Readers Respond

Science is rarely ‘conclusive,’ and that’s OK | READER COMMENTARY

Dr. Robert Redfield, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, arrives for the start of a hearing by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

I do not know where or how the COVID-19 virus originated. I deplore the assaults on Asian people perpetrated by ignorant, bigoted people who twist scientific debate about COVID into reasons to attack them. However, I am concerned that well-meaning voices, including The Baltimore Sun’s (“Setting it straight on Redfield, racism, origins of COVID-19,” March 9), no doubt unintentionally, plays into the anti-science rhetoric that is so prevalent today. This is especially unfortunate since the editorial was a commendable attempt to correct a previous position, which it acknowledged as partially in error. Nevertheless, a major problem persists.

Scientific facts are established only with greater or less degrees of certainty. They are never proved “conclusive” beyond any conceivable doubt. Future discoveries, or new techniques, may show that what we now believe to be true is not. The history of science is a record of ideas once held to be true being discarded or modified in light of new evidence. By continuing to criticize Robert Redfield for speaking “with no conclusive knowledge” about the origins of COVID-19, the Sun editorial fosters the notion that scientific evidence is either “conclusive,” useless or worse.


Anti-science forces such as climate change deniers, the tobacco industry, polluters of all kinds, etc., rely on the lack of “conclusive” evidence to resist calls to change their behavior. Additional information can always be sought. That is not an excuse to refuse to act based on the best available evidence and scientific consensus.

Additionally, honest scientific judgments founded on less than fully “conclusive” evidence should not automatically be seen as biased, racist or otherwise deliberately harmful. Scientists seriously assessing the, always imperfect, data should not be judged guilty of fostering evil because of their professional opinions. They should be judged on the quality of the data they rely on and the soundness of their reasoning. If their arguments are deficient on these grounds, then they are fair game for serious criticism. But, as Al Gore noted, scientific truths are sometimes “inconvenient.” Criticizing scientists for reporting inconvenient truths demeans science as well as its spokespeople.


The Sun stresses that it wants “responsible discussion and fact-based analysis.” This important goal can be furthered by presenting a realistic view of science, its capabilities and limitations and not conflating these factors with societal issues, no matter how sensitive.

— Bradley Alger, Baltimore

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