The world has lived for more than a year trying to develop effective methods to manage the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the microorganism responsible for the dreaded COVID-19 illness. Much information about the virus and the illness it causes is now available on the web. Almost on a daily basis, the media, policy makers, celebrities, and heavily credentialed scientists give updates on the virus, aspects of the illness, therapeutics, and seemingly infinite stories about the administration and effects of the vaccines. Conversation in social media abounds. Today’s situation features a broad spectrum of information on COVID-19 and, not surprisingly, serious disagreement on how the information should be used and how recommendations should be implemented to guide a return to “normal” life.
There are well-known organizations, some with the words “public health” or “science” in their names, that are assumed to practice responsible reporting. Others use the word “science” to lend credibility to the information or instructions they disseminate. The word “science” is used because it is “highly esteemed” and invokes a sense of infallibility, according to a book called What Is This Thing Called Science? (Hackett Publishing Company; 2013).
Scientific information may change with technology, available information, and even interpretation by experts. It is through science that knowledge is improved. We must continue the discourse even in the presence of difficult discords.
But what is meant when experts say “follow the science” or “it’s science”? When the word “science” is used in these cases, there usually is no reference to specific scientific studies or data, which is what most scientists use when they communicate scientific information to support their contentions. And how about the individuals to whom the “scientific” information is directed? Is science the same for these individuals as it is for the scientist and the communicator? What is science to them?
The Meaning of Science
On April 12, 2021, two researchers, Eric Grunfeld, a researcher at Brown University in Alpine, N.J., and Hollis Belger, an independent researcher based in California, used an app called BimiLeap that employs the emerging science of mind genomics to create a mental picture of what science is, even when study respondents cannot articulate their understanding of it.
They created a narrative comprising four silos (or questions or categories), with four answers (elements) provided for each question. This 4 x 4 matrix resulted in 16 elements, which were then combined by an experimental design that mixed and matched ideas or concepts into vignettes. A full experimental design of 24 vignettes was created for each respondent in order to identify their emerging definition of “science.” Each vignette was unique and statistically independent of the others, and all 16 elements appeared equally often but covered a wide range of combinations. The experimental design eliminated interviewer bias and any respondent’s attempt to “game” the researchers.
The app presented the vignettes to the respondents, instructed them to rate the combinations on a scale. Respondents gave their insights intuitively. The app pooled their responses, measured the response time, and conducted the designated statistical analyses. The final product was delivered within six hours of the launch of the fieldwork in the form of complete reports in Excel and PowerPoint. The full results of the Grunfeld and Belger study will be published in Psychology Journal: Research Open, Volume 3, Issue 3. Some of their results are shared below.
A total of 108 respondents participated in the study, and a total of 24 x 108 vignettes were presented. The respondents were approximately two-thirds female and one-third male. Males defined science as “performing an experiment to see what occurs,” and they perceived the outcomes as clearly under their control for improvement. The females were not as clear as to what science was to them, aside from their belief that “science assists (our) evolution through time.”