A lot of science is about ‘trial and error’. The best scientists make more mistakes, more quickly than others, and they learn.

It is good to learn from one’s mistakes, but even better if you can learn, not only from your mistakes but also from the mistakes of others.

The internet and the global flow of knowledge has heralded in a new human age. While many are pessimistic about how the web provides a haven for fake news and conspiracy theories, it also provides abundant real information. If we are able to tell the difference I think we will end up ahead.

When the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic began many of us turned our eyes to the internet – to “data science.”  It quickly became obvious that it had escaped from its point of origin, and we were facing a pandemic. But how bad would it be?

The answer soon appeared. One only had to look at Italy and New York. This was worse than the flu. Hospitals were being overwhelmed.

What was the answer?

Gazing at the data again gave some clues. Many people felt that zero COVID – or elimination  state by state in Australia – was impossible. Some politicians maintained it couldn’t be done with “our large population.” But it was quickly evident that it could be done in New Zealand, and then in our smaller states, and then in every state in Australia. Australia quickly achieved “zero COVID.”

New questions keep arising – the Delta strain – how infectious is it, can it evade vaccines? Again, the answer comes from looking at the data. It is infectious, but the vaccines, AZ, Pfizer, and Moderna are all highly effective in reducing hospitalisation and transmission.

The truth is out there.

“The future is here, it just isn’t very evenly distributed”, to quote William Gibson.

Life on earth is driven by evolution but humans also benefit from cultural evolution – that is from learnings. We learn from our mistakes and from the mistakes of others. The massive and expanding army of citizen scientists, be they witting or unwitting, keeps adding to the store of knowledge and humanity can keep benefiting.

This is an unspoken triumph of “open science.” There have often been concerns that science won’t be shared, that ideas will be patented and locked up, but over many decades the sharing of data has become an absolute feature of modern science. Even the much maligned and feared mantra – publish or perish – itself encapsulates the core principle of sharing science. If you don’t publish, then in some ways, it didn’t happen. Publication rules.

The production and sharing of knowledge continues to expand. An extraordinary amount of data is made available to all. There is a deep and global commitment to sharing data. At the same time, and importantly, the general levels of education are rising across the planet.

As we have seen during the pandemic, it looks like every country has both biologists able to carry out Polymerase Chain Reaction tests for COVID-19 and data scientists capable of configuring and interpreting the results. I think every country also has people with the critical thinking skills to evaluate the data, detect anomalies, and assess the evidence. Global data isn’t the answer to every question, because it reflects and follows, rather than leading and innovating, but it is adding a new and mostly positive dimension to the human story.

We just have to keep pushing harder on education to ensure we stay on track.

In the next few months there will be new questions and a lot of decisions to make. How long does post-vaccination immunity last? Is it worth getting a booster with a different vaccine? When should we shift to vaccines designed against new variants? Should vaccinations be mandatory? Will vaccine passports work? What approaches are most feasible and which are readily adopted by communities? Should children be vaccinated?

Beyond COVID itself there will be other questions. Is working from home more efficient? What’s the best way to balance working from home and maintaining on-site communities? In teaching, what do students like best? What is best for their learning? How do we optimise mental health?

How can we answer these questions?

It’s simple – by sharing our own observations. We will learn from our mistakes and from the mistakes of others. We will also learn the best practice from the achievements of others. Some discerning “critical thinking” will be required but we’ve all been taught that for a while now – for generations. After all, we must keep learning if we are to live up to the name Homo sapiens.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life

UNSW Sydney



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