From global warming to nutrition to the smallest details of our lives, scientists keep weighing in, and they rarely get things right on the first try. When politics get involved, it can all start to feel like a game, with rules that change, but consequences that don’t. Never have these changing rules felt more frustrating than perhaps during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In February and March 2020, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci discouraged Americans from wearing masks. He said, “It’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is. And often, there are unintended consequences. People keep fiddling with the mask, and they keep touching their face.”
Then in early April, the Center for Disease Control changed their guidance and recommended that Americans wear facial coverings.
When asked about the change, Fauci said, “we didn’t realize the extent of asymptotic [asymptomatic] spread.”
Later, when COVID-19 vaccines became available to the public, the initial understanding was that vaccinated individuals would not need to wear a mask. President Joe Biden tweeted on May 13, “The rule is now simple: get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do.”
That policy turned out to be too good to be true, and in July, the CDC revised their guidelines.
“Everyone who is able, including fully vaccinated people, should wear masks in public indoor places in areas of substantial or high transmission,” the CDC said.
To put this in perspective, the majority of counties in the United States are currently considered to have high community transmission.
Understandably, many Americans found these changes frustrating, especially as the changes continued to affect normal, pre-pandemic behavior. Unfortunately, the pattern of conflicting information has led to distrust of the CDC and other public health institutions.
What is interesting is that this trend of changes in scientific research isn’t actually new. The model of the atom went through multiple revisions in the span of 200 or so years – and scientists still can’t say exactly what the atom looks like.
Meanwhile, after years of fighting every flame of wildfire, it’s only recently that we’ve learned the benefits of contained fires in forest regions. The West Coast has experienced some devastating fires lately, but hopefully this new policy is successful over the coming years.
Public health certainly has not been immune to this phenomenon of mistakes and corrections.
The National Institute of Health explains that in 1968, the American Heart Association advised individuals to consume at most three eggs per week. In theory, the simple recommendation was a way for Americans to minimize their cholesterol levels, and thus prevent heart disease, without knowing a lot about nutrition. The advice became gospel, and Americans started buying fewer eggs.
Decades later, however, the Mayo Clinic found that “the cholesterol in eggs doesn't seem to raise cholesterol levels the way other cholesterol-containing foods do, such as trans fats and saturated fats.”
The story doesn’t seem to be over, either. Amid the trend of low-carb diets, recent medical articles and studies again cite eggs as an unhealthy food. Another example of changing recommendations is the approach to peanut allergies.
“Until 2008, experts had recommended that children who were at high risk for peanut allergies best avoid foods containing peanuts until at least three years of age,” according to pregnancy and parenting organization Verywell Family.
Then research began to indicate that early exposure was the key to preventing allergies. “Peanut allergy can be prevented through introduction of peanut-containing foods beginning in infancy,” explained the Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
It seems that science isn’t quite as straightforward as we all would like. This is a little discouraging given that the world is experiencing a pandemic, but perhaps not surprising given the ongoing changes in medical guidelines that increasingly govern our lives.
Where can we go from here?
Even if we can’t cling to individual results for guidance, we can trust that scientific investigation unearths useful information. Science may take us down some indirect paths, or even back to where we started, but we’re not going in circles. Naomi Oreskes of Scientific American stated that “science is a process of learning and discovery, and sometimes we learn that what we thought was right is wrong.”
Oreskes explains that it’s not just scientific results that evolve – the actual investigative processes do, too. These processes may not be perfect, but they are today’s best tools for informing the public.
Scientists know the scientific process is not perfect; that’s why they continue to improve it. Our part as consumers of scientific evidence is to continue giving them a chance, and to expect the scientific process to continue to get better.