Friday, March 8, 2019

What Does a Scientist Do When He or She Gets Sick?

I mean, besides griping and whining like everyone else. And feeling embarrassed for sneezing in front of a class. And I don’t mean an ordinary sneeze. I mean a convulsive one that makes me bend over double, one that is uncontrollable, and which makes me invent new consonants. Red Skelton did a comedy routine about this once.

What do we scientists do when we get sick? We test a series of hypotheses, that’s what. It keeps our minds occupied even though we may never find out which hypothesis, if any, might be true.

When I became sick over a month ago, I tried to figure out what it was. I first assumed it was allergies. Allergies are famous in Oklahoma. I got a severe sore throat one night, assumed it was a cold, Hypothesis 1, but it was gone the next day, to be replaced by all the usual symptoms of either an allergy or a cold. Lots of other people had the same experience on the same day, which just happened to be the day the rain stopped and a strong wind came from the south during cedar pollen season (Juniperus ashei, abundant in Texas). How likely was it that I had an infection when everybody else had allergies? The rain came back and our windshields ran yellow with cedar and elm pollen. That was hypothesis 2: allergic reaction.

But it didn’t go away. I assumed that Hypothesis 1 had been correct. But nine days later, I still had this cold. Maybe, I thought, it was a bacterial infection, Hypothesis 3. Maybe the allergic reaction weakened my immune system, making me vulnerable to bacteria that I already harbored and which had been waiting their chance to invade me. Evidence: yellow snot. Not just from breathing pollen, but even when the pollen had been rinsed away by more rain.

Ten days of amoxicillin seemed to help. At least my sense of taste returned. But my cough and congestion continued. I went to the clinic again. My snot was now clear, so the conclusion was that Hypothesis 2 had been correct, and I got an allergy shot.

By the beginning of the fourth week of whatever-the-hell, I was beginning to think of bacteria again, because the allergy shot brought no relief. I thought it was working, but this was bias on the part of my brain. My snot was yellow again, and there were the convulsive coughs, along with abdominal muscle pains just from the coughing. I have already used more tissues than I typically do in two or three years. But this is Hypothesis 4: amoxicillin-resistant bacteria.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria kill thousands of people. They are the premier example of the statement I used in my encyclopedia: What you don’t know about evolution can kill you. If I had not studied evolutionary medicine, I might never have thought of Hypothesis 4. Most infections, even bacterial ones, are self-limiting, which means you eventually get over them in a few months or decades. But I have too much life that I want to finish before I die, so I hope it doesn’t take this long. And recovery is not guaranteed. Weep not for me, gentle friends, but for the books I will not have a chance to publish unless I recover.

As of this posting, the second-line antibiotic seems to be working. If it does not, I hereby authorize my heirs to post a notice on this blog.

I was in the mood for hypothesis testing because I was reading This Is Biology: The Science of the Living World, by the late great Ernst Mayr. He wrote the book when he was 92 years old; he died at age 100 in 2004. It is thick with information, but pleasantly written (even with a joke or two), and I could relax in the assurance that he had figured out the philosophy of science so that I did not have to. He was not a great fan of philosophers; during the height of Karl Popper’s popularity, he said that every scientist he knew claimed he or she was a Popperian and then went ahead and did whatever he or she was going to do anyway. If I did not have to sit at home, I might never have looked at this book.

Hypothesis testing helps us understand reality, but it also helps take our minds away from the reality that would depress us.

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