Public and Scientific Uncertainty in the Time of COVID-19

As historian of science Lorraine Daston recently remarked, COVID-19 has thrown us back into a state of “ground-zero empiricism.” The manifold manifestations of COVID-19 and the many unknowns involved are provoking scientific speculation that is often based on nothing more than chance observations and personal anecdotes. The radical uncertainty of the current situation, writes Daston, has catapulted us back to the seventeenth century, with almost everything up for grabs, “just as it was for the members of the earliest scientific societies—and everyone else—circa 1660.”1

The breathless traffic in singular dispatches and strange facts that we are witnessing now seems indeed like a remnant of a distant past. Yet there is a striking difference between the exchanges of observations now and then. While the knowledge production of centuries past rewards study in terms of social order and public culture, as historians have forcefully reminded us,2 witnessing the messy realities of scientific work and of sifting through the results has in many instances been the province of a relative few. One thinks of the private residences of early modern gentlemen so significant as a site of early experimentation.3 By contrast, most of today’s exchanges of observations happen online, within reach of anyone with internet access. We can watch the spread of the pandemic online “like a Champions League final on the streaming service” and witness the scientific disputes that COVID-19 triggers, often in real time.4 We are able to constantly follow epidemiologists and virologists debating and disagreeing on the manifold questions that revolve around COVID-19. We are able to watch them display and defend uncertainty without even having to leave our homes. We are all in—or just outside—the delivery room of scientific and experimental conclusions. And there is rather more chaos than we might have expected.

“There has never been so much knowledge about our ignorance,” explained the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas in early April.5 Indeed, the degree of uncertainty surrounding the current evidence base is striking. Many questions about the coronavirus remain unanswered, and studies continue to present conflicting evidence.6 The uncertainties of the situation are also due to confusing inconsistencies in the data. Countries, states, and even smaller governmental units vary in their reporting standards as well as in their testing and tracing approaches. As a result, data on the virulence and the case fatality rate of the virus across the globe is changeable and frustratingly uncertain, as the coronavirus tracker provided by Johns Hopkins University—viewed more than one billion times a day—reveals.7 As Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization said recently with a view to the current situation, “There are no absolutes here, there are no answers, there are no numbers that say if this number is this then you do that.”8 What we see is an ongoing experiment, based on a process of trial and error, with all of us involved as dramatis personae. The outcome is still uncertain, and there is little on which to base policy responses, not to mention our own expectations.

The public nature of this display of epistemic uncertainty is challenging. After all, we have become accustomed to looking to the knowledge production of experts to reduce uncertainty. Not only is it essential in guiding decision-making but it also plays a vital part in restoring confidence in times of crisis. Scientific after-the-fact explanations help us account for crises; and forecasts, simulations, and scenario-planning help us imagine and plan for a future after the crisis. Entire subdisciplines have been established with a view to making crises or turbulences explainable and manageable and integrating them into a framework in which past and present crises feature as necessary rites of passage on the way to a better future. This is true not only for the biological, physical, engineering, and medical disciplines, but also for the social sciences. Trying to emulate the natural sciences, the social sciences in the twentieth century began to develop classifications and forecasting techniques to provide decision-makers with reliable future knowledge in order to help mitigate uncertainty.9 Scholarly knowledge production constitutes our most important mode of coping with uncertainty and of acting in the face of it. But just as the daily activities of many more people than usual find themselves depending on science’s real-time results, they are dismayed to find, perhaps for the first time, that science is not omnipotent.

