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The constructionist hypothesis and expertise during the pandemic

Now that COVID-19 cases are rising again in the country, the trash talk against journalists has been rising in tandem. The Indian government was unprepared and hapless last year, and it is this year as well, if only in different ways. In this environment, journalists have come under criticism along two equally unreasonable lines. First, many people, typically supporters of the establishment, either don’t or can’t see the difference between good journalism and contrarianism, and don’t or can’t acknowledge the need for expertise in the practise of journalism.

Second, the recognition of expertise itself has been sorely lacking across the board. Just like last year, when lots of scientists dropped what they were doing and started churning out disease transmission models each one more ridiculous than the last, this time — in response to a more complex ‘playing field’ involving new and more variants, intricate immunity-related mechanisms and labyrinthine clinical trial protocols — too many people have been shouting their mouths off, and getting most of it wrong. All of these misfires have reminded us of two things: again and again that expertise matters, and that unless you’re an expert on something, you’re unlikely to know how deep it runs. The latter isn’t trivial.

There’s what you know you don’t know, and what you don’t know you don’t know. The former is the birthplace of learning. It’s the perfect place from which to ask questions and fill gaps in your knowledge. The latter is the verge of presumptuousness — a very good place from which to make a fool of yourself. Of course, this depends on your attitude: you can always be mindful of the Great Unknown, such as it is, and keep quiet.

As these tropes have played out in the last few months, I have been reminded of an article written by the physicist Philip Warren Anderson, called ‘More is Different’, and published in 1972. His idea here is simple: that the statement “if everything obeys the same fundamental laws, then the only scientists who are studying anything really fundamental are those who are working on those laws” is false. He goes on to explain:

“The main fallacy in this kind of thinking is that the reductionist hypothesis does not by any means imply a ‘constructionist’ one: The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe. … The constructionist hypothesis breaks down when confronted with the twin difficulties of scale and complexity. The behaviour of large and complex aggregates of elementary particles, it turns out, is not to be understood in terms of a simple extrapolation of the properties of a few particles. Instead, at each level of complexity entirely new properties appear, and the understanding of the new behaviours requires research which I think is as fundamental in its nature as any other.”

The seemingly endless intricacies that beset the interaction of a virus, a human body and a vaccine are proof enough that the “twin difficulties of scale and complexity” are present in epidemiology, immunology and biochemistry as well – and testament to the foolishness of any claims that the laws of conservation, thermodynamics or motion can help us say, for example, whether a particular variant infects people ‘better’ because it escapes the immune system better or because the immune system’s protection is fading.

But closer to my point: not even all epidemiologists, immunologists and/or biochemists can meaningfully comment on every form or type of these interactions at all times. I’m not 100% certain, but at least from what I’ve learnt reporting topics in physics (and conceding happily that covering biology seems more complex), scale and complexity work not just across but within fields as well. A cardiologist may be able to comment meaningfully on COVID-19’s effects on the heart in some patients, or a neurologist on the brain, but they may not know how the infection got there even if all these organs are part of the same body. A structural biologist may have deciphered why different mutations change the virus’s spike protein the way they do, but she can’t be expected to comment meaningfully on how epidemiological models will have to be modified for each variant.

To people who don’t know better, a doctor is a doctor and a scientist is a scientist, but as journalists plumb the deeper, more involved depths of a new yet specific disease, we bear from time to time a secret responsibility to be constructive and not reductive, and this is difficult. It becomes crucial for us to draw on the wisdom of the right experts, who wield the right expertise, so that we’re moving as much and as often as possible away from the position of what we don’t know we don’t know even as we ensure we’re not caught in the traps of what experts don’t know they don’t know. The march away from complete uncertainty and towards the names of uncertainty is precarious.

Equally importantly, at this time, to make our own jobs that much easier, or at least less acerbic, it’s important for everyone else to know this as well – that more is vastly different.