The story of the infallible scientist

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The story of the infallible scientist


How contagious are children? Virsten Drosten’s study on this subject attracted harsh criticism. Now he has revised it. Not a scandal, but a completely normal process. Because science thrives on argument.



© Reiner Zensen / imago images



“Drosten remains with statements about the risk of infection by children” was at SPIEGEL this Wednesday to read – and the sentence can probably seem significantly more emotional than it actually is. Because that is not a defiant, not an unteachable “I stay with it”, but simply summarizes that a revised, well newly published study essentially not different from the previous version.

What happened: A team led by virologist Christian Drosten from the Charité in Berlin published the first version of a study in which the researchers compared the viral load from the throat swabs of people of different ages.

The part of the work that deals with statistics has been criticized by others. A common process in science that “Bild” wanted to scandalize by defaming the study as “grossly wrong” due to the criticism and asking whether “German school policy had fallen victim to a wrong study”.

Anyone who can only read the opposites “grossly wrong” and “absolutely right” in scientific papers in general and in previous publications in particular has not understood science in the beginning. Well-done studies always show their limits, communicate transparently which gaps still need to be closed, why the results do not apply to everyone and everything, and what still needs to be investigated.

The precious good of time

To get to such a high level, scientific results usually go through a peer review before being published. The study authors submit their work to a journal that hires independent experts to review the data. This process is double-blind, neither the study author nor the reviewer know the name and origin of the other. The goal is clear: quality control under clearly defined conditions.

It is completely normal for scientists that their surveys, their statistical analyzes and also their interpretations are criticized as part of this process and often rejected. You then work on and specify. And try again. Sometimes with success, sometimes without.

In the corona pandemic, many researchers are now shortening this process. They publish their results before other experts review them so that scientists around the world can already use the data. Because one thing was and is more precious than ever in this outbreak: time. Going through a lengthy peer review could cost a lot of people’s lives because knowledge about the virus that might already exist in one country could not spread to another.

Influence on political decisions

But that’s only one side of the coin. The other is that not only scientists work with the quickly published data, but currently politicians as well. The first small investigations into the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, for example, probably led US President Donald Trump to take it to be praised as a new miracle cure. This is far from being proven, the research continues. And journalists also take up the publications and make them accessible to a broad mass – sometimes with, sometimes without critical classification.

If scientists now criticize each other, it will take place in public. Anyone who still believed in the demigod in white and considers scientists to be infallible will now be instructed otherwise.

In the SPIEGEL interview Drosten describes the criticism of the study differently than the “image” wanted to convey, quite calmly and scientifically. “Many of the suggestions we received from the statistics experts were still very valuable to us. In the meantime, we have revised the study and want to submit it for publication. We were even able to win over one of the critics as a co-author.” This is how scientific work works, at best.

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