Good science provides the gift of reliability, and that’s precious these days. The value of careful, substantiated science was reinforced by rereading Ned Rozell’s 2017 Alaska Science article, “How the Cold War Inspired the Poker Flat Rocket Range’s First Launches,” and reflecting upon Newsweek’s article, “What Scientific Tests Reveal Abut Dr. Immanuel’s Hydroxychloroquine Claims.” On one hand there was that wild-eyed UAF team of researchers led by Neil Davis, including Larry Sweet and Eldon Thompson, who by “scrounging materials, including old mining cars … steel beams from an old bridge over the Chatanika River, and a winch Sweet has seen in a Fairbanks backyard,” began constructing the Poker Flat range in midsummer 1968. They were launching rockets from it nine months later, but their process throughout was thoughtful, precise, and academically and scientificaly rigorous, and led to valuable, and verifiable, understanding of our planet’s atmosphere.
Then there’s Houston physician Dr. Stella Immanuel last summer saying, “Nobody needs to get sick. This virus has a cure — it is called hydroxychloroquine, I have treated over 350 patients and not had one death.” According to BBC.com, both Facebook and Twitter, “have taken down her viral video, saying it violates their policies about misinformation — but not before it was retweeted by Donald Trump and one of his sons.” So, millions of tweetees became convinced that hydroxychloroquine’s a sure cure. Dr. Anthony Fauci, whose medical credentials and standing are profound, maintained that, “We know that every single good study — and by good study I mean randomized control study in which the data are firm and believable — has shown that hydroxychloroquine is not effective in the treatment of COVID-19.”
The key word is “randomized.” Hydroxychloroquine is one of 254 treatments and 172 vaccines being tested for battling COVID-19, and studies are valid when a significant number of people are randomly selected for treatment, thus better representing the population as a whole. Large “randomized clinical trials” have been conducted on hydroxychloroquine by the National Institute of Health in the U.S. and in the U.K. and both found that “while there is no harm, hydroxychloroquine was very unlikely to be beneficial to hospitalized patients with COVID-19.”
Immanuel, whose medical degree is from a school in Nigeria, based her theory on observations rather than controlled tests and claims the NIH and U.K. findings are a conspiracy. The BBC noted, “Five years ago, she alleged that alien DNA was being used in medical treatments, and that scientists were cooking up a vaccine to prevent people from being religious.”
She’s in the same league as Stubbins Ffirth, whose Wikipedia article describes him as “an American trainee doctor notable for his unusual investigations into the cause of yellow fever. He theorized that the disease was not contagious, believing that the drop in cases during winter showed that it was more likely a result of the heat and stresses of the summer months.” Ffirth attempted to prove it “by making incisions on his arms and smearing infected vomit into the cuts; he then proceeded to pour it onto his eyeballs ... frying the vomit and inhaling the fumes, and finally, when he did not become ill, he resorted to drinking the vomit undiluted.” He tried other bodily fluids from patients but “still failed to contract the disease and saw this as proof of his hypothesis that yellow fever was non-contagious. However, it later emerged that the samples used by Ffirth for his experiments had come from late-stage patients who were no longer contagious.”
To be fair, the scientific method was in its infancy in Ffirth’s day and he didn’t have a lot of other research to draw upon. Today there’s such a plethora of science-related concerns they’re hard to sort out. In “Science By Press Release: When the Story Gets Ahead of the Science,” Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN.com’s chief medical correspondent, wrote that it’s critical to know the sources of scientific reports; is it from a paper published in a respected professional journal, a “pre-print paper” written by researchers “to get feedback from peers before they submit their study to a journal,” or is it a “press release”? Gary Schwitzer, founder and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, say press releases are intended “to make your institution, your client, your big-name researcher, your product, your drug company and its products, look as good as it can be, hoping that the press release will convince journalists to write about it.”
Scientists, like librarians, can be a mixed bag. For example, former Librarian of Congress James Billington, a brilliant and persuasive historian, resigned under pressure in 2015 after “presid[ing] over a series of management and technology failures at the library that were documented in more than a dozen reports by government watchdog agencies.” Dr. Immanuel has probably made sick people better in the course of her career, but I don’t trust her professional judgement. Even blind hogs sometimes find acorns.
Instead, I’ll rely on our public library to provide solid, verifiable information. That’s where I met Neil Davis, who died in 2018. He reached thousands of Alaskans through his “Alaska Science Forum” newspaper columns about the natural wonders and oddities of our state. Davis founded and wrote the column for many years, and now it’s in Ned Rozell’s capable hands. As a Geophysical Institute colleague recalled of Davis, “To all of us he was truly a Renaissance Man: someone with the strength and wit to accomplish anything we could dream up. He built houses, a rocket range, made auroras, and wrote books about it all. He took us with him on the greatest journey of our lives.” That’s a eulogy to strive for.