Limits of science



Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists of all time and a man who understood what science knows

The early return of Chinook salmon to the Kenai River – the big kings of Alaska fame – is shaping up as a disaster.


No one knows why.

The run of prized Copper River sockeye salmon – which looked to be plunging into the abyss only a week ago – has mysteriously taken a turn for the better with unexpected numbers of the fish now swarming into the river.

No one knows why.

The SAR-CoV-2 virus – the pathogen that drives the deadly COVID-19 disease – continues to daily kill people around the globe to the tune of thousands per day.

And know one even knows where exactly the virus came from or how exactly it was born or how far back in time exactly stretch the roots of the pandemic it spawned.

Homo-sapiens are far and away the most intelligent animals ever to inhabit the planet, and yet there is so much we don’t know about the natural functions of the space rock on which we live, let alone the immensities of space that surround it.

Black boxes

News organizations across the country were today cheering the report that an old drug – dexamethasone – has shown to have new powers in treating COVID-19. Dexamethasone is one of a number of cortical steroids that have been used for decades to treat a wide variety of inflammatory diseases.

Steroids are miracle drugs that have gotten something of a bad rap in this country in modern times because of the use of muscle-building, anabolic steroids by professional athletes – cyclist Lance Armstrong, baseball home-run hitters Mark Maguire and Sammy Sosa, and a full fifth of National Football League players in the ’80s if you believe a poll conducted by University of North Carolina researchers.

Anabolics are a magic way to build muscle. Corticoids are a magic way to reduce inflammation. Dexamethasone is what is known specifically as a glucocorticoid. What do we know about how glucocorticoids work their magic?

“It is not known to what extent glucocorticoid hormones cause their anti-inflammatory actions….(by) different molecular mechanisms,” researcher Jeremy Saklatvala writes in Arthritis Research.

All that is known is that they do.

That discovery is credited to Dr. Philip Showalter Hench – a doctor at the May Clinic in  Rochester, Minn. – who in the late 1940s noticed that the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis often improved in pregnancy and made the connection to the natural increase in steroids in the bodies of pregnant women.

Steroids had not long earlier been identified as the active substances produced by the adrenal glands. Hench connected the dots and began experimenting with small doses of cortisone which dramatically improved the symptoms of his patients.

By the 1960s, steroids were in wide use treating all kinds of inflammatory problems from arthritis to joints swollen by physical injuries.  Scientists are still, however, trying to pin down the cause and effect mechanisms that provide this relief.

They know they work; they just don’t know how they work.

Those finicky slamon

Pacific salmon in Alaska are another shining example of knowing things work and using that knowledge while knowing little about how these things work. Considerable is known about the natural history and survival of the fish in freshwater, where they spend the early parts of their lives.

Almost nothing is known about their lives at sea where most of them spend most of their time.

Every year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasts how many salmon will return to Alaska waters based largely on models built around how many spawning fish made it back to streams the previous year or years.

Given all the variables influencing salmon returns that remain invisible to forecasters, this is a little like an umpire calling balls and strikes from the outfield.

That fisheries managers regularly come as close as they do with the forecasts given this handicap is rather impressive how close the regularly come, although in the case of most salmon they do get some help from the multi-age structure of the species.

If a lot of two-ocean sockeye come back in one year, the data shows there is a very high probability that a lot of three-ocean sockeye will come back the next year. And it’s the same for one-ocean fish and two-ocean fish, strong or weak.

That helps to hedge the bet, but the annual forecasts still remain bullseyes seldom hit in the center of very large targets. The Copper River, for instance, was forecast to get a return of about 1.4 million sockeye this year, but that was simply the center ring in a target that stretched from 903,000 to 1.9 million. 

The return is now looking to be nearer the lower end of the range. There are concerns a weaker than expected run to the Copper could portend a similar problem in Cook Inlet where sockeye went bust in 2018.

Biologists forecast a return of 4.6 million in a range of 3.6 million to 5.5 million that year. The actual return of 3.1 million wholly missed the target. What happened?

Something went wrong in the ocean was the general consensus. Much the same is being said now.

State Sport Fisheries Director Dave Rutz was blunt about it Tuesday.

“I could throw out a whole bunch of reasons,” he said. “It’s a yard-long list. There’s about 80 different reasons, but we really don’t know.”

Those are 80 independent reasons. Given that many of them interact, you could end up with thousands of reasons. And those reasons are only a catalog of the known. When science goes looking for new information, it regularly finds a lot of unknowns.

One of the regionally big ones now revolves around the collapse of the early run of king salmon to the Kenai River. The river is on pace for the worst return in history despite the closure of all fisheries.

The fishery has been generally trending downward for years despite being fished little or not at all.

