19. REPRODUCIBLE SCIENCE: Messi the kid

The infected boy from the Alps possibly played in defence and barely threatened the opposition goal, but, without more similar studies, we cannot be certain that a fellow defender won’t turn out to be like Ronald Koeman (253 goals), Fernando Hierro (163 goals), or Roberto Carlos (122 goals), and many others. Scientific results need to be reproducible to consolidate knowledge.

During confinement by COVID-19, the journal Science published an article warning about the dangers of rushing into science to be certain 18. The authors insisted that scientific knowledge is based on solid observations on which we can use to take the next step with confidence. A wrong scientific conclusion can lead us to investigate wrong paths that lead us nowhere.

A few years ago, taking advantage of the fact that I was in a conference on the Cold Spring Harbor campus in Long Island (New York), I had coffee with my friend Rafaella Sordella, who ran a laboratory there. Halfway through the coffee, an older man joined us at our table. He was a friend of Rafaella’s. That man was James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA and the 1962 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. I pretended to have my coffee as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening, but I was excited and attentive to everything Watson said. In an attempt to differentiate good science from bad science, we discussed science published in good magazines and science published in bad magazines. However, a better classification was the one James Watson mentioned in a phrase that stuck with me that afternoon: “Good science is the science that is reproducible.”

If something is solid and reproducible, it is a real stepping stone to steady ourselves on before progressing. When Messi arrived at Barcelona from Argentina’s Rosario aged 13, he was a boy who already had received a contract offer from River Plate. Carles Rexach, head of grassroots football, saw him play for the first time on a field next to Mini Estadi. That day Messi scored six goals, hit the post twice, and at half-time they had to change teams to make the game less one-sided. Messi reproduced what he had shown in Rosario with Newell’s Old Boys, and in Buenos Aires with River Plate. In a meeting with Messi’s agent, an impatient Rexach signed an agreement on a napkin, which is now exhibited in the F.C. Barcelona Museum.

The fact that discoveries take time to reproduce and consolidate does not mean that the strength of current science must be doubted. It took two years for the AIDS virus to be identified after the first cases were reported in 1981. However, SARS-CoV-2 was identified in just a few days as the cause of COVID-19. This happened in early January and since then the amount of knowledge generated in a few months has been impressive. However, the results of possible efficient therapies have to be transmitted with great caution.

Chloroquine, which was intended to be a panacea for treating COVID-19 patients, is falling short after more serious clinical trials. Trump defined chloroquine as a game changer and even rigorous Germany secured large amounts of chloroquine after supposedly promising, but in reality weak, results. Weeks later, several publications appeared denying the positive effect of chloroquine to alleviate COVID-19, and others suggesting that it could even be harmful. It is as if you heard rumors about a boy who is said to be a terrific striker, when in fact he is useless, and you file him for reference purposes. After watching him play several games, you realize that he is not a good player, but you have a pre-contract signed with his dad, and you have to honour it. You have wasted time and money by following a track that was not solid.

In the summary of the article by the French research group on the infected child in the Alps, their data suggests a potentially different transmission of the virus between children. It is a correct way of writing the results, without absolute truths. This is data that invites further investigation in this direction but does not confirm anything by itself. It’s as if I’m telling you that one of the five youngest footballers to play in a World Cup was Nigerian Femi Opabunmi, a player whose youthful breakthrough suggested the existence of a potentially good player. Later, the reality was that the biggest club which Femi Opabunmi played for was Zürich’s Grasshoppers.

On the other hand, if I tell you that another of the five youngest World Cup players was Pelé, and that he won the World Cup in which he debuted (Sweden 1958) scoring six goals, the experimental data is more robust and reliable.

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