1. A digression on science

Science is no witchcraft. It consists in the investigations of our sense-perceptible world, but not any type of investigations, investigations that are minimally reliable, namely communicable, and thus verifiable. Hence these investigations only concern those aspects of our sense-perceptible world that can be compared to an external reference point: absolute concepts such as heat or height are not comparable, while hotter and taller are. Their conclusions must be based not only on observation, but reproduced and reproducible observation. Given the exact same conditions never repeat themselves, no two observations are carbon copies of one other, especially regarding experimentation, i.e. observation involving the manipulation of matter. In fact, two similar experiments can differ to a non negligible extent, even when performed by the same person. To palliate this weakness, it is important to conduct them in widely different contexts for widely different phenomena. If the results agree to a satisfactory extent, then a conclusion may be reached. The more extensive the data, the more varied, and the better the agreement, the more reliable the conclusion. Otherwise, it risks serving biased ends. This basic research demands time. The elaboration of scientific theories is a slow process. Even to know what to look for, what experiment to perform, takes time. It requires familiarizing oneself with a broad range of literature, not just what appears to be directly relevant or follows consensual lines.

Any reason for concern, any new data that does not fit in, should always make us reconsider and amend or even abandon. Science is by definition the only approach to knowledge with in-built doubt about its own statements, in other words an approach acknowledging that its theories are open to modification, even to repudiation, that they are ephemeral and in a constant process of revision, but of a revision that must itself conform with the data available. Scientific knowledge is in a constant state of unfolding. To quote Dmitri Mendeleev, “science knows no final truth.”[1]

We may be guided by the quest for truth, but must never forget that because of its multiple weaknesses, because of a complex nature beyond the comprehension of the human mind, science is not about truth, or if it is we can never know whether that is the case. What our ever deepening scientific understanding does is guide us away from untruths.

In short, science is the exact opposite of dogma. Despite being the least fanciful form of knowledge, it is at best uncertain.

This is especially the case regarding the microscopic world. Our knowledge of it is fully dependent on instruments. We have so to speak no unfiltered representation to compare the picture they give us. It is beyond observation in its natural state since it can only be observed after prior preparation, in other words, adulteration, of samples removed from their natural environment and state, notably through dyeing which can deform, and since 2010 is known to “change single cell mechanisms”.[2]

This issue can no longer be ignored given the increasing reliance on computerised means of observation. Besides introducing errors, studying events in our four-dimensional space-time from one- or two-dimensional symbolic representations raises the question of loss of information. Most importantly, computers consist of algorithmic processes that can be represented by 0s and 1s, and hence are severely limited by overly simplified premises. They cannot go beyond these, they cannot infer. So one may well ask whether they can only detect that which agrees with our preconceived notions. If independent experimental verification of their findings involve results rendered by another computerised instrument, then this does not resolve the problem. It is in effect worsened as the whole process of observation is increasingly automatised, thereby eliminating the human observer: the machine both observes and interprets. It is further worsened when observation is dispensed with and conclusions are based on simulations using minimal empirical data. If the data is not all that realistic or accurate then what of the conclusions reached, and the theories postulated?

Another point is particularly worrisome regarding a world beyond our direct sense-perception, especially when theories are made to bear on human and non-human life. Science aims towards unified descriptions and explanations of otherwise disparate phenomena, in order to go beyond single instances and be able to generalize and predict. It therefore relies on concepts, namely theoretical constructs, that have not been observed, that are indefinable from within science except by using other concepts, a mathematical rendering being akin to translation into another language, not explanation. This is the case of genes, atoms and molecules, and therefore of DNA – the molecule considered to carry genetic information, and to be composed of long sequences made of short bases, small sections of which are genes – and RNA, a long sequence made from the same bases, but with a different geometry, into which the instructions given by genes is first transcribed, and which plays a role in the formation of DNA. We have no way of determining whether these are merely unobservable as a consequence of the limitations of our senses or whether they are pure constructs of the human mind. However, and this is fundamental, the scientific soundness of concepts must be confirmed by perceptible describable effects, and they must be replaced by more appropriate ones if reasoned observation demands it. Their study would otherwise amount to metaphysics.

Hence to predict a pandemic, namely evaluate the eventual severity and spread of a disease beforehand, is especially problematic. We must make sure that our studies at the microscopic level are corroborated by macroscopic phenomena: if we attribute microscopic causes to diseases for instance, the disease, the observation of its evolution and properties through clinical symptoms, must reflect our conclusions. This makes it imperative that these be based on sufficient cases and are investigated over sufficient time periods. Otherwise, the models risk being unrealistic.

It is altogether puzzling that alarm could be raised by the WHO as rapidly as witnessed in 2020. This warrants a closer examination of the chain of events. The following should be approached keeping in mind the above discussion.

(The above is based on Ray, T. and U. Ray 2020. On Science: Concepts, Cultures, and Limits. London: Routledge)

  1. Quoted in Vucinich, A. 1967. “Mendeleev’s views on science and society”. Isis 58 (3): 342–351.
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2698996/