“The Kenai has just crashed,” Rutz said.

No one knows why.

help blurb

Knowns and unknowns

Science sometimes has answers. The answers more often raises new questions. Science moves constantly forward but it’s a herky-jerky ride with plenty of twists and turns and now and again the dead-end requiring a turnabout and a reversal.

When the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic was just beginning back in February, Sci-News reported this:

“A team of researchers from the University of Edinburgh Centre for Inflammation Research, the Queen’s Medical Research Institute Edinburgh, and Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh says that, based on evidence from previous outbreaks of similar types of infection such as SARS (now SARS-CoV-1) steroids provide little benefit to patients and could do more harm than good. The scientists say that clinicians should still administer the treatment for conditions such as asthma and other inflammatory diseases.”

And now the San Fransisco Chronicle headlines this:

“Dexamethasone, the cheap steroid hailed as a life-saving COVID-19 treatment.”

None of what is written here is meant to downplay the value of science in any way. The world would not be where it is today were it not for scientific breakthrough after scientific breakthrough after scientific breakthrough.

This is meant to remind that science is not a religion or a belief. It is a method, a method for searching for consistently reproducible answers to questions about how the world works as Sir Isaac Newton did.

And not much has changed since he observed that “to explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. Tis much better to do a little with certainty and leave the rest for others that come after, then to explain all things by conjecture without making sure of anything.”

In the post-truth in which we live today – where so many choose to find black or white in a muddle of gray or choose to believe what they want to believe even when incontrovertible facts say otherwise – it would be nice to embrace the idea that science can answer all our questions and solve all of our problems.

Only it can’t; it can only solve comparative few.









7 replies »

  1. The thing about science, whether you believe in it or not, is that it is always going on. As long as humanity has had the ability to think and process information, science has been afoot. Fire is science, the process of elimination, trial and error, what works and what doesn’t…same for the wheel, and flight, and everything we see and do. Science by nature is more miss than hit, because we are an imperfect creature and we created science which as part of the proving process necessitates failure. As children when we first started to walk we fell far more than we succeeded, same with speech. If you don’t fail you will never succeed, that’s science at work.

  2. Science is the process of developing data-driven explanations. What most people don’t understand is that one research study does not portend “fact/truth”. The problem with media is that it reports on a sensational study with revolutionary findings, only to report years later (if at all) that the reported study was flawed, or not supported by the body of research that followed. Hence the anti-vax movement that was based on one flawed study (later retracted) that continues to exist today despite wide debunking. Eventually we get to the point today where people become skeptical of science, despite the fact that science, in all its messy iterations, produces much good besides the satisfaction of understanding. America’s current anti-science political leanings don’t bode well for our future. Its the body of scientific research matters, not the single whiz-bang study. It’s also the attitude of society towards science that matters as well. Me, I’m sticking with science.

    • me too. but part of the problem here, in addition to the media, is that scientists ignore much of what you point out. there is a bad tendency to present “hey look at what we found” as the end of the story when in many cases it’s just the beginning.

      not to mention the shading the greys.

  3. Yes, we don’t know so we must be careful. Why gravity? Why does water boil? Why am I so lovable? Nobody knows.

  4. What happened to the Chinook Salmon??
    Lots of things happened to the grand daddy of all fish in Alaska, beginning with over harvest, followed by the introduction of a billion pink hatchery fish year after year.
    Then, let’s add to that the warming of our oceans, acidification of the seas, Fukoshima and the garbage dump that contaminates our fish with mico plastics which disrupts the food cycle from plankton on up.
    In short folks, your oceans are dying and not just the seas, but the biosphere on land is also seeing many signs of destruction.
    If our oceans collapse, so too will life on land.
    Science is the grand Illusion, always changing and always seeking the truth, yet never keeping up with the natural factors that effect evolution and change on earth.

    • Do you remember just a few short weeks ago that since the lockdown “monkeys were roaming the streets again, alligators were resting on once crowded beaches, Jaguars were in people’s rooftops, etc..” this was all transformation of a few short weeks without evil man to “interfere” with nature. I can buy your argument about pink’s, but look at last year’s numbers. Were the oceans too warm then?
      There is little “science” today without some sort of skin in the game of agenda driven politics.

    • Radiation in the oceans from Fukushima is minuscule. Even that measurable on the ground outside the power station was not siginificant enough to evacuate. In fact, the evacuation killed far more (generally elderly whose lives were disrupted) than it saved.

      Plastics don’t last all that long in the oceans. They are broken down by sunlight and wave action. The smaller the chunks are, the quicker they deteriorate. Remember plastics are generally long chain hydrocarbons, essentially food for microscropic critters. Cheers –

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