How Many Paradigm Shifts Should We Expect with COVID-19?

Thomas Kuhn, a renowned philosopher of science, suggested in his 1962 work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that scientific progress advances through a series of revolutionary cycles.  In each cycle, a dominant scientific model ("Normal Science") is widely accepted by consensus within the scientific community.  Anomalies that contradict the model may emerge, causing the model to "drift" away from scientific consensus.  When new observations severely contradict the existing model, the model undergoes a "crisis," leading to the emergence of new models ("model revolution").  A "paradigm shift" then occurs in which a competing model becomes dominant, and the cycle repeats over time.

The philosopher Imre Lakatos provided an important critique of the Kuhn Cycle in his 1970 paper "Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes."  Lakatos described scientific progress as a series of competing research programs that each had a "hard core" of scientific theories that cannot be undermined.  As anomalous observations are made that threaten core theories, a "protective belt" of hypotheses is developed to accommodate new observations while preserving the core theories.  Ultimately, a dominant research program may be superseded by a competing research program that produces greater scientific progress.

The dangers of blind trust in scientific consensus and the relevance of scientific philosophy have become increasingly obvious during the public health failures surrounding COVID-19.  Indeed, we have witnessed several examples of a Kuhn Cycle in just the past few months!  The clearest and most alarming example is the so-called "lab leak theory," which opines that COVID-19 originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.  Following the worldwide spread of COVID-19, the scientific community acted quickly to suppress any suggestion that COVID-19 emerged from a lab.  In fact, a March 7, 2020 letter was published "to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin," signed by 27 public health researchers.

In the context of the Kuhn Cycle, the "hard core" is the theory that COVID-19 "originated in wildlife."  Opponents of the "lab leak" theory had a protective belt that even Lakatos couldn't imagine: massive public censorship.  Indeed, on January 31, 2020, researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), New Delhi, published an article entitled "Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag" on the preprint server for biological science, bioRxiv.  The authors noted four unique insertions in the COVID-19 spike protein that were similar to other contagious viruses, particularly HIV, which strongly suggested that the virus had non-natural or "man-made" origins.  Notably, the publication was still awaiting peer review.

The outcry was swift.  Two days after publication, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, dismissed the findings as "outlandish."  The authors were forced to withdraw the article that same day.  Yet the paper caught the attention of Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), who, in a February 6, 2020 letter to National Academy of Sciences president Dr. Marcia McNutt, requested an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, citing the retracted IIT study.

A response from the presidents of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine dismissed any suggestion that COVID-19 came from a lab as "misinformation" and asserted that the virus evolved naturally.  Meanwhile, social media giants Twitter and Facebook quickly banned posts advocating the "lab leak" theory.  Corporate media dismissed any evidence of possible man-made COVID-19 origins.  Scientists were afraid to defend the lab leak theory over political concerns.

Yet, as summarized in a bombshell report from Vanity Fair, there is rapidly growing evidence indicating that COVID-19 likely originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.  In the face of this new evidence, we have seen a "drift" from the natural origin theory of COVID-19, and indeed one could certainly argue that we may even be at the "model crisis" or "model revolution" stages of the Kuhn Cycle.  The notion that the virus originated in a lab is receiving increasing support from our Intelligence Community, public health officials, politicians, scientists, media, and even entertainment figures.  Many within the scientific community still resist the lab leak theory, with a May 27, 2021, Nature article moaning that "[a]llegations that COVID escaped from a Chinese lab make it harder for nations to collaborate on ending the pandemic — and fuel online bullying."  Our media are still cranking out op-eds condemning the lab leak theory.  Perhaps, then, we have not yet reached a full-on "paradigm shift" in scientific consensus.  At the very least, however, a shift in consensus on political policy has been achieved, with bipartisan calls to hold China and the World Health Organization under greater scrutiny.

Other COVID-19-related issues have undergone changes in their own Kuhn Cycles.  As I have noted elsewhere, the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 has faced similar censorship, receiving derision from public health officials, scientific institutions, and the media alike.  Yet a recent (albeit not yet peer-reviewed) study from the Smith Center for Infectious Diseases and Urban Health in New Jersey indicates that hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and azithromycin (AZM) used in tandem significantly improved the survival rate of COVID-19 patients on ventilators, consistent with other peer-reviewed studies that focused on the use of both drugs.  The "hard core" theory that hydroxychloroquine is harmful for COVID-19 patients, championed by an article in The Lancet, has already been redacted (although subsequent papers continue to wrongly cite the disgraced study).  A "paradigm shift" in policy is unlikely, however, given that discussions about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine are still censored.

Similarly, public health officials advocated mask mandates for the majority of the pandemic, and again social media banned posts questioning the efficacy of mask-wearing.  Public shaming of those who refused to wear masks became commonplace, sometimes resulting in violence, despite the fact that there is no consensus that masks are significantly effective at preventing COVID-19.  In at least one case, a peer-reviewed article that found masks were not effective at preventing the virus was retracted, which is concerning due to how politically charged the issue has become.  A more damning scientific rebuke of masking policy appeared in a recent article (currently awaiting peer review) from the University of Louisville, which ultimately concluded that "[m]ask mandates and use are not associated with slower state-level COVID-19 spread during COVID-19 growth surges."  In terms of the Kuhn Cycle, the model that masks effectively prevent COVID-19 may move from the "model drift" stage to the "model crisis" stage as masking policy faces increasing scrutiny.

And yes, even with vaccines, we have seen a shift in scientific and political consensus.  Vice President Kamala Harris recently urged everyone to vaccinate, particularly with the spread of the delta COVID-19 variant.  "You have the power to save your life," she noted in her attempt to fight vaccine hesitancy.  Yet last fall, Harris emphatically stated in a CNN interview that, when it comes to becoming vaccinated, she "would not trust Donald Trump."  Dr. Fauci poured cold water on vaccination last fall, suggesting that vaccines were "not going to eliminate the need to be prudent and careful with our public health measures."  In other words, he eliminated a major incentive for vaccination (e.g. mask removal and an end to social distancing).  He indicated that he did not expect the vaccines to be highly effective, stating last August that "[t]he chances of it being 98% effective is not great, which means you must never abandon the public health approach."  Multiple public health officials suggested that, under political pressure from then-president Donald Trump, the Food and Drug Administration would rush vaccine approval before ensuring its safety.  Fast-forward several months, and any questions about vaccine safety are censored, Dr. Fauci has described the vaccines as "highly efficacious," public health officials are urging vaccination, and former Democratic vaccine skeptics such as Andrew Cuomo are now promoting the vaccine.

The ever-changing science surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic exposes the danger of blind "trust in the science."  One year ago, few scientists would have suggested that COVID-19 originated in a lab, or that hydroxychloroquine may have therapeutic efficacy for COVID-19, or that masks did not effectively prevent the spread of the virus.  In a short period of time, all three theories are gaining traction and support.  Scientific innovations throughout history have reaped extraordinary benefits for all of humanity.  However, for our scientific institutions to maintain public trust, scientific ideas must be allowed to face public scrutiny free of censorship and weaponization; science cannot be used as a cudgel to silence dissenting opinions.  With scientific issues becoming increasingly politicized, it is crucial to understand how science works and evolves, and that science is fallible and prone to groupthink and non-scientific influences.

J. Allen Cartwright is a chemical researcher in the energy sector.  He can be followed on Parler at @jallencartwright.

Image via Pixnio.

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