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June 09, 2003

Like War of the Worlds in Reverse

Your bit of zany science for the day: Scientists suggest SARS came from outer space! Interestingly, this news brief is not from Weekly World News but from National Geographic. The idea here, as I have gleaned from my quick read, is that a group of scientists believe the SARS virus is morphologically different enough that rather than being a mutation of an existing virus, it comes from "outside" -- which is to say, from space, possibly carried by a comet. These scientists also believe space viruses may have appeared before -- they might have been the cause of the Influenza epidemic of the early 20th century, for example. It also raises the spectre of the idea that life (or at the very least, the building blocks thereof) ultimately did not originate on Earth, but landed here in very simple form through impacts and evolved from there.

It's an interesting hypothesis, although I think it's probably too elaborate an explanation for a virus that probably jumped from another animal species to ours. The fact that SARS is substantially different from other coronaviruses we know about doesn't require that we postulate an arrival from space so much as it requires us to recognize that until a virus exhibits a detrimental effect on humans or one of our livestock animals, we probably simply don't know it exists. This is one of those Occam's Razor moments in which simplest explanation is probably more correct, and that pretty much dispenses with space viruses.

There is some mild irony here in that Toronto, which had recently been under a WHO travel advisory thanks to the presence of SARS, is home this year to the World Science Fiction Convention. Normally, the attendees of that convention would be exactly the folks you'd think would be thrilled to hear about space viruses. But in this case, they might be willing to make an exception.

Posted by john at June 9, 2003 11:54 AM

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Comments

Dane | June 9, 2003 12:58 PM

It is these very types of outlandish statements by a "scientist" which corrode the faith I have in science..

Kafkaesquí | June 9, 2003 01:02 PM

As long as we're not forced to wear paper clothes like they do in The Andromeda Strain, the scientists can theorize about space-borne virii all the want. In any case, they're in obvious need of a hobby for their spare time. Perhaps...writing?

Roger | June 9, 2003 01:17 PM

The paper clothes I can handle. It's that multi-level decontamination process they went through I wouldn't want.

Stephen A. Russell | June 9, 2003 02:03 PM

If you have Faith in Science, then you are doing it wrong.

Luke | June 10, 2003 09:16 AM

Considering that life had to start SOMEWHERE, and most of the places in the universe aren't Earth, it's not too unreasonable to suppose that life started 'outside'. Still, that doesn't mean that SARS did.

mark | June 10, 2003 01:08 PM

Thought about it a little bit, and of all the Andromeda Strain bits I'd like to avoid (apart from, I guess, the whole "killer space virus" thing), I think I'd like to list at the top the OH MY GOD SHE'S INFECTED NO WAIT SHE'S ONLY EPILEPTIC... Heh, stupid flashing lights! Whee!

Or I could've misinterpreted (or even imagined) that scene. I was vey young.

(Okay, this was a totally irrelevant comment. What's one meant to say? "Yeah, Occam's Razor! You're right! Whooo!" I say that often enough... but you are right)

Dane | June 11, 2003 08:40 AM

In response to Stephen, who wrote "If you have Faith in Science, then you are doing it wrong."

For anyone who is not a scientist- it is all based on faith. Unless I want to replicate someone elses research and disprove it or confirm it, then it wouldn't be faith. To accept anything without proof is to accept it with faith.

If you are trying to tell me that those blurbs on the evening news and catchy headlines in the newspaper about the "latest scientific discovery" are always followed up by intense scrutiny by all who see them- you are delusional. I call it faith, cause that's what it is.

mark | June 11, 2003 10:23 AM

Okay, Dane, so we have faith that the scientists who made discovery X aren't either sloppy or lying bastards. Sometimes this is quite a leap of faith; many local current affairs programmes are often touting the "latest scientific discovery by real scientists", the results of which make spammers' claims of WEIGHT-LOSS SOAPS and JOHNSON-EXPANDING PILLS (actual quotations) look *tame*. I'm sure there's equally dodgy American counterparts: 20/20, for example. On the other hand, I assume (based on its good reputation) that 60 Minutes is a decent, even-handed, and credible investigative journalism showcase. Or, er, something.

But science itself is not based on faith. The difference between taking a priest who says "I just had a revelation from God!" at his word, and taking a scientist who says "This study proves that X chromosomes reproduce asymetrically" at his word, is that, from an objective (that is, untainted by religion) point of view, the scientist may be telling the truth.

Luke | June 11, 2003 10:42 AM

The point of doing an experiment is to find out. Why would you DO the experiment if you had faith in a result?

I do not think that this is the nature of the objection, though -- do we have faith in the process of science, as carried out by the particular individuals participating in it?

Well, let's define faith:
Suppose you believe something. Suppose you also rationally know that there is a possibility that it is false. Faith is the probability that you're wrong that you discount.

So, we can split those who act like they believe in science into four groups: those who do not believe in science, but have worked out that it is very likely to produce good results; people who have rationally worked out that science is pretty likely to produce good results, and have faith that the other unlikely possibility won't happen, people who have not thought about it much and have a lot of faith, and people who have rationally worked out that science is unlikely to work out, but have faith in it ANYWAY (possibly because they don't trust their own judgement, or possibly for philosophical reasons, or straight-up denial).

Most scientists are in the first and second camps; some scientists are in the fourth.
Much of the general population is in the third.

And of course, there are people out there of every type, even those who rationally understand the arguments that science should work, but have faith that it will fail.

mark | June 11, 2003 12:02 PM

Just for some friendly trolling, I'd like to nominate Creation "Scientists" for Luke's fourth category. Is there a second? John?

Stephen A. Russell | June 11, 2003 12:08 PM

Dane,

I know exactly what you mean. I was going for the snappy quip there, not really trying to present a tight argument.

Seriously, I think the difference between Science and other things that you could have faith in is that Science is at least confirm*able*. If you really want to, you can learn the Math and other information/techniques and test the claims of Science. You can never do that with something spiritual or mystical.

Most people do look at Science in terms of faith. Of course in any experiment or logical argument, there are basic assumptions that must be accepted in order to proceed. You have to accept the system of Mathematics or the existence of matter, or something. Of course you can always go back and test your premises, but eventually you have to accept something.

I have faith in the fact when I buy a box that says Fruity Pebbles on it that it will indeed contain bits of carbohydrate soaked in a general, vaguely fruit-like, flavouring. Luckily, that is a pretty safe assumption to make without opening the box in the store.

I trust internal forces in the cereal and supermarket industries work to put cereal in the box. I also trust that reputable scientists are reputable because of a track record of reliable honesty and methodology.

Anyway, while I recognize that for the individual much of Science must be taken on faith, if we come to the point where that is the only justification for accepting Scientific fact then we as a society are on our way back to the days of voodoo.

Stephen A. Russell | June 11, 2003 12:09 PM

P.S. I started my reply immediately after Dane. Looks like others have posted before me. Hopefully I didn't end up just repeating them. :)

Dane | June 13, 2003 02:34 PM

ditto.