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 ‘Alternative reproductive tactics and male-dimorphism in the horned beetle Onthophagus acuminatus’ by Douglas J. Emlen, an evolutionary biologist and professor of biology at the University of Montana, in the US. It’s a fascinating and entertaining paper about the males of this particular species of dung beetle which have a pair of horns that protrude from the base of the head, and how their reproductive behaviour differs according to the size of their horns. Those with more intimidating horns guard tunnels leading to the females, while those with smaller horns find devious ways of reaching them – the females, not the tunnels – such as digging new tunnels that intercept those guarded by the males with the really big horns. 

Now let’s put Professor Emlen’s paper into context: it’s just one paper that touches on one specific form of behaviour of just one of approximately 2 000 species that form part of the genus Onthophagus (from the Greek for dung eater), which is part of the family Scarabaeidae (or scarab beetles) of which there are about 30 000 species in total, which makes up a fraction of a larger family, Scarabaeoidea, which is only one part of the order Coleoptera (all beetles), which are part of the larger class Insecta (all insects, of which there are well over 900 000 species), which is just one of many phyla that include other invertebrates such as crabs and spiders, which are part of the larger animal kingdom (that includes mammals, such as us humans), which is one of five kingdoms of living things on our planet (the others are plants, fungi, monera – such as bacteria – and protists, such as algae).

Science is driven by that motto of the Royal Society: nullius in verba – take nobody’s word for it.

And that’s just living things.* There are also scientists like Emlen examining every single component – from the invisible to the microscopic to the visible – of the inanimate world on which we live, including everything to do with the air around it, the immediate space around that world, all the known components in the solar system in which our planet resides, every known component of the billions of stars in our galaxy, and every one of the billion known galaxies in our known universe. Oh yes, and there are theoretical physicists who study what is believed to be the myriad multiverses of which our universe is just one. And then there are those who examine the chemical building blocks of all of that, and those who delve even deeper into the subatomic building blocks of those building blocks.

I have probably left out other disciplines, and for that I apologise, but I think you get the point. And here’s the kicker: for every paper like Emlen’s that is published, there are other scientists who must challenge it, because science is driven by that motto of the Royal Society: nullius in verba – take nobody’s word for it.

There have been many attempts to explain what science is, that it’s a discipline, an authority, a method, a body of knowledge, a human endeavour; and, yes, it’s all of those, but I think that just confuses the matter. So I’m going to suggest another descriptive tag that embraces all of this, that captures its complexity and the role that humans play in it, and it’s one I suspect many scientists won’t like, but here it is anyway: science is a game. It’s an ongoing tussle between humans in all their idiosyncratic fallibility and nature in all her beguiling perfection.

[Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick by Daryl Ilbury, is available online at leading bookstores and on Amazon.com]

*Viruses, in case you were wondering, are not biological organisms, so they are not classified in any kingdom of living things. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Viruses occupy a special taxonomic position: they are not plants, animals, or prokaryotic bacteria (single-cell organisms without defined nuclei), and they are generally placed in their own kingdom. In fact, viruses should not even be considered organisms, in the strictest sense, because they are not free-living—i.e., they cannot reproduce and carry on metabolic processes without a host cell.” Just to add to the issue of complexity…