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Why scientists change their mind and disagree

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A man wears a face mask to protect against the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) as he leaves UCLA in Westwood, California.

MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

If you’ve been the daily news cycle during the coronavirus pandemic, you probably noticed circumstances where scientists seemed reluctant to share information, debated the latest research on social media or downright changed their views. 

In our culture, we often hold politicians, corporate executives and other leaders accountable for the consistency of their positions. In political debates, candidates will often point out on the debate stage that a rival swung to the left or right over a controversial issue. It suggests a lack of authenticity, or even careerism, and indicates that they can’t be trusted to do what’s right for their constituents.

In the scientific world, it’s expected that even the highest-ranking academics will evolve their thinking — and many have done so during this Covid-19 pandemic.

But some scientists fear that the public doesn’t understand this, and is losing faith in scientists who change their minds. And that’s having real consequences on the front lines.

Changing minds on face masks

Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician who works at the Rhode Island Hospital, said some patients are coming into her emergency department refusing to wear masks. When she prompted them to wear one, they often told her that public health authorities like the World Health Organization and the CDC initially advised against wearing masks, saying there was little evidence that it would help prevent people from getting sick.

That recommendation later changed, as studies began to show evidence that people with no symptoms might be spreading the disease. Now, both organizations encourage all people in public to wear masks, including cloth-based coverings, to prevent the disease from spreading — exactly what citizens in some countries, like Hong Kong and Japan, had guessed during the early days of the pandemic based on past experiences. 

But as Ranney pointed out in an interview with CNBC, it’s “part of the process” that leading public health authorities would adapt their thinking based on new information. 

Carl Bergstrom, a biology professor of the University of Washington and an author of a book about misinformation, explained that very little was known about the virus back in January and February. So infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists had to do their best without much data at their fingertips.

Even today, notes Dr. Bergstrom, there isn’t always a clear answer on important metrics like the case fatality rate (Dr. Bergstrom provided a range, when asked about that, and not an exact percentage). Sometimes the only response is “it depends,” or the even less satisfying “we’re still figuring that out.” That can be difficult to hear when the public is searching for answers, and policymakers are looking for clear advice to pass on to their constituents.

“When you take a completely novel virus, you are starting out from a position of by default knowing nothing,” Dr. Bergstrom explained. “You can at best make guesses based on what you know about previous coronaviruses and prior outbreaks of other respiratory viruses.”

As a pandemic progresses, scientists will get more data as more cases occur. “That gives us more time to do basic investigation into the molecular biology of the virus and the interaction between the virus and host,” he explained. “You get more opportunity to watch how transmission works. And you come up with new conclusions based on more evidence, and then you make those public because it’s the best of what you know.”

Others in the community say that it’s even a badge of honor for a scientist to update their thinking when confronted with new evidence. Vinay Prasad, a hematologist-oncologist and Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco, said that best scientists are “continually re-evaluating themselves to see what we got right and what we got wrong.”

As he put it: “It’s a high mark to be able to say, ‘I’m going to change my mind’.” 

Peer review in public

With the situation moving so quickly, scientists are rushing to publish papers before they’re peer-reviewed. Those papers are increasingly getting picked apart on social media by communities of their peers — a process that previously would have happened behind closed doors. 

The so-called “preprint servers” like bioRxiv and medRxiv feature research that is disseminated far more rapidly than the usual peer-review process, which can take weeks or months. Consumers are now witness to these discussions and occasional fiery disagreements. 

One particularly noteworthy debate during this pandemic concerned a group of academics, including Dr. John Ioannides, at Stanford University, who have consistently argued there’s a lack of evidence to support shelter-in-place orders. That same group published research via one of these preprint servers indicating that the virus might be more prevalent than initially believed, and therefore potentially less deadly. 

It was pilloried by other scientists on Twitter and other social media platforms and picked apart for the problematic methodologies.  

“These discussions used to take place over email or by phone,” Bergstrom said. “Sometimes there are just different groups working on the same problem, but with a different hypothesis or a different theoretical framework,” he added. “So if you see scientists arguing, it doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone is a bad actor.”

