The changes in scientists' recommendations and opinions highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic are a universal phenomenon, says Osvaldas Rukšėnas, professor of neuroscience at the Centre of Life Sciences at Vilnius University (VU), in a new episode of the “VU Experts Help to Understand” series. According to him, truth is variable.
You can watch the podcast here.
"Scientific recommendations change because knowledge changes. In the field of neuroscience, it was only at the end of the 19th century that we learned that the brain is made up of neurons – individual cells. Until then, people lived their lives without even knowing it for thousands of years – creating art and making discoveries. We have only known about synapses – the connections between neurons – since the middle of last century, and this has changed our understanding of how the brain works in general," says Professor Rukšėnas.
Failure to embrace change only leads to self-isolation, he said, and all scientific progress is based on the changing knowledge: "We know something, we look deeper into something, and we find out that it's not quite right. And so we move forward from one bend to the next, from one turning to another one."
According to Professor Rukšėnas, the changing opinion in the world of science is a universal phenomenon, not only during a pandemic.
"The pandemic has only made it clearer. In vaccine development and the pharmaceutical industry, it typically takes 10 years to develop a new drug – from the identification of the problem to the drug reaching the shelves. During the pandemic, there was pressure to do this within months. There are objective processes that have certain rules: if you try to do something differently, you get unpredictable results. That's why we see a shift in opinion – you can't know what's going to happen", says the professor in the new episode.
According to Professor Rukšėnas, there are many reasons why scientists conducting similar studies come to different conclusions.
"Scientists are first and foremost human beings, just like everyone else – with their weaknesses, problems and so on. When it comes to all sciences, there is no one school. It turns out that even two plus two is not four, although this would seem to be classical truth. This means there are different schools and different followers.
In addition, there are dogmatists and non-dogmatists. There are those who embrace change and changing concepts, while others cling to them. Influence weights and zones also exist. It is one thing if the dogmatist is a researcher at a lower level, yet it is quite different if he or she is the head of an institution. The consequences will be entirely different," says the scientist.
Professor Rukšėnas argues that truth is variable: while one can expect absolute, semi-mystical truth, there is also the truth of the moment: "The truth of the moment has been and continues to be present throughout the pandemic: somebody grasped something at a moment, while others learned something else. The work is extremely intense and the time pressure is immense."
Discovery met with resistance
Professor Rukšėnas says he conducted research on the neurophysiology of the visual system for many years.
"My colleagues and I succeeded in bringing to light new knowledge about the dynamics of receptive fields, and other colleagues accepted it through publications. Simply put, receptive fields are like windows in the visual system through which we see. It was already known that these windows change depending on the growth conditions and the state of the organism. We were able to show that these receptive fields change over milliseconds in the cell, contracting and expanding like diaphragms. And that explains the better, focused vision. It was an unexpected but very joyful moment," he says.
According to the scientist, recognition of his and his colleagues' discovery was delayed because the knowledge was very new and not universally accepted.
"But through discussion, we managed to prove it. This went against the classical view, so naturally there was resistance. Whenever you come up with a new discovery, you have to prepare very strong arguments and have to have a lot of them, so that you can counter all kinds of criticism", he says.
The latest series of "VU Experts Help to Understand" podcasts, shown on the news portal LRT.lt, aims to dispel myths about science that are ingrained in society, and to talk about it in a simple, comprehensible way. Anyone can suggest topics for future episodes by asking a question in a special section.
The series of podcasts and articles "VU Experts Help to Understand" was launched in 2020 as Vilnius University's response to changes in society due to the coronavirus pandemic. VU experts also helped to understand other issues of public interest, explaining in clear terms what the Nobel Prizes were awarded for.