Science or Magic?

People in South Africa are using smoked Cape vulture brains in order to predict World Cup winners. Part of the practice of magic known as Muti magic, vulture smoking is endangering the birds:

South African wildlife experts have said that one of the world's rarest vultures are being taken to the edge of extinction by local gamblers to gain supernatural powers to predict results in this month's football World Cup.

I wonder what the predictive value of using smoked vulture brains is? I wonder if anyone would defend the practice as science because the predictions it generates occasionally correlate with the winners?

In a related story, Psychic Octopus picks Germany to beat Argentina:

An octopus with possible psychic powers, who has correctly picked the winner of Germany's four World Cup matches so far, on Tuesday tipped Germany to beat Argentina in their World Cup quarter-final match on Saturday. Paul, a two-year-old octopus born in England now living in a German aquarium, has a 100-percent winning streak at the World Cup -- and even accurately predicted Serbia would beat Germany in their Group D match-up earlier in the tournament.

FOUR in row! If that does not qualify as a predictive modality what does?

Well, actually it does not qualify and that is the point.

It takes more than the occasional correct guess (or guesses) for a modality to qualify as predictive, at least in science. That is one reason why animal models are not predictive for human response to drugs and disease. Studying humans, on the other hand, does not guarantee a huge medical breakthrough every time humans are studied. But it does guarantee that the results will apply to humans, which is more than animal-based research can claim. As I have said, there is a difference between a scientific breakthrough (which animal models can provide) and a medical breakthrough. Harold Varmus in a 2010 article titled “Ten Years On — The Human Genome and Medicine” stated:

Still, genomics and related disciplines are more closely aligned with modern science than with modern medicine. They produce knowledge that is broad in its scope, but only a few selected items of that new information are now widely used as guides to risk, diagnosis, or therapy. Physicians are still a long way from submitting their patients' full genomes for sequencing, not because the price is high, but because the data are difficult to interpret. (1) (Emphasis added.)

Varmus continues the article describing the future medical benefits that will come as a result of the Human Genome Project. The point is, that most informed people acknowledge that there is a difference between scientific breakthroughs and medically applicable scientific breakthroughs. The results from the Human Genome Project are well on their way to becoming medically applicable but were scientific breakthroughs first. The problem with animal models is that more often than not they remain as scientific breakthroughs (2-4).

The results from the Human Genome Project are yielding important information about humans. An article in Cell is titled “More Variation in Human Genome Than Expected: Surprisingly Common Transposons or 'Jumping Genes' Are Known to Cause Disease”. The following is from a press release from the University of Maryland:  

The researchers examined the genomes of 76 people and found that new occurrences of transposons were surprisingly prevalent. They also found that transposons are very active in lung cancer genomes.

"A key part of this study was that we developed new, next-generation sequencing and informatics technologies that allowed us to look at these variants for the first time in many human genomes," says Scott E. Devine, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a research scientist at the school's Institute for Genome Sciences.

"The human genome is a big document full of information, like a blueprint," Dr. Devine explains. "As soon as the human genome was sequenced, it became clear that it was going to vary from one person to the next. Such variation dictates why people look different from one another, why they have different susceptibilities to diseases and different lifespans. In this study, we're looking at transposons that insert themselves in new places in various genomes and disrupt the blueprint" . . .

Scientists track variation in the human genome to identify specific variants that predict human traits and diseases, says Dr. Devine: "The big picture idea here is personal genomics, a new wave of science where an individual's genome will be sequenced at birth and then used to make predictions about the future health of that person. This will pave the way for a future of personalized medicine, where treatments and preventive techniques will be tailored to each individual based on the information found in that person's genome."

As more is learned about the human genome we see more and more reasons why individual humans react differently to drugs and disease. To expect other species to predict human responses or to expect them to give us data that are more relevant to humans than are human data is a magical approach to the problem.


1.  H. Varmus, N Engl J Med362, 2028 (May 27, 2010).

2. W. F. Crowley, Jr., Am J Med114, 503 (Apr 15, 2003).

3. D. G. Contopoulos-Ioannidis, E. Ntzani, J. P. Ioannidis, Am J Med114, 477 (Apr 15, 2003).

4. T. Lindl, M. Völkel, R. Kolar, ALTEX23, 111 (2006).


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