Prasad believes that scientists are right to point out flaws in data or methodology, particularly if the paper has been published in a preprint server or the conclusions that the public are jumping to might be dangerous. But he takes exception with the personal attacks he’s seen on social media. 

For consumers without scientific training, he notes, it can be extremely challenging to determine the true experts in a field, especially when a person’s credentials appear to be solid. He suggests looking a researcher’s publication history, but recognizes that not everyone has time to do that.

If you spot scientists disagreeing, he notes, recognize that it’s somewhat normal — especially given that the stakes are so high right now.

“The more eyeballs on the paper, the more likely it is to get critiqued,” he said. “Because of Covid-19, someone has turned up speed on factory line and it’s not pretty sometimes.”

“Science is under pressure and you’re seeing how the sausage is made,” agreed Bergstrom. 

Mistakes made

When the worst of the crisis is over, there will certainly be an opportunity to look back and reflect on some of the mistakes that were made along the way. 

Dr. Prasad said that the scientific community will likely engage in a process of its own to do just that. 

“When the dust settles and we’re a couple of years out, I think it will be a useful exercise to evaluate what we got right. Were they the best policy decisions for the evidence that was available at the time? I don’t think you get off the hook for views that are totally wrong,” he said. 

Timothy Caulfield, the Canadian professor of law at the University of Alberta, differentiates between cases where a scientist changes their mind based on new data, and circumstances where someone misrepresented their work, or falsified data. 

If it’s an inadvertent error, he explained, the research should be retracted with an explanation of the issue, and that should be recirculated to the public. “With so much pressure to move quickly, mistakes seem likely to happen — particularly in preprints. So the scientific community and the media need to take great care in how all of this is reported,” he said. 

Caulfield notes that policy-decisions are changing, but that doesn’t mean that public health shouldn’t be trusted.

He describes the the policy around masks specifically as a “profound communication challenge.”

“Public health sometimes need to adopt positions, even if the evidence isn’t robust,” he said. “And from a policy perspective, those positions need to be championed.”

“But that doesn’t mean that the scientific community should stop talking about the evidence,” he added. “You don’t want to discourage open, honest debate.”

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EU unveils plan to borrow 750 billion euros to aid coronavirus recovery

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The EU flags are seen in front of the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarter on May 19, 2020, in Brussels, Belgium.

Thierry Monasse

The European Commission has unveiled plans for a 750 billion euro ($826.5 billion) recovery fund as the region faces the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.

The announcement came after France and Germany opened the door to issuing mutual EU debt last week, suggesting that the Commission, the EU’s executive arm, should raise 500 billion euros on the public markets.

The Franco-German initiative was described as a “breakthrough” and a “historic” step as Germany had always opposed the idea of jointly;y-issued debt, even during previous crises.

There are four European countries that still oppose the Franco-German plan and want the EU to issue loans rather than grants as a way to mitigate the economic fallout from the Covid-19 crisis. Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark also want strong economic reform commitments in return for any financial help.

Wednesday’s proposal kicks off a discussion among the 27 EU member states. Each leader will meet, maybe via video call, on June 18 in the hope of finding a consensus over the exact details of the recovery fund. 

The European Parliament, the only-directly elected EU institution, will also have to approve any new financial aid as well.

In the meantime, there are other short-term measures available across Europe. The European Central Bank is buying government bonds as part of its 750 billion euro program and there are 540 billion euros available in unemployment schemes, business investments and loans to governments. 

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Hong Kong police fire pepper pellets to disperse protests over security bill

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Police use pepper spray projectile during a Lunch With You rally in Central district on May 27, 2020 in Hong Kong, China.

Anthony Kwan | Getty Images

Hong Kong riot police fired pepper pellets to disperse protesters in the heart of the global financial center on Wednesday, as new national security laws proposed by Beijing revived anti-government demonstrations.

Police also surrounded the Legislative Council where a bill was due to be debated that would criminalize disrespect of the Chinese anthem, amid soaring tensions over perceived threats to the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms.