More than twenty years ago, Bruno Latour announced a transition from the culture of science to a culture of research. He believed people had ceased to expect certainty from science, having instead begun to accept that they must share risk in a much more uncertain, evolving, many-sided enterprise, which he gathered under the rubric of “research.” Latour spoke of a “New Deal between research and society” that testified to a fundamental change in public expectations of science: “Science does not enter a chaotic society to put order into it anymore, to simplify its composition, and to put an end to its controversies. It does enter it, but to add new, uncertain ingredients . . . to all the other ingredients that make up the collective experiments.”10

It seems that Latour’s observation was a little too early. In times of crisis, the demand for scientific certainty is still high. This recently became apparent in Germany, for example, when tensions arose as the media reduced the preliminary, often tentative explorations of virologist Christian Drosten to definite statements and policy advice by the media.11 In late March, Drosten threatened to withdraw from the public after repeated, ostensibly even deliberate misinterpretations of his remarks. He expressed anger about the media’s reluctance to acknowledge the uncertainties of scientific research. Instead, they had produced a mere caricature of “the decision-making scientist.” Drosten, whom journalists have already dubbed the “corona chancellor,” asked journalists and the public to stop describing science as usurping a political and policy-making role. Otherwise science will soon have “to retreat in an orderly manner.”12

But maybe that’s not necessary. Maybe the time has finally come for the New Deal that Latour envisioned. After all, the phenomenon of the virus is intertwining research and society in ever closer ways, and a bi-directional realignment is occurring. Those who believe that scientists can tell us what we should do, how we should live our lives, in short, that current policy would be better if we just listened to science, are being treated—via the general uncertainty—to a wake-up call. At the same time, those who think science is a fake, part of a liberal political agenda, including those who have highjacked the tools of social construction to say that inconvenient scientific findings are claptrap, are being forced to give science a seat at the table, insofar as the virus is threatening to hurt or kill them in the immediate or near future. None of these groupings is finding that it can describe the world quite as well as it had believed it could. As Drosten recently noted, “Not everything is black and white.”13 This is the world of research. Through Drosten’s podcasts and the communication of uncertain or ambiguous findings by other epidemiologists and virologists around the world, we are all in for an education in enduring, acknowledging, and indeed participating in epistemic uncertainty.

A New Deal of this kind should not entail change only on the part of policy makers, the media, and the public. Scientists and scholars, too, have the chance to learn from the current situation. Up until today, academia usually does not reward scientific engagement with the media and the public. On the contrary, such direct involvement can impair scientific authority when research is distorted or overhyped. Christian Drosten explicitly acknowledged this danger.14 Nevertheless, he has decided not to retreat from the public. Instead, he continues to comment on the latest research and evidence, albeit with reduced frequency. Rather than simplifying or shortening the complexities of COVID-19 and the current situation, Drosten is continuing and maybe even intensifying his efforts to communicate the uncertainties and the tentativeness of the current state of knowledge.15 In mid-April, the German Research Foundation (DFG) honored his public engagement with a one-time prize for outstanding scholarly communication during the pandemic. In late April, Matthias Kleiner, former president of the DFG and current president of the Leibniz Association, explained that scientists can “by now” (mittlerweile) expect the public to be able to understand the complexities of scientific knowledge production.16 In the best of all possible worlds, and as a consequence of the current debate, academia would increasingly acknowledge scientific engagement with the public, and scientists and scholars would realize that they can ask the public to bear with the uncertainties and limitations of research.

It is possible that a Latourian New Deal between research and society could yield positive effects for both society and research. Accepting that the future is uncertain, open, and undetermined could strengthen our confidence and willingness to engage in collective action to tackle not only this crisis but also other challenges, especially climate change. Furthermore, scientists being more transparent about the complexities and uncertainties of scientific research could enhance public understanding and trust. A better understanding of scientific reasoning and analysis, in turn, could strengthen democratic practices because such knowledge might be able to counteract the tendency to leap to judgment, while also helping to foster debate and dialogue.

But we should withstand the temptation to issue yet another forecast. What happens will depend to a great degree on the choices we make.

Laetitia Lenel is a research assistant at the Chair of Social and Economic History, Humboldt University of Berlin, where she is writing a dissertation about the history of business cycle forecasting. Her Twitter handle is @LaetitiaLenel.

Enormous thanks to Christian B. Flow, Kerstin von der Krone, Marcus Mikulcak, and Mark Stoneman.

