To Err is Still Human

Way back in the Before Times (all of about 5 months ago), I dashed off a throwaway comment on Facebook to the effect of, “Who else thinks this coronavirus thing is just this year’s Ebola?”

Oops.

I’ve been in respiratory care for almost 15 years now. I’ve seen SARS (original recipe), bird flu, swine flu, MERS, Ebola, bad flu seasons, all kinds of stuff that was supposed to bring us to the end times. When this SARS-2 thing came around, I figured we might have a few hot zones here or there, especially in major cities, but like the other novel coronaviruses before it, it would fizzle out in a couple of months. It would be another interesting footnote in the annals of epidemiology.

I wasn’t alone in this assessment. There were a lot of people, experts even, who weren’t terribly concerned at the beginning of all this. Even now-household names like Dr. Anthony Fauci of NIH were convinced that things like universal masking might be counterproductive, as they might lead to a false sense of security. The risk/benefit math just didn’t seem to be there. I say this not as an excuse, but as a reminder that even the best of us get it wrong sometimes.

Unfortunately, for some reason, our society has decided that “getting it wrong” is evidence of incompetence, sometimes even of malfeasance. When Dr. Fauci reversed his stance on masks later in the spring, people talked about how he had lost “credibility,” or that he had somehow gone over the infamous “deep state.” Anything he said started to get ridiculed and ignored. It’s a pattern that I have (quite fortunately) not had to deal with, but one I’ve seen repeated dozens of times across the country. Worse, I’ve seen it weaponized against public health officials in general, with many being essentially run out of their positions, their lives literally threatened.

All because some of us got it wrong, and others used that error not to correct a message, but to advance their own aims.

In science & academics, the search for answers sometimes leads us down a wrong road. Remember, people once “knew” the Earth was the center of the universe. We “knew” that planet was flat (sorry, flat-Earthers), we “knew” there were only four elements, et cetera. Extreme examples to be sure, but again, learning something that challenges what we “know” and opens our eyes to new possibilities is not something to be feared. It’s something to be celebrated. It doesn’t make one a flip-flopper, or unreliable, or deceptive. It simply illustrates that you are willing to learn & grow.

A few weeks ago, one of my kids asked me why I came around on masks myself, as I shared some of those early concerns about a false sense of security. As I told them, it was because I discovered new data, & listened to people who knew better than I did. I adapted, because that’s where the evidence took me. I encouraged them to do the same thing; seek out the best possible evidence, & adapt what you “know” to match that evidence. Most importantly, when you’re wrong, be humble & say so.

Wouldn’t it be divine if we could get everyone to do that?