August 16, 2020

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Re: ‘The Paradox of Fall Semester’

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To the Editor:

Sun writer Anil Oza quotes from President Martha E. Pollack on the scientific basis for opening Cornell and Andrew V. Lorenzen highlights some important issues with that decision in his column.  On a broader scale, science often involves making a model and testing it. Cornell leadership has, under very difficult circumstances, overseen the development of a COVID-19 model and plan in which the Provost and President strongly believe. As many Cornell students are taught, confidence in a model depends on how well predictions of the model have been tested and supported. The Cornell model has not been tested, but the first test involving all of us is imminent. Maybe the outcome will be in accord with the model (hopefully!) and maybe not. But, even if one chooses belief over science and trusts a model without testing it, the implementation so far is faltering. Cornell is not meeting important assumptions of the model that they control. They are no longer handling the quarantine of arriving students from high COVID-19 states to assure it happens. To my knowledge, they also have not shown (weeks away from the experiment) that they can achieve the massive scale of the essential weekly or biweekly pooled testing of all of the many thousands of students. They might have assured this by testing thousands from the broader Ithaca community multiple times in a week. Cornell seems far from the scale of COVID-19 testing they assumed in the model. I think it is important that Cornell students understand that good science and scientists invest little belief in untested models. They also make sure that an experimental test of a model takes place under conditions in which the model’s assumptions under their control are satisfied. Otherwise, the experiment is not performed. That is what makes for quality science.

Dr. Joseph R. Fetcho

Professor, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior