Thursday, May 21, 2020

Killing Off a Pandemic is Engineering, Not 'Science' - By Chet Richards

More than half a century ago a fellow grad student invited me into his laboratory to show me his doctoral research.  He introduced me to the science of animal reflexes.  A novel stimulus induces in an animal, however briefly, a freezereaction.  This is called an “orienting reflex.”  What happens next depends on the animal’s response to the potential threat.  If the novel stimulus does not seem to be a threat the animal gradually relaxes.  Repeats of this type of stimulus gradually habituate its orienting reflex so that the animal, in effect, learns to ignore this particular stimulus.
On the other hand, in the case of a real threat, the animal can only respond in one of two ways:  It can freeze for an extended length of time or it can panic and run to escape. 
Humans, too, experience the orienting freeze reflex to novel stimuli.  If the stimulus is a threat, a person may freeze in place for a substantial time, or the person may flee in panic.  Or, and this is what makes humans different from all animals, some people may become coldly rational and plan out, and execute, an appropriate course of action.  Training, especially, helps create this rational response.
The important thing to note is that the orienting reflex is so essential to survival that it evolved very early in the history of life.  Its creation was back so deep in time that we share the orienting reflex with insects, with spiders, and with even more primitive creatures.
Society emulates an organism.  An animal is a collection of functioning elements, all working in cooperation.  It is useful to consider a society, such as America, as a kind of organism analogous to an animal.  Individual people make up the cooperating functional elements of society.  I postulate that our society has an orienting reflex, as well. 
Consider the response of America to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor: Shock! Freeze! Anger! That was the first orienting response. Then, since we are human, came coldly rational plans, then fully unified action to destroy this threat to our existence. Consider America’s first response to 9-11.  Initially it was the same, but soon different factions chose to use the event to promote their ideologies.  Instead of unity we had disunity.  America has changed — and not for the better.
Think of America’s response to COVID-19.  We indeed have had the orienting reflexive freeze.  What is this new threat?  We wondered.  What are its characteristics?  What should we know about it?  Because of the novelty of this virus we knew too little to make rational plans.  Our natural reaction was to continue the orienting freeze reflex until we could find a way to defeat it. 
We did know at the beginning a few things about this new disease:  We knew that this virus is exceptionally contagious.  One thing we thought we knew (but maybe were wrong about) was that this virus is exceptionally deadly.  The thing we were certain of was that a really serious pandemic would overload our medical facilities.  Rational response required a temporary lockdown to “flatten the curve” so as to not overload our medical establishment.  This we did — successfully.
But then politics intervened — big time!  There are people in our society who lust for power and luxuriate in it once they have it.  Some are elected, many are not.  Call them governors, call them mayors, call them health administrators, call them bureaucrats, call them “journalists,” the power mad have become a potentially lethal plague on America.  They have suspended our civil liberties “for the duration.” 
So what is the duration?  These power-mad people have moved the goal posts to the undeterminable far future when a vaccine cure will be available.  There has never been a successful vaccine for an upper respiratory corona virus.  So don’t count on it this time.  If we do get one an instant Nobel prize awaits.  Waiting for a vaccine is just an excuse for continued suppression of our liberties.  Moving the goal posts is profoundly dishonest and un-American. 
In the name of “science” some governors forbade experimentation with various pharmaceutical treatments.  When President Trump suggested that early experiments indicated that a combination of hydroxychloroquine, zinc and azithromycin was effective in stopping an early stage infection, the Left: left academics, left “journalists,” left bureaucrats, and left politicians, went berserk: Politics (I spit the word out)!
It is commonplace to say that the pandemic is a science problem.  No it is not!  Science has to do with fundamental understanding.  Figuring out the molecular action of this coronavirus is science.  Defeating the pandemic is not science.  Defeating the pandemic is engineering! 
When I was just starting my career as an engineering physicist I was told a story.  The story is likely apocryphal, but it illustrates the profound difference between science and engineering:  One day the ancient Romans decided to bring fresh water down from the mountains to the city.  Naturally they hired the best hydraulic specialists —  the Greeks — the masters of the science of hydrostatics.  The Greeks said that the pressure in a tall waterpipe would be very great.  They were right, of course.  Therefore, buttress the outside of your filled pipes, they advised, to prevent their explosion.  The Romans did as suggested.  However, when the water started to flow the pipes imploded instead of exploded.  No one knew why this happened.  The Romans simply shrugged their shoulders and buttressed the inside of these water pipes — with great success.  About two thousand years later the Bernoulli brothers found the scientific explanation.  So, science is nice, but engineering works. 
Who are the engineers in this pandemic?  The doctors on the front line, of course.  These are the pragmatic guys who are willing to try anything to save the lives of their patients — even if the academic scientists say don’t.  Let’s also give credit to the hands-on lab scientists who are working, often with great ingenuity, to find a vaccine.  That too is engineering, only at the molecular level.
Now that the pandemic is easing up a bit I was able to chat about this with a highly regarded infectious medicine specialist.  This is a man who once saved my life by working in his lab to devise an antibiotic cocktail for me. This, after all conventional treatments had failed.  This good doctor has spent almost every waking hour of the last two months saving the lives of COVID patients, some of whom were in intensive care.  He has found that the hydroxychloroquine cocktail works with patients in the early to mid-phase of infection, but not much in the intensive care phase.  He uses other techniques in the late phase.  His experience with the cocktail corresponds to that of other doctors.  The hydroxy cocktail is therefore a very effective prophylactic, or curative, depending on the stage of infection.  But not later on.
When I mentioned the notion that, in this pandemic, he was an engineer, not a scientist, he most emphatically agreed.  Then this mild mannered man surprised me by using very strong language with respect to the “science” advisors to the politicians. 
Science has its place.  Ultimately we will understand this new contagion and eliminate its threat.  In the meantime, it is the medical engineers who are the key to defeating this invader: the medical doctors on the front line; the people working on vaccines and other medications.  And, of equally great importance, let us not forget the business owners, small and large, who are the engineers of our economy.  All these practical people should be the ones guiding society back to normality — not the power hungry politicians and, most especially, not the technocrat “scientists.”