This is a rebuttal of an article published by a friend. You can find the article here.
Last week I had the opportunity to spend long hours in the hospital with my father keeping watch on my mother. My father is a moderately well-known vector control scientist. Even though he is 91, he has written quite a few articles last year explaining to lay people that this virus is zoonotic and originated in bats. Yet, he also personally believes that the Chinese manufactured the virus. When I asked him to explain the contradiction, he said “The evidence clearly says the virus originated in bats. Unless I can find evidence that shows beyond any doubt that the virus is manmade, my personal beliefs will remain personal, and my scientific opinion that the virus originated in bats will remain”.
That is science in a nutshell. It is a mechanism to understand the world around you, based on observation, experimentation and inference. It is very fuzzy and there are lot of uncertainties. By rigorous scrutiny of data, and cross-checking results with peers, and putting in place mechanisms to reproduce experimental results, scientists hope to eliminate bias and opinion from verifiable fact. So my father has a personal bias that says the Chinese cooked this up. But until such time as he can be shown the evidence this is the case, he will not change his scientific opinion.
There is no such thing as a fact that is 100% true – there are always caveats. Even the truism that we are taught in school that mass of an object is always constant but its weight may change depending on gravity, is false – when an object approaches the speed of light, its mass reduces by converting itself into energy. This is the essence of relativity.
Unfortunately science is also conducted by human beings, who bring their biases and prejudices to the mix. This is where science gets even more rigorous. Sometimes these biases escape into formal dogma and do untold damage. Two examples come to mind – Andrew Wakefield’s paper on how MMR vaccines cause autism reduced measles vaccinations in the UK to the point where it started killing children again. Cold Fusion – the favourite of anyone wanting to solve for the world’s energy problems – is another. In both cases science righted itself through the same process that produces verifiable research. Both these papers were repudiated and the concerned people struck off or blackballed. People want certainties, but science cannot deliver certainties because of the inherent probabilistic nature of the universe. Therefore charlatans come into being who feed people snake-oil.
To illustrate, let’s get right into the cow and human urine treatments (sorry for the mental image!). It is absolutely not true that science has ignored these urine therapies. Based on a cursory review of the NIH, PubMed and Lancet databases, let me give you a precis. The first formal naturopathic western work on the use of urine therapies dates from 1945. From the world of formal science, there is an excellent review of urine therapy through the ages in the Journal of Nephrology, which admits that right through the centuries human beings have been using either their own urine or that of domesticated animals (cows and dogs) to cure illnesses. Science has examined several traditional uses of urine for therapy. The use of urine in paediatric treatments in Africa has been scientifically evaluated. Dermatological uses have also been scientifically evaluated – in treating acne vulgaris and in improving skin epidermis to aid skin therapies. In fact dermatologists agree that complementary medicine (that includes urine) should be offered to patients. The use of urine in the treatment of eczema was evaluated by scientists .
When it comes to ingesting urine of any kind, formal science seems to have problem. This is not because of prejudice – it is because urine is the by-product of digestion and respiration, and is likely to have toxins ejected by the body. The chemical structure of urine from any animal is very well known. While scientists do not reject the anecdotal evidence from people who clearly use auto-urine therapy, they are sceptical about its use as a general therapy for anybody. The second problem is the presence of urethral bacteria present in the body, which can contaminate the urine as it exits the body. The same African paper by Adeyayo et al cited earlier also warns about the presence of toxins. The respected Journal of Clinical Microbiology carried a paper making this warning explicit. So much so, that the United States Army Field Manual specifically warns troops NOT to drink their own urine when short of water.
The review above is by no means comprehensive and neither do I offer any warranties that it is free from errors. I am open to being corrected. I hope the cursory review I have offered of this alternate therapy shows that science has an open mind on this. If you ask me, the reason people don’t drink urine is because of that scientific characteristic called “the yuck factor”!
The biggest problem that science faces is not its unwillingness to tackle the unknown. The nature of scientific research requires membership into a guild or club, in which a set of previously known and now accepted scientific concepts are taken as given, on which the next set of propositions are built. Every now and then the fundamental assumptions on which these theories are developed change. Given that human beings do science – with their biases and prejudices and egos – these beliefs get ossified into dogma, and it takes enormous effort to break the old and bring in the new. This is what Thomas Kuhn wrote about in 1962 – he termed these “models” as “paradigms”. However, this has not come in the way of genuine science, and more than ever, scientists are conscious that paradigms can become dogma and watch out for it.
