EPFL President Martin Vetterli on the scientific method


Science and research have seldom been as much the focus as during the current pandemic. This is not surprising, because after all, we all want clear and simple answers to open questions. How does the new virus spread? What if i get infected? Will there be a cure or a vaccine?

But as we’ve all discovered in the past few months, there doesn’t seem to be any clear (and definitely no simple) answers to these questions at the moment. Not even from science. And we all notice that even the scientists sometimes contradict each other when they talk about Covid-19. So who should we now believe, we who would so much like to have security and clear answers?

Indeed, all of these uncertainties are not easy to deal with, especially when a new virus knocks on the door. But there are also good sides. One is that we scientists have learned to deal with such uncertainties and to assess them. Which theories make more sense? Which less? What is more, these uncertainties are part of the very essence of research. Or to use the words of the famous Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman: Science is not about what is true and what is not, but about what is known with varying degrees of certainty. And every fact is somewhere between absolutely false and absolutely true on a range of probabilities.

The other good side of the current situation is that we can all see research in real time. Results, contradictions and differing views are published, debated and reported immediately on a daily basis. But even if it is faster than ever, it is nothing more than the scientific method as it has been practiced for centuries. And it is based precisely on confronting different statements with different degrees of probability and on using data to verify the best hypotheses over time (and to falsify others).

The cacophony of science as we are currently experiencing it is therefore not just a completely normal and extremely healthy process of research. It is the essence of modern science because it allows progress. The scientific method allows researchers to propose ideas of different probabilities, discard them, take one step forward, then one backward, two to the side, and two more steps forward, and so on, until the process is at some point Finding a new fact leads to convincing everyone. In other words, until the cacophony becomes a symphony!

The scientific method is far from perfect, on the contrary. It is a complicated and slow process, even if everything is going faster now than ever before. And even if the scientific method sometimes seems contradictory, it is the method that has worked best so far to find out general facts about nature. And it is therefore this method that will give us a new vaccination in the coming months (in record time!). Or, to paraphrase Churchill, the scientific method is the worst method apart from all the others that have been tried so far.

* Martin Vetterli (r.) Is President of EPFL (ETH Lausanne), Mirko Bischofberger is a biochemist and Head of Communication at EPFL.


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