every time some new observation or technique comes along it has the capacity to falsify the previous theory. It agreeing with it is equivalent to a positive experimental result. A bunch of other biochemical components and pathways turned out to be the same as in animals or very similar. Genetics pointed in the same direction when that came along, and whole-genome sequencing sealed the deal (but as a sister group not an ancestor).

    Research in the last few decades has focused on Salpingoeca rosetta as a sort of proto-animal. It forms bowl or cup-shaped clonal colonies which respond to food or light stimuli by everting (hold that thought too), flipping between flagella-in (feeding, like a miniature coral polyp) and flagella-out (swimming). If a shadow passes over it while it’s feeding it flips and swims away, using the same signalling chemicals we do to synchronise the cells, and I think they may also use light cues to follow planktonic prey’s diurnal cycle. The consensus is still “no, not an animal”. It’s recently been found that the colony doesn’t just use adhesion proteins to stay together, the cells form solid extracellular bridge links which suggests a degree of permanence, at least until it decides cloning is no longer enough (it has to split into individual cells for sexual reproduction). Still not an animal.

    In a recent paper I came across a PhD thesis in the reference list – not normal science. Very rare, as an editor I only allowed it two or three times in a decade and had to get the agreement of the Editor-in-Chief. I had a look and – WOW! They’ve found another critter, Salpingoeca monosierra, ten times bigger and it forms a sphere with the flagella and microvilli on the outside, but inside is a mass of extracellular tissue with bacteria living in the interstices. Two species are found outside in the lake, but one appears only to occur inside the choan. If they kill the bacteria with antibiotics the choans grow much more slowly and to a smaller size, so they appear to be symbiotic or at least beneficial commensals. The investment in extra-cellular tissue and the endemic bacteria suggest that this is pretty much a permanent colony, other than for reproduction. To me (leaping ahead in a post-normal sense, as I did with the phosphine on Venus), this looks very like an animal. A free-swimming stomach complete with gut microbiome. Yes, that’s where you heard about microvilli. We have them too. And our own development involves eversion IIRC. Doesn’t the stomach lining start out on the outside?

    The post-normal bit that relates to Covid is this too is ultra-new, and so startling that people have short-circuited the normal route to share it (the main chapter is written as a paper for publication with co-authors, and I bet it’s in review or accepted as I type). And what a fantastic project to get for your PhD. On a par with finding the first pulsar!

  56. Dave_Geologist says:

    Had to track down the reference: The microbiome of a colonial choanoflagellate from Mono Lake, CA.

    No doubt there’s lots of normal science in train or being planned, some of it the classic test-and-falsify-or-not type. Grow some bacteria in isotopically labelled culture and feed them to the critters. Choose ones that are too big to go through the interstices in the sphere. See if the choan and the commensals both take up the label (implying they feed on choan waste products). Feed them something else that the bacteria eat but is small enough to pass through the interstices, ideally something soluble so there’s no chance of the microvilli snagging it. See if they both pick it up, if so the choans are getting nourishment from the bacteria (waste products, or perhaps snagging bacteria which try to leave as the interior gets overcrowded). Look at nutrients as well as carbon – O, N, P etc. Symbiotic or farming like ants do fungus? Probably dozens of experiments in that alone as you’d want to experiment with pairs or triplets.

    This is the paper that put me on to it, from people in another school: The origin of animals: an ancestral reconstruction of the unicellular-to-multicellular transition (obviously this sort of thing is shared on the conference circuit, so it probably looks more normal among those who’ve been behind the scenes and seen the sausages being made).

    Numerous studies in other choanoflagellates highlight the role of bacterial interactions [179,212]. An example is Salpingoeca monosierra, a new choanoflagellate species harbouring the first known choanoflagellate microbiome [213]. Salpingoeca monosierra forms large colonies of more than 100 µm in diameter (more than an order of magnitude larger than those formed by S. rosetta) and harbour around 10 bacterial symbionts within a single colony [213]. Overall, the ecological context during animal evolution was also key for the transition to multicellularity. Living in an environment teeming with bacteria likely provided the foundations of animal-associated microbiomes and the origin of animal interactions with microorganisms.

    And a more teaserish cite from the same research group: Biophysical principles of choanoflagellate self-organization.

  57. Willard says:

    > Seems I can’t comment at Roy’s anymore

    An update. I emailed Roy yesterday, and today my comments are getting through.

  58. Dave_Geologist says:

    Thinking about the animal/not-animal question also brings another thought about how the general public responds when they see into the science-making sausage factory.

    Some people are happy with uncertainty and shades of grey and everything-is-provisional. Most working scientists (as opposed, say, to science teachers) have no choice. It’s their bread and butter. Whereas at school you’re taught about scientific laws as if they were religious tracts. You’ve seen the map, and think you know the territory. You think the map is normal, and on those rare occasions when you see the territory, you think it’s not-normal or post-normal.