It is ironic that we talk about the failure of science at a time when the biggest ever triumph of science is unfolding before us. This is the global response to the pandemic. The foundation stone had already been laid – this was the success with genome mapping, which is likely to be the technology breakthrough of the 21st century. Using this technology, the gene mapping of the COVID 19 virus was published on January 9 2020. By January end, the mRNA vaccine was ready. Moderna and Astra-Zeneca also got into the act. By middle of the year, vaccines were undergoing clinical trials. By the end of the year vaccines were in production. In India alone, some 35 million have been vaccinated. The mRNA vaccine technique is so revolutionary that it has the potential to be used for almost any disease, especially certain types of cancers. By the middle of the year, Illumina and Oxford Novapore have announced cheap genome sequencing availability. It is now possible to track the variations of the Covid 19 virus within days, and soon it will be within hours. It is now possible to track community transmission in real time between floors of buildings.
It is very difficult for laymen to understand what goes on in science today, and it’s almost as if these scientists are grand panjandrums conjuring up their cures dressed in flowing robes speaking a strange language and offering worship to a deity that ordinary mortals cannot address. To a very great extent, we are asking laymen to take science on faith – very much like a religion. This is contradictory to the scientific process itself. The scientific pursuit of truth can get very abstruse. It turns out a dear cousin who is an Oxford don founded a school of physics that has its own conferences, where he is welcomed with respect like a visiting pontiff. Not many physicists have heard of it.
This is inevitable in the world we live in, that has gotten so complex that the generalist of the 19th century cannot survive beyond high school. The fact that this world is incomprehensible to many does not mean it is not rigorous and at the same time, open to new ideas and willing to investigate new phenomena. Rigour is everything. This makes those who push faith cures unhappy because science insists on formal proof – whether through statistical testing or by seeking empirical evidence. Simply asserting that something has been done for a thousand years is not enough – let us examine the evidence. Clearly the methods to document and test evidence across centuries has not existed. In some areas like medicine, enough large data is available to test across generations if not centuries.
You say “Science and self-proclaimed progressives are today rather insular or perhaps even afraid of any alternative observation, explanation or inferencing methods or alternative methods of evidence. Instead of dissecting to understand it is lampoon and derision”. This is a sweeping assertion, in my view, unsupported by facts.
 Thompson, J, “The Water of Life”, Health Science Press.
 Savica V, Calo LA, Santoro D, et al. Urine therapy through the centuries. J Nephrol. 2011;24(Suppl 17):S123–S125.
 Adenike Adedayo O, Ogunshe, Abosede Olayemi Fawole, Victoria Abosede Ajayi. Microbial evaluation and public health implications of urine as alternative therapy in clinical pediatric cases: health implication of urine therapy. The Pan African Medical Journal. 2010;5(12)
 Totri CR, Matiz C, Krakowski AC. Kids These Days: Urine as a Home Remedy for Acne Vulgaris?. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2015;8(10):47-48.
 Grether-Beck S, Felsner I, Brenden H, et al. Urea uptake enhances barrier function and antimicrobial defense in humans by regulating epidermal gene expression. J Invest Dermatol. 2012;132(6):1561-1572. doi:10.1038/jid.2012.42
 Ernst, E. (2000), The usage of complementary therapies by dermatological patients: a systematic review. British Journal of Dermatology, 142: 857-861.
 Chen YF, Chang JS. Complementary and alternative medicine use among patients attending a hospital dermatology clinic in Taiwan. Int J Dermatol. 2003;42(8):616–621.
 Magin PJ, Adams J, Heading GS, et al. Complementary and alternative medicine therapies in acne, psoriasis, and atopic eczema: results of a qualitative study of patients’ experiences and perceptions. J Altera Complement Med. 2006;12(5):451–457
 Hilt EE, McKinley K, Pearce MM, et al. Urine is not sterile: use of enhanced urine culture techniques to detect resident bacterial flora in the adult female bladder. J Clin Microbiol. 2014;52(3):871-876.
 Kuhn, Thomas: “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, University of Chicago Press, 1962
 For a lucid layman’s account do read https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/03/25/magazine/genome-sequencing-covid-variants.html
 Dr C V Sukumar is now Emeritus Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Wadham College, University of Oxford. The paper he wrote that kicked off the “Super Symmetric Quantum Mechanics” school can be found here: C V Sukumar 1985 J. Phys. A: Math. Gen. 18 2917.
One thought on “Is Science Insular?”
As usual, a scholarly critique. I completely agree.