Pandemic should prompt discussion of what research can and can’t do, says Francesco Sylos Labini
Research has long been overlooked in Italy—financially, politically and culturally. But the Covid-19 pandemic has changed all that. The value of research is now being recognised, with funding announced and researchers experiencing a new prominence. This new relationship between science, politics and the media is not without its dangers, though.
The media is unaccustomed to explaining and scrutinising the technicalities of epidemiology and public health. In interviews, researchers are sometimes tempted to stray beyond their area of expertise, and politicians can be tempted to shift the blame for policy missteps onto scientific advice and the researchers who provide it. Throw differing scientific viewpoints into the mix, and it is not surprising the public may sometimes be confused—especially if scientists are portrayed as, or expected to be, the arbiters of ultimate truth.
The pandemic has highlighted the need for Italy to take a nationwide crash course in epistemology. In particular, scientists—and the media and policymakers—need to be clear about what science can and can’t do. This is particularly the case when scientific predictions are informing policy decisions.