In some cases, bad papers helped shape the public narrative of the pandemic. On March 16, two biogeographers published a preprint arguing that COVID‑19 will “marginally affect the tropics” because it fares poorly in warm, humid conditions. Disease experts quickly noted that techniques like the ones the duo used are meant for modeling the geographic ranges of animal and plant species or vector-borne pathogens, and are ill-suited to simulating the spread of viruses like SARS-CoV-2. But their claim was picked up by more than 50 news outlets and echoed by the United Nations World Food Program. COVID‑19 has since run rampant in many tropical countries, including Brazil, Indonesia, and Colombia—and the preprint’s authors have qualified their conclusions in later versions of the paper. “It takes a certain type of person to think that weeks of reading papers gives them more perspective than someone with a Ph.D. on that subject, and that type of person has gotten a lot of airtime in this pandemic,” says Colin Carlson of Georgetown.
The scientific community spent the pre-pandemic years designing faster ways of doing experiments, sharing data, and developing vaccines, allowing it to mobilize quickly when COVID‑19 emerged. Its goal now should be to address its many lingering weaknesses. Warped incentives, wasteful practices, overconfidence, inequality, a biomedical bias—COVID‑19 has exposed them all. And in doing so, it offers the world of science a chance to practice one of its most important qualities: self-correction.