Levine: ‘Seeking facts from evidence is critical to how we live our lives’


Outgoing Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences Arthur Levine gave a virtual presentation on June 2 on the importance of science and the scientific method as a means for discovering the truth.

“The Battle Against COVID-19 and the Power of Science: A Conversation with Pitt Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences Arthur Levine” was the latest in Pitt Institute of Politics and the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy’s “Governing in Crisis: Preserving Democracy, the Rule of Law and American Values” series. The full discussion is available on YouTube.

Former Chancellor Mark Nordenberg introduced Levine, who stepped down as senior vice chancellor on June 1 and took on the role as executive director of Pitt’s Brain Institute, alongside its founding scientific director, Peter Strick. At the Brain Institute, Levine will establish a research lab dedicated to studying cellular processes that may be linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

Nordenberg talked about how the various branches of science are all connected by the scientific method, a specific process of observation, hypothesis generation and testing to solve problems. Nordenberg described it as a "deep commitment to and the rigorous pursuit of truth or factual accuracy.”

The scientific method also can be applied to a person’s life as they seek truth from the world around them, Levine said.

“I would go beyond science, Mark, and say that seeking the truth, seeking facts from evidence is critical to how we live our lives as individuals, and how we comprise a healthy and productive society,” Levine said. “And failing to, in fact, have our lives led by facts and evidence, we can cause great harm,”

Levine said that this was especially true for developing therapies in medicine, which rely on hard facts and evidence to save money and lives.

“It’s without question important that as humans, and as members of the society, we have to let ourselves be guided by science and facts,” he said.

Facts can be skewed and distorted from a person’s conscious and unconscious biases, Levine said. Conflicts of interest and greed can affect how the scientific method is used to gather the truth, and so can the desire for fame and recognition, he added.

The more common form of bias affecting truth, Nordenberg said, is political bias.

Levine agreed, saying that political bias is difficult to handle and poses a significant threat to the pursuit of truth.

“I would say that science, now we can call it the truth, can be influenced not only by politics, it can be influenced by religious belief — any set of preconditions, when in fact, one either denies the truth or misjudges the truth or misinterprets it, primarily because it's difficult for our brains to keep competing ideas together at the same time,” Levine said.

People often think in extremes, Levine added, but science often ends up more in the “middle.”

Another thing that aids in the pursuit of truth is acknowledging limits to data gathered for experiments, he said.

As an example, Nordenberg and Levine then talked about President Donald Trump claiming repeatedly that hydroxychloroquine is a viable way to combat COVID-19 despite a lack of evidence supporting that.

The COVID-19 virus has made the gathering of data difficult, Levine said, since it's forced scientists to adopt “learning while doing” approach over a typical clinical trial process. This is because the virus poses an immediate threat to the world, and people are desperate for a way to combat it. But clinical trials can be time-consuming, Levine said.

While hydroxychloroquine is useful in treating autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and preventing malaria, there’s only anecdotal evidence that it combats COVID-19. Because of this, Levine said, he wouldn’t recommend it as a treatment.

Further, using this drug for this purpose could take away viable treatments from people who need it.

“But science doesn't depend upon anecdote. It depends upon, as I've described it, the use of the scientific method,” Levine said. “So, as a matter of public policy, it was in fact a bona-fide danger as we've now seen. We knew that cardiac arrhythmias could result from this drug. That was the one evidence that we did have. But we had no evidence of its efficacy.”

On June 9, Levine also gave a lengthy presentation to Faculty Assembly about COVID-19 and what Pitt is working on to combat it, including three different possible vaccines. In that talk he cautioned that no state that has eased its stay-at-home orders has met the criteria of having 14 days of declining cases.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


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