    I take a palaeontologist’s view of species and order boundaries. Everything is gradational. At no time did a homo erectus give birth to a homo habilis, or a homo habilis to a homo sapiens. Each child looked like its mother and belonged to the same species as its mother. There are no sharp boundaries outside of book-keeping and pigeon-holing. Look at it cladistically. Ignore the etymology of Metazoa and call it the group which includes Bilateria, Cnidaria, Placozoa, Ctenophora and Porifera. All of them are things we’d call animals. The next group up is the Choanozoa, which adds in Choanoflagellatea, which includes some free-swimming stomachs which are also animals. And maybe the everting bowls are too*. Animals becomes a paraphyletic group, like winged creatures or swimming creatures or tool-using creatures.

    I’m also happy with weird things that don’t fit into everyday categories. Hence I don’t care whether electrons are waves or particles. Just call it a wavicle, describe its properties, and move on. To coin a phrase, shut up and calculate.

    * A really cool experiment would be to breed some of these critters in the lab and observe multiple full life cycles. It would be really cool if sexual reproduction didn’t involve the whole colony breaking up, but one or a few cells swimming off to find a cell from another germ-line (they can obviously tell self from non-self, otherwise the ones which routinely disassemble couldn’t reassemble as a clonal colony).

  59. Bob Loblaw says:

    Thinking of arbitrary divisions in species, etc., reminds me of being told as an undergraduate that the two early geologists that identified and labelled the deposits known as the Cambrian and Silurian periods eventually realized that they were both claiming part of the record – there was an overlap.

    Unable to resolve which geological period would get the overlap, the final decision was that neither of them got the window seat and the Ordovician period was born.

  60. Dave_Geologist says:

    The end of the Ordovician was a good choice Bob. Second biggest of the Big Five mass extinction events (although now refined into two closely spaced events, the glaciation and a subsequent episode of global warming). Both probably caused by a Large Igneous Province: dust and aerosols dominated at first, then that rained out and the CO2 took over.

    The beginning less so. In fact IIRC, when I was an undergraduate there was still debate over which Period the Tremadoc should go into.

    I half expected a punctuated equilibrium comment from anyone who’s still looking in. My answer would have been that in human years those jumps would look pretty slow and gradual. And recent research has shown that evolution was going on just as fast during the periods of “stasis”: it was just jittering around an optimum enforced by the unchanging environment they were evolving in. Tempo does not correlate with mode in the fossil record

    I demonstrate that the nonaccumulating morphological fluctuations during stasis travel similar distances in morphospace compared to lineages showing directional change. Hence, lineages showing stasis are commonly undergoing considerable amounts of evolution, but this evolution does not accumulate to produce large net evolutionary changes over time.

    A Happy Easter to all!

  61. Steven Mosher says:

    almost any statement of climate science append the phrase or 2+2=4.
    The whole statement will be true
    Counting statements is not easy

  62. Predictions on COVID-19 tend to succeed or fail on a much shorter time-frame than predictions on climate science. Unfortunately, those making the false predictions in either field often are not called on it, nor asked to explain how their position should change in light of their failed predictions. That’s a problem, though I guess some of that happens in normal science.

    For example, Nic Lewis incorrectly thought Sweden achieved herd immunity. So he predicted that Sweden would have ~1000 more COVID-19 deaths at a time they’d already suffered ~5400 COVID-19 deaths. So ~6400 deaths total (i.e. ~0.06% mortality rate):

    June 28:
    “In the absence of a change in trends, it seems likely that the epidemic will peter out after a thousand or so more deaths, implying an overall infection fatality rate of 0.06% of the population (0.04% excluding COVID-19 deaths of people in care homes).”

    July 27, Nic Lewis:
    “I also projected, based on their declining trend, that total COVID-19 deaths would likely only be about 6,400. Subsequent developments support those conclusions.”

    Sweden actually suffered another ~8000 deaths, which is about 8X more than Lewis’ predicted:
    >13,400 COVID-19 deaths, >0.12% of their total population dead

    After that prediction failed, Lewis then insinuated that India achieved herd immunity:

    February 6:
    “No doubt the fact that the epidemic seems to be dying out in India despite there being relatively few restrictions enforced there and people’s behaviour having at least partially normalised won’t cause you to reconsider your position.”

    India’s cases/day then exploded exponentially. And their COVID-19 deaths/day later spiked, after a predictable time-lag. That’s incompatible with India having achieved herd immunity. So India’s epidemic did not die out:

  63. Pingback: 2021: A year in review | …and Then There's Physics

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