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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.