Making sense amid Covid-19 chaos

Artistic tribute: A mural at the National Heart Institute building in Kuala Lumpur pays homage to medical frontliners. – FAIHAN GHANI/The Star

FAITH, philosophy and science have been used to understand the Covid-19 pandemic.

Faith consoles, philosophy ponders while science gives the solutions.

Each has its role and offers us different perspectives of the pandemic.

Since the health crisis hit us more than a year ago, we have been bombarded with all sorts of information.

We have been given varied explanations about the virus’ origin, its mutations, and ways to combat its spread.

We have been instructed about private and public health care, and personal and social discipline to protect our safety.

We have been swamped with videos and podcasts from experts about the effectiveness of various vaccines.

Rather than being enlightened, we get more confused. Can such information be regarded as reliable knowledge to help us understand the real situation? Is this growing quantum of knowledge scientific?

There are many types of knowledge but not all can be classified as scientific.

Science is an organised way of understanding some problems or questions such that the findings are reliable and usable as answers or solutions. So, what is scientific knowledge?

It is how we explain a problem in a systematic way using data, measures and tools to test some hypotheses so that we can replicate the tests to ensure that the findings or conclusions are reliable in their analyses and predictions about certain relationships like cause and effect.

For example, when we toss a coin up a thousand times or more, it will still fall down.

It tells us about the law of gravity. This simple test demonstrates repeatability, replicability, refutability, and rejection or acceptability of the experiment.

Scientific knowledge consists of hypotheses that are testable and refutable.

Here’s an example. If, after repeated replicable tests, we can confirm that drinking hot water helps to combat Covid-19, then we can accept it as a scientific fact since it has both analytical and predictive power. Otherwise, it is just a conjecture.

When we have such organised ways of understanding knowledge, we can predict future events because of regularity in the patterns of relationship among variables.

For instance, we can say that Vaccine X, after such controlled trials, passed the test. Then we can build trust in its usage for Covid-19.

Understanding the cause-effect relationship is a critical test in science. Incidentally, only human beings have this intellectual capability to do so.

Some believe that Covid-19 is due to God’s design. It may be plausible but not testable using a scientific approach.

Thus, scientific knowledge is more than an article of faith; it is about comprehensibility.

The contribution of science is to make sense of the Covid-19 pandemic, so that we can answer questions, make predictions, and control the relevant events to protect human beings.

This is thus different from the supernaturalistic approach that tries to explain the pandemic using theistic causes.

Scientists and medical experts will explain the problem by understanding causes in the observable world of infectious organisms and so on.

To the scientist, the causes may have no motives or purposes.

The Covid-19 virus has no motive to do what it does. It just does.

So, we do not philosophise about Covid-19 in relationship to man’s existence and survival. The teleological content in the scientific explanation of the pandemic is not stressed.

Science does not burden itself with whether something is virtuous or evil. This is left to philosophers.

Often, we are sent videos of individual cases depicting how some people are cured or have various recuperating experiences. We are persuaded, directly or indirectly, to accept or believe them.

Science does not accept such individual or particular cases to be valid truths. Scientific explanations are about the general, and not the particular.

There are numerous reports about individual cases involving the impact of taking a particular vaccine.

Unfortunately, there is not enough verification of this and thus, can not be generalised as a truth-claim.

A scientific explanation of a phenomenon like Covid-19 should be simple and logically consistent. If there are contradictions, this means that the required sequence of tests in confirming cause and effect is not complete or thorough.

Thus, we hear of contradictory statements from many self-professed experts about the origin and causes of Covid-19.

Even international organisations make unreliable or contradictory statements, politicising the pandemic.

It is increasingly difficult now for everyone to accept a clear-cut scientific explanation on the origin of Covid-19.

Because of politics, even the most meticulous scientific study and explanation of the case will be viewed with scepticism.

This is indeed a disturbing development for scientific research on the pandemic.

Regardless, knowing what scientific knowledge is, and how it works, definitely helps us to be more guarded and discernible about what to believe and accept.

Prof Datuk Dr Paul Chan is the co-founder, vice-chancellor and president of HELP University (Malaysia). The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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HELP , Covid-19 , science , data


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