Opinion Piece

Marelise van der Merwe: The Other News Round-Up: A science of the times

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the odder happenings from South Africa and around the world. This week: but is it science, Eddy? (With apologies to Ab Fab.)

Some weeks, when you’re writing a column about – I don’t know ... all the ways the world has gone absolutely barking bananas – it seems you’re spoilt for choice. I don’t want to victim blame, but it seems we might just have given the universe a little too much ammo when we went around saying nothing could top the events of 2016 – 2017 seems to be kicking the living daylights out of it with minimal effort.

This week we have McDonald’s customers protesting over sauce (privilege is an ugly thing close up), a shark mascot being arrested under the burka ban (he covered his face, mos), and scientists saying 43 kilos of gold are flushed through Swiss sewers each year. Never mind the weather.

Hasn’t there been some weather? And such helpful commentary. It’s always heartwarming when you have floods killing several people in Durban, Cape Town drying to a raisin, and Egoli basically blowing away, to hear an exercise physiologist explaining that climate change is all the vegans’ fault. Well, we’ve been telling them all along, man. Nobody likes a damn hippie.

Kidding. Some of my best friends are vegans. And not that I have anything against Prof Noakes. Anyone who a) runs and b) digs cheese is all right in my book. But I’ve got to ask why there hasn’t been a more…how shall I say? ... questioning attitude towards his views on the environment.

Winning the prize for single-source reporting was Garreth van Niekerk of Huffington Post, who ran an initial report quoting only Noakes – and in case anyone doubted that he was quoting the right source, described him in such purple terms as “the Banting king” “renowned” and “pioneer”. In fairness to the publication itself, Huffington Post duly followed up with a variety of viewpoints on the matter afterwards. But for a straight-up report, Van Niekerk buttered that low-carb loaf pretty thickly. Not even Noakes calls himself a low-carb pioneer, given that Banting is named after its developer, Dr William Banting.

But of course Van Niekerk is right in that the Prof has a very large and loyal following, and we are living in the age of the personality cult, which makes him all the more influential. In 2013, Jacques Rousseau, Nic Dawes and others argued against Noakes publishing his findings in the SAMJ, saying it was largely anecdotal data; high drama ensued. With a passion seldom invoked for, say, human rights or abandoned puppies, Noakes advocates modelled their shrinking waistlines in a blaze of glory; traditionalists, equally outraged, doggedly argued for trying and testing.

That’s why my gripe isn’t with Noakes per se. He can think whatever he likes. He can also say whatever he likes. It’s a free country. (Ish.) My gripe is really with the culture developing around him, and the resultant failure, this time, to question his views more broadly than we have. He is respected and has a great deal of influence, so if he says something questionable, we should be questioning it proportionally. Just four short years ago he was criticised left, right and centre when he published something that was actually within his field. Why hasn’t there been more debate now, when he was speaking well outside of it?

Here’s what happens when influential people start influencing outside of their field: Donald Trump becomes president. Gwyneth Paltrow dishes out gynaecological advice. And Tim Noakes says eating more meat will save the environment.

Supporters and critics alike should be saying: Come on, Prof. We love you, but don’t be a chop. It’s an indictment on sosatie. Just say goodbraai to those ideas.

Okay, I’ll stop.

Point is, the humble fact easily gets lost in the noise of personality, so we need to be putting a whole lot more effort into finding it, especially in this strange, post-fact era. And speaking of facts, I know there must be plenty of research funding around to find said facts, because every damn year we read news reports about at least 484,732 seemingly not-very-useful studies. Case in point: the recent Ig Nobel awards, awarded last month. These are granted – mind you – not to make fun of the stereotypical oddball scientist, but to “highlight research that encourages people to think in unusual ways”.

This year’s winner was a physics paper titled “On the rheology of cats”, which argues that cats can technically be regarded as both solid and liquid, due to their uncanny ability to take on the shape of their container. Now you know.

Last year’s top honours went to a chap who spent three days in the Swiss Alps, living as a mountain goat. He wore prosthetic legs that allowed him to move like a goat, which he described as a “holiday from being human”.

I’m just saying. Exhibit A: A lot of people love Prof Noakes. Exhibit B: There’s lots of room in the world for creative thinking, and weird and wonderful theories that are actually true. And Exhibit C: If there’s funding for people to live as mountain goats, there must be funding available – somewhere – to tell us how we can actually save the environment. That adds up to a lot of potential.

Spoiler alert, though: cows eat grass. So, Prof Noakes, as much as I love your bunless burger, breeding more cattle is probably not the solution. So next time, give us an answer that isn’t straight out of Alfred Spatchcock, ag toe? DM

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