Scientists don’t ‘say’

As anticipation for a Covid-19 vaccine reaches fever pitch, mainstream news media referring to the research using the term ‘scientists say’ forget a key point about scientists: they don’t speak with a unified voice.

[An extract from Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick]

The game of science has players and, importantly, it has rules. And nature may fight fair, but she’s reluctant to surrender her secrets. She is continually adapting to everything we throw at her, and the resultant complexity of the game means that humans have to be both creative in our strategy and methodical in our tactics, if we are to gain even a foothold.

To make things even more complex, there is no single strategy for scientists to keep their eye on the ball. Broadly speaking, there are two: one

The uncomfortable truth

Before you walk away from lockdown and face-first into the coronavirus, we need to discuss the elephant in the room: your uncomfortable relationship with science. 

[This is an edited extract from Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick by Daryl Ilbury, available online at leading bookstores and on Amazon.co.uk]

Religion is possibly the single biggest destructive force in the shaping of public opinion towards science, and the chances are it’s not going to go away any time soon. The eminent American biologist Edward O. Wilson, in his influential treatise On Human Nature, says that ‘the predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature'. He points to the discoveries of bone altars and displays of funeral rites in Neanderthal dwellings as evidence that the belief

I’m afraid it’s not that simple

Much has been said about what scientists have said about Covid-19; but all that must be examined against one of the bothersome things about science: its mind-boggling complexity.

[An extract from Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick]

Scientific knowledge comes with caveats: it is at best incomplete, at worst wrong, most likely somewhere in-between. At issue is the scope and complexity of the subject matter (our natural world), the robustness demanded of the way we examine it (the scientific method), the demands, frailties and idiosyncrasies of those implementing it (the scientists), and the resultant disconnects, which are euphemistically referred to as ‘dodgy science’. 

Let’s dig deeper into the issue of complexity. If you ever find yourself with a little time on your hands, I urge you to look up a paper titled ‘

Step up scientists

It’s time scientists step up, step out, and put a stop to this catalogue of bullshit.

Scientists are a measured bunch, probably because their careers involve measuring. But those careers are themselves measured, not only in research output but also the impact of that research.

Scientists are also measured in the language they use. They’re generally cautious, sticking to supporting their statements with quantitive evidence - “In our research, 21% of respondents were shown to…” That type of thing. They prefer not to step out of their comfort zone of measured responses.

Right now we need scientists to stop doing that, and to start speaking with a commoner’s tongue. The media is awash with all manner of bizarre claims about Covid-19, and in the absence of firm, authoritative correction, those claims are taking root in the minds of people desperate for

What you’re not told about Covid-19 infections

Right now, numbers of infected persons are being bandied about in news media as part of the breathless coverage of Covid-19. Those numbers are meaningless without context.

Let me explain. If the media report, say, 500 Covid-19 infections, my first reaction as a science journalist is to ask how many people were tested. It’s an issue of maths and basic logic.

If, say, 100 people are tested and ten of those test positive, the only thing we can deduce is that ten people - or 10% - of those tested, at the moment they were tested, were positive. That’s it. We can’t extrapolate it to a broader population. 

Let’s say a week later, the number of people tested positive is now 20; has the rate of infection doubled? Not necessarily. It depends on how many people were tested. If, to get

The maverick who got us to wash our hands

The reason you’re encouraged to wash your hands in the face of Covid-19 may seem logical now, but for centuries it wasn’t. It took one of science’s most remarkable - and tragic - mavericks to show the extreme value of a simple act. His story is worth telling.

Here it is, in an extract from my book “Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick”:

When science drops the ball: The uncomfortable truth about science

Unfortunately, because scientific research drives innovation in fields such as medicine, pharmaceuticals, armaments, technology, agriculture, sport and nutrition, it can provide significant financial and political leverage. It has therefore attracted more than its fair share of villains: scientists misrepresenting their findings to fall in line with the demands of their sponsors; research organisations colouring their work to capture

The power of prayer runs dry

Abstract: It seems God wanted the Pope to die... If I were little Johnny du Plessis of Fourways, gently cradling the frail hand of my dying Grandmother, I'd be very disillusioned with God. Because God doesn't seem to like old people all that much. If Johnny had been keeping an eye on current affairs over the past couple of weeks he would've come to the conclusion that there is a very popular man called The Pope who is right at the top of a very large and powerful organisation called The Catholic Church and that he is therefore very, very close to God. Johnny would've learned that The Pope, like Johnny's granny, was old and very ill and that hundreds and thousands, possibly millions, of people were praying for his recovery. Amongst those praying for the Pope would have been bishops, priests and nuns

Beware the dead camels, and please pass the salt

Abstract: There's a new threat we need to talk about: dead camels... Dinner conversation is drying up. And the culprit? So few new topics. When we chat animatedly over our lamb cutlets we prefer a subject that can be expressed as a word or phrase so it can be neatly packaged and passed on to the person sitting next to us - "what do you think of this Zuma thing?" or "isn't crime getting out of control now?"
The reality is that 'the Zuma thing' is getting boring and 'crime' is offering few new twists to spark any discourse over dinner (unless of course you've just been robbed at a restaurant). While we're at it 'the war on terror' has dragged on too long and 'HIV/AIDS' seems to be under control (as much as any rampant, ineptly addressed epidemic can be). So

The digestive tract of love

Abstract: "Love you with all my heart"? A scientific impossibility, I'm afraid... One of the downfalls of being brought up in a home that embraced the pursuit of knowledge through robust and empirical scientific process is that I find this time of the year really gets up my nose. And I'm not talking about hay fever. My father was, during the 1960s, one of Europe's leading scientists. He was, by all accounts, something of a genius. Computers were his area of expertise, but his real love was scientific enquiry and the quest for logical thought. And he shared it with me in his own special way. He explained why Spock was the coolest character on Star Trek because he was purely logical in his thinking and didn't let piffly little things like emotions get in the way of his duties as First Officer on

So you’re a systems engineer? So what’s that?

Abstract: SKA Africa employs systems engineers. So what do they do?... Carl Sagan was probably the world's greatest systems thinker. Over the course of 13 episodes of his seminal 1980s TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage he managed to weave a thread through the billions of galaxies, the billions of neurons in the human brain, and everything in between, and in the process make us wonder about our purpose in the universe. If he were alive today he'd see those connections taking shape at SKA Africa in the minds and work of the systems engineers. According to SKA Research Professor at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and Chairman of the SKA Cosmology Working Group, Roy Maartens, researchers at SKA Africa have "devised a means of using the world's largest telescope in new ways that will help shape the future of cosmology". That