  1. Lorraine Daston, “Ground-Zero Empiricism,” In the Moment, April 10, 2020, ↩︎
  2. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (1985; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011); Jan Golinski, Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760–1820 (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Larry Stewart, The Rise of Public Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660–1750 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992). ↩︎
  3. Steven Shapin, “The House of Experiment in Seventeenth-Century England” Isis 79, no. 3 (1988): 373–404. ↩︎
  4. John Schellnhuber, “Die Seuche im Anthropozän,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, April 16, 2020. ↩︎
  5. Markus Schwering, “Jürgen Habermas über Corona: ‘So viel Wissen über unser Nichtwissen gab es noch nie’,” Frankfurter Rundschau, April 10, 2020, ↩︎
  6. For a list of some of the questions that remain unanswered, see Charlie Warzel, “When Will Life Be Normal Again? We Just Don’t Know,” The New York Times, April 13, 2020,; Clifford Marks and Trevor Pour, “What We Don’t Know About the Coronavirus,” The New Yorker, April 29, 2020, On studies presenting conflicting evidence, see, e.g., those on the effects of remdesivir or on children’s risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus, Melissa Davey, “Remdesivir: The Antiviral Drug Is Being Touted as a Possible Coronavirus Treatment – but Will It Work?,” The Guardian, April 30, 2020,; Eckhard Nagel and Angelika Eggert, “Öffnet die Kitas!,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, April 22, 2020; Joachim Müller-Jung, “Kinder sind genauso infektiös wie Erwachsene,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, April 30, 2020, ↩︎
  7. COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, ↩︎
  8. World Health Organization, “Transcript of COVID-19 Virtual Press Conference,” April 6, 2020, 00:37:45, ↩︎
  9. See Laetitia Lenel, “Mapping the Future: Business Forecasting and the Dynamics of Capitalism in the Interwar Period,” Jahrbuch Für Wirtschaftsgeschichte/Economic History Yearbook 59, no. 2 (2018): 377–413; Laetitia Lenel, Roman Köster, and Ulrich Fritsche, “Introduction,” in Futures Past: Economic Forecasting in the 20th and 21st Century, ed. Fritsche, Köster, and Lenel (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2020), 11–29, ↩︎
  10. Bruno Latour, “From the World of Science to the World of Research?,” Science 280, no. 5361 (April 10, 1998): 208–9. ↩︎
  11. “Masken können andere schützen,” podcast, Das Coronavirus-Update mit Christian Drosten, NDR Info, March 23, 2020, 26:37–28:48,,audio657394.html. ↩︎
  12. “Wir müssen weiter geduldig sein,” podcast, Das Coronavirus-Update mit Christian Drosten, NDR, March 30, 2020, 16:55–20:32,,audio660754.html. ↩︎
  13. “Vorsicht vor Vereinfachungen,” podcast, Das Coronavirus-Update mit Christian Drosten, NDR, March 16, 2020, 12:35–12:39,,audio653978.html. See also “Natürlich kann man noch einkaufen gehen,” podcast, Das Coronavirus-Update mit Christian Drosten, NDR, March 13, 2020, 04:14–04:16,,audio652692.html; “Es ist nicht schwarz-weiß,” podcast, Das Coronavirus-Update mit Christian Drosten, NDR Info, February 28, 2020, 17:02–17:04,,audio645124.html. ↩︎
  14. “Wir müssen weiter geduldig sein,” 22:28–22:56. ↩︎
  15. See, for example, “Noch mal Thema Kinder: Zwei neue Studien,” podcast, Das Coronavirus-Update mit Christian Drosten, NDR Info, April 30, 2020, 19:46–21:33,,audio675438.html. ↩︎
  16. “Virologen als Popstars—wie kommuniziert die Wissenschaft in Corona-Zeiten?,” podcast, Tonspur Wissen, April 30, 2020, 28:53–29:00, ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Laetitia Lenel, “Public and Scientific Uncertainty in the Time of COVID-19,” History of Knowledge, May 13, 2020,