(By Dr. Joseph W. Koletar) Pitch Drop, located at the University of Queensland, Australia, is perhaps the world’s longest-running, continuous scientific experiment. Started close to a century ago, it seeks to document whether tar pitch is liquid or solid. A lump of it was placed in a container at room temperature to see if it would drip into a beaker below. Professor John Mainstone watched carefully but missed the drops that took place in 1962 and 1970. The 1979 drop took place over a weekend, when he was not in the lab. He missed 1988 when he stepped out of the lab to fix a cup of tea. A later drop was missed when a camera failed. The good Professor died a few months before the latest drop in 2014, but the work continues. (1)
While certitude is the paramount objective, science sometimes gives up its secrets very slowly. Which brings us to the present, when COVID-19 came knocking on the world’s door.
It is the near-constant topic of news coverage, displacing the old stand-bys of flood, fire, famine, fame, fraud, and fighting. The virus seems to spread easily, strike quickly, and claim lives. Entire industries have essentially been shut down, millions thrown out of work, social and family patterns disrupted, and hoarding behavior induced. Financial markets are somewhere between panic and free-fall, bouncing up or down with the latest news.
Governments big and small are recommending or requiring self-isolation, some travel is restricted, and home-schooling is the new norm. Medical personnel and faculties are over-whelmed, and the private sector is being asked to respond with medical equipment and research. Military personnel and equipment are being utilized to ease the burden on civilian infrastructure. The Federal government is spending trillions of dollars through various channels to support individuals and businesses.
The over-riding tone of the popular sentiment is “Do Something!” “People are dying!” “My family and I are at risk!” “What’s happening?” “What should we do?” “What help can we expect?”
All fine, logical, and reasonable questions. Kind and unexpected acts of compassion are increasing: young people are offering to shop for senior citizens; “flash crowds” are cheering medical workers. It is heartening to see.
The news media is trying its best to keep the public informed, but its hyper-competitive nature drives it to seek exactitude in a time of confusion. There are moments of “What did you know, and when did you know it?” The evil triplets – Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda – lurk in the wings, eager to take the stage.
Elected officials try to play loving parent in issuing stern pronouncements, mixed with “promises” that it will all be better in due course. The evil among us continue to be evil, seeking to profit from both compassion and confusion, while the medical professionals try to explain the nature and limits of models to hungry and relentless media hordes.
That point is particularly important, since in times of crisis human nature seems to seek certitude, and nothing is more “certain” than a number. Authors Bennie Pieser and Andrew Montford of the Global Warming Policy Forum addressed this issue in a recent edition of The Wall Street Journal. With specific reference to COVID-19 they noted the government of the United Kingdom early on took significant financial and public policy measures based upon the “predictions” of a model that was thirteen years old and contained “thousands” of lines of undocumented Code. Even the people who developed the model are hard-pressed to think of ways to now update it. (2)
What are we to do? Realize that most people are well-intentional and doing their best. Understand that those in power are trying to speed up promising palliative measures. Appreciate the predictive limits of models. Use common sense regarding crowds and hand-washing. And now, with the CDC’s exhortation to wear face masks, even if home-made.
We cannot wait for the next drop of pitch to fall but we would be well advised to give a process only several months old enough time to reveal its nature and dimensions. Every day we seem to learn a bit more, and can hopefully improve our response as we go. This is a global issue. Most historians of science have concluded that progress tends to be the result of a series of modest steps, rather than one giant leap.
We would appreciate your thoughts and comments.
(1) See “Don’t Miss It,” by Kelly Matthews, Phi Kappa Phi FORUM, Spring, 2020.
(2) “Coronavirus Lessons From The Asteroid That Didn’t Hit Earth,” by Bennie Peiser and Andrew Montford, Wall Street Journal, 4/2/20, p, A-17.
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