People of all ages took to the streets, some dressed in black, some wearing office clothes, and some hiding their identities with open umbrellas in scenes reminiscent of the unrest that shook the city last year.

“Although you’re afraid inside your heart, you need to speak out,” said Chang, 29, a clerk and protester dressed in black with a helmet respirator and goggles in her backpack.

A call to gather around the Legislative Council was scrapped due to a heavy presence of riot police.

Many shops, bank branches and office buildings closed early. Dozens of people were seen rounded up by riot police and made to sit on a sidewalk.

Protests have returned to the streets of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong after Beijing proposed national security laws aimed at tackling secession, subversion and terrorist activities. The planned laws could see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases in the semi-autonomous city.

The move triggered the first big street unrest in Hong Kong in months on Sunday, with police firing tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters.

The United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and others have expressed concerns about the legislation, widely seen as a potential turning point for China’s freest city and one of the world’s leading financial hubs.

Police said they had arrested at least 16 people on Wednesday, aged 14-40, for alleged crimes including possession of offensive weapons, possession of tools for illegal use and dangerous driving.

Protesters in a downtown shopping mall chanted “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times” and “Hong Kong independence, the only way out”, but dispersed as lookouts shouted a warning to “go shopping!” at the sight of police vans outside.

One protester was seen with a placard reading “one country, two systems is a lie”, referring to the political system put in place at Britain’s 1997 handover of the city to China that is meant to guarantee Hong Kong’s freedoms until at least 2047.

“I’m scared … if you don’t come out today, you’ll never be able to come out. This is legislation that directly affects us,” said Ryan Tsang, a hotel manager.

Chinese authorities and the Beijing-backed government in Hong Kong say there is no threat to the city’s high degree of autonomy and the new security laws will be tightly focused.

“It’s for the long-term stability of Hong Kong and China, it won’t affect the freedom of assembly and speech and it won’t affect the city’s status as a financial center,” Hong Kong Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung told reporters. “It would provide a stable environment for businesses.”

Hong Kong’s most prominent tycoon, Li Ka-shing, said in a statement security laws were within every nation’s right, but Hong Kong had the “mission-critical task” to maintain trust in “one country, two systems”.

Hong Kong media reported Beijing had expanded the scope of the draft security legislation to include organisations as well as individuals.

The law was being revised to cover not just behavior or acts that endanger national security, but also activities, broadcaster RTHK and the South China Morning Post reported.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday said the United States this week would announce a strong response to the planned security legislation for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong shares slide

The U.S.-China Business Council (USCBC) urged “all leaders to take those steps necessary to de-escalate tensions, promote economic recovery and the rule of law, and preserve the ‘one country, two systems’ principle.”

Asian shares slipped over rising tensions between the United States and China. Hong Kong shares led declines with the Hang Seng falling 0.46%, though it kept a bit of distance from a two-month low touched on Monday. 

Protesters and pro-democracy politicians say Hong Kong’s National Anthem Bill, which aims to govern the use and playing of the Chinese national anthem, represents another sign of what they see as accelerating interference from Beijing.

The bill carries penalties of up to three years jail and/or fines of up to HK$50,000 ($6,450) for those who insult the anthem. It also orders that primary and secondary school students in Hong Kong be taught to sing the “March of the Volunteers”, along with its history and etiquette.

“As long as citizens don’t disrespect the anthem law, there’s no need to worry, I hope people can discuss the bill rationally,” Chief Secretary Cheung said.

The anthem bill is set for a second reading on Wednesday and is expected to become law next month.

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Sweden’s no-lockdown could mean it’s excluded from Nordics reopening

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People sit on terrace tables at cafe in Stockholm, Sweden, on Thursday, March 26, 2020. Sweden is starting to look like a global outlier in its response to the coronavirus.

Bloomberg

As Sweden’s Nordic neighbors look to reopen borders and lift travel restrictions, worries over Stockholm’s controversial approach to the coronavirus has increased concerns that it could be excluded from those plans.

Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde said Tuesday that the EU had cautioned against discriminating when opening borders, and that any decision to exclude the country from an agreement between the Nordic states would be a political decision.

