science.ORF.at: Ms. Felt, how did you experience the Corona year?
Ulrike Felt: I became ill myself in September, together with my husband. We don’t know where we got infected because we were very careful. My husband had the whole range: loss of taste, difficulty breathing, fever. For me it was completely different: I was in a state of complete lack of energy that I had not known before. It was terrible to watch my own body, how it can and will not do anything anymore. After two weeks the worst was over, but I felt the after-effects for a long time.
Ulrike Felt is head of the Institute for Science and Technology Research at the University of Vienna.
You have experienced the coronavirus first-hand – but isn’t the pandemic a unique opportunity for you as a science researcher?
The year 2020 was one big lesson about how science works, how it can help us, but also how we have to give it time so that it can help us. And that is difficult in times when you have to act now, here and today, but do not really have the knowledge of the now, here and today. At the beginning it was not yet clear what the dimensions of this real-world experiment would be – we tried out how we could react to the particular situation.
The n you could see how science and society intertwine: society’s difficulties in dealing with such a complex problem and science in providing quick and clear answers. Everything was in motion.
How did science hold up, especially at the beginning, when there was still little knowledge?
Felt: In March 2020, the expertise came almost exclusively from the natural sciences, above all from virology, epidemiology and modelers. This was best seen in the composition of the Corona Commission. It was only slowly that it became clear that the pandemic is also a social and political event and accordingly needs different expertise. I also found it very exciting that we discussed the question of data and models in public for the first time in this large format. Models are only as good as the data and assumptions they contain – accordingly, many models are also off the mark and have predicted things that never happened.
On the basis of these models, however, many decisions have also been made, see the famous “mathematicians paper”, which predicted the 100,000 deaths in Austria …
The re is a tension between science and politics – in my opinion it is important to interweave these two spheres and at the same time keep them separate. A scientific model can only be a support for a political decision, but never a substitute for political considerations. Because, for example, there are no psychosocial or economic consequences in an epidemiological model. That means we need additional, interdisciplinary expertise. At the end of the day, however, it is always a political decision and not a purely scientific one. This is sometimes confused and leads to the question of whether politicians have to change their decisions immediately when science provides new insights. Here one has to weigh carefully.
Experts have often got it wrong and changed their minds in the course of the pandemic. Is this a problem?
Felt: No, you should just explain why you changed your position. So what happened, what brought about this rethinking? Because then you could understand how the scientists progress in their knowledge and come to an opinion. That would be an important input for society. We saw that very nicely in the mask discussion. In our culture it was unusual to wear a mask, and therefore the attitude of many experts in good Viennese was “Well, must it be?”. And then you have found reasons “why des ned must be”. In other cultures, above all Asia, masks are a matter of course as a contribution to hygiene.
The re were hardly any scientific studies on this. But of course we knew that masks protect because we use them in hospitals. In the meantime we have also learned something new in everyday life. I think it is important to make this process of learning more visible – it affects science as well as everyday life. Science is more specialized and complex, but it too must be able to revise, and publicly too.
Science is not based on private opinion, but on evidence – another term that the public has learned through Corona – i.e. on the results of studies and underlying data. In the beginning of the pandemic, there were none because the virus was new and the data contradicted each other, for example with regard to death rates …
Felt: This is mainly due to the fact that we are dealing with a disease in which the majority have no visible symptoms and our health system is actually geared towards sick people who show symptoms. So, no reliable data. We know how to keep death statistics from AIDS. Anyone who is HIV-positive and who dies of breast cancer is still considered to be “HIV-deceased”. Hence the phrase “died of or with the coronavirus”, which has meanwhile become established. This shows that we often cannot tell whether someone died from the coronavirus or from other previous illnesses.
The question of excess mortality is just as difficult. This is because the mandatory social distancing means that certain diseases are less common, making it difficult to count excess mortality. But what the examples are based on is an incredible confidence in numbers that has developed since the 19th century. With the pandemic, however, we had to learn that there are often uncertainties behind these numbers and that they are not a clear, irrevocable instrument, but always have to be interpreted.
Corona skeptics also use numbers and data to argue. How can one differentiate their “evidence” from scientific ones?
The success of science is based on agreeing how data is produced, what counts as sufficient evidence and that there are enough people with similar know-how for mutual control. This network makes scientific knowledge robust.
The larger this scientific network, the less dependency relationships there are, and the fewer we have preconceived notions, the more trust we can have in the evidence. In contrast to this, there are networks with preconceived notions that search for evidence for their own position at will.
The re is no control exercised from outside, but the previously existing positions are strengthened.
The longer it lasts, the more differences there were.
Felt: In a crisis situation like the one in March, I consider this to be a normal phenomenon. In Austria we had a discourse of “national solidarity” across the political camps. At that time it was so that you had the feeling that the reasons why we do something are based very much on scientific considerations, so there was great acceptance. But of course it was a promise for the future, that is, if science knows what is right and you follow it, then the problem will be solved. And then we had to learn: Science is always on the way to knowledge, it doesn’t have it already in its pocket. And politics must act anyway.
But that is not necessarily the way in which scientists sometimes appear …
Felt: Yes, and I consider this to be a fundamental mistake in science communication. We communicate science as something that produces clear and reliable knowledge in a short time. What we are not conveying at all is that science is always evolving and that it can take a long time to produce results. It would be essential that science learns to communicate uncertainties in communication.
Advice that should also apply to the current vaccination campaign?
Felt: Definitely. Vaccinations are the solution to a problem, but they also raise new questions that we need to research first. You’re a step, the best we have, but maybe in a few years or months we’ll have more clarity and improvement here too.