Did Science Fail During COVID-19?

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The COVID state of emergency was officially lifted in May. For practical purposes, the emergency ended about a year earlier. I am the chairman of the Cleaning Industry Research Institute (CIRI), a cleaning science organization. What I am about to write goes against interest, if interest is defined as promoting science. And I want to be clear that my words are not the official position of CIRI. CIRI has not taken a position and others in the organization may well disagree with me. If that is the case, perhaps in a subsequent issue a variety of perspectives can be published as a “debate” or discussion.

To answer my own question — Did science fail during COVID? — I think COVID revealed science for what it is: a valuable yet imperfect process of guided learning that sometimes poses as more than it is. Too many of us — both scientists and laymen — have put “science” on a pedestal, made it a secular “god.” COVID shined a bright light on science, and under its glare science’s limitations and imperfections were manifested, even as they were sometimes denied. More often than not, the problem wasn’t with the science per se, it was with the people who represented science as something it wasn’t. Here’s a look at some of the problems:

  • Good science — meaning useful research — takes time to develop and rarely gets it right at the start. Scientists develop hypotheses, then test them using experiments often designed in whole or in part by these same scientists. Confirmation bias is a known danger and the best research separates hypothesis from experimental design. Sometimes this separation isn’t even attempted, other times it is a façade, designed for appearances but intended to deceive (including, too often, self-deception).
  • Stress reveals character … both good and bad. COVID confirmed many of my worst fears about scientists. Vanity, hubris, and an almost total lack of humility were on display daily.
  • Related to the above were conflicts of interest, either not declared or declared but ignored, and opaqueness when transparency was needed. The symbiotic relationship between our public health agencies and pharmaceutical companies invites corruption and is a danger to the public.
  • Science was put in service of narratives rather than truth. Those who dared to question the approved narratives often were delegitimatized and de-platformed. This was bad for the country, but especially it was bad for the credibility of science. Daily, we learn more and more about the truth that was denied and the deceptions that were promulgated as truth.
  • Science chose sides. Related to the prior point, rather than standing outside of the political fray focused on and communicating what science can and did know, science allowed itself to become enmeshed in the politics. The partisanship undermined legitimacy.

Closer to home for those of us in the cleaning industry, scientists and public health officials proclaimed the efficacy of masking. This false assurance of safety put untold millions of cleaning workers at risk. For all practical purposes, masking is an ineffective intervention to limit transmission of viruses. Science knew this; a robust body of research had already been done prior to COVID, but scientists went along with the charade. Worse, an intervention that does work was downplayed: dilution through increased ventilation as well as the use of technologies such as negative pressure. The safest place to be typically was outdoors. Yet, most public health professionals, supposedly relying on science, counseled that we stay isolated inside our homes. 

Lest we forget, the cleaning industry itself does not escape unscathed. In particular, the broadcast spraying of biocides, especially in sensitive environments populated by the old, the young, and the health compromised, is a black mark against those who rushed in to take advantage of fear and panic. Easy money, I suppose, but cutting corners and putting lives at risk (biocides are poisons, after all) is not the way a professional industry does things. In this the science is clear: Clean first, use biocides sparingly. But many in our industry disregarded the science in favor of a short-term windfall. One can only hope that appropriate karma is visited upon them.

All in all, I think CIRI stayed true to its mission of communicating the science, but we should have been bolder in calling out those selling “snake oil.” Additionally, in hindsight it is clear that we should have emphasized the importance of increased ventilation more than we did once it was clear that aerosol transmission was primary.

COVID was a world-wide scourge. The scientific community’s response to it was not entirely bad but it revealed alarming proclivities and deficiencies. Now is an important opportunity for learning and correction. Moving forward, science needs to know its limits, play to its strengths, and stay in its lane.

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John Downey

John Downey is the chairman of the Cleaning Industry Research Institute (CIRI). A veteran of 50 years in the cleaning and disaster restoration industry, Downey also serves as Editor and Publisher of CIRI’s peer-review journal, the Journal of Cleaning Science, where an earlier version of this article was published in its Summer 2023 issue. He welcomes feedback and can be reached at john@ciriscience.org.

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