“It is a very complicated issue, and I think that all politicians in every country should also look at the long-term effect before they take very politically-motivated decisions,” she told reporters at a briefing in Stockholm Tuesday, according to Reuters.

Linde’s comments come after Cyprus said it would not permit direct flights from Sweden when it opens up on June 9, but would allow inbound flights from Norway, Denmark and Finland.

There is a nervousness over Sweden because, unlike its neighbors and most of Europe, it kept much of its public and social life open as the coronavirus spread throughout Europe in late February and March.

The government allowed Sweden’s bars, restaurants and schools for under-16s to remain open, although it banned mass gatherings and visits to elderly care homes (which have seen acute outbreaks of the virus), while advocating social distancing, working from home and good personal hygiene. 

The strategy has been controversial and attracted global attention, and some criticism. Data shows that the country of around 10 million has recorded 34,440 cases and 4,125 deaths. This is far higher than its Nordic neighbors, which each have populations of around 5 million; Norway has recorded 235 deaths, Denmark has recorded 563 deaths and Finland has reported 312 deaths.

Allowing for different testing regimes and attributions of the cause of death, according to ourworldindata.org, Sweden’s daily confirmed Covid-19 deaths per million inhabitants, on a rolling 7-day average, stood at 4.68 on Tuesday, higher than the total for the U.K. (at 4.46) and the U.S. (at 3.40) as well as Russia and Brazil, which have the largest numbers of coronavirus cases in the world.

Nervous neighbors

Given the data, it’s perhaps not surprising that Sweden’s neighbors are cautious about the reopening of borders and lifting of travel restrictions, although essential travel, such as travel for work, has continued between the countries throughout lockdown, albeit at a lower level. 

Norway and Finland are set to decide on the lifting of travel restrictions on or by June 14.  Finland is not commenting on other countries’ strategies, the Foreign Ministry told CNBC when asked for comment, but pointed to Finland’s explicit strategy to prevent the spread of the virus in the country and told CNBC “it is monitoring the corona situation very carefully and is ready to react quickly if the situation suddenly gets worse.”

Norway directed CNBC’s request for comment to its Ministry of Justice, where no one was immediately available for comment. Meanwhile, Denmark’s Foreign Ministry told CNBC that, as of Monday, the country was “expanding the possibility for travelers from the Nordic countries and Germany to enter into Denmark.”

“It will be possible for residents from these countries to travel into Denmark if they have a worthy purpose for entering, which can now also include (visiting) grandparents, grandchildren, partners, ownership of a vacation residence in Denmark or if they are undertaking business travel to Denmark,” the ministry said in a statement to CNBC. On May 29, the Danish government will present a plan for a controlled and gradual revision of the temporary border controls and travel advice for the summer period, the ministry added.

Like its neighbors, Denmark was tight-lipped on its neighbor Sweden, saying: “Unfortunately, we can’t comment further on the situation in Sweden.” Sweden itself has told its citizens not to travel abroad until July 15 unless absolutely essential.

Defense of the strategy

With global attention on Stockholm’s approach, Sweden’s Linde defended the country’s more laissez-faire approach, which has been led by its Public Health Agency and chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell.

“Transmission is slowing down, the treatment of COVID-19 patients in intensive care is decreasing significantly, and the rising death toll curve has been flattened,” Linde told reporters, insisting that while “there is no full lockdown of Sweden … many parts of the Swedish society have shut down.”

Tegnell has defended his strategy too, telling CNBC on April 22 that Stockholm was heading toward herd immunity “within weeks,” although an official study released last week showed that only 7.3% of Stockholm’s inhabitants had developed Covid-19 antibodies by the end of April.

The country’s former chief epidemiologist, Annika Linde, who oversaw Sweden’s response to swine flu and the Sars epidemic, said earlier this week that the country’s approach to the epidemic, one aiming at herd immunity, had been mistaken.

“I think that we needed more time for preparedness. If we had shut down very early … we would have been able, during that time, to make sure that we had what was necessary to protect the vulnerable,” Linde told Britain’s The Observer newspaper on Sunday.

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