Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

Let us not be too quick to condemn Taban

By Opinion Time of article published Jan 4, 2021

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By Pali Lehohla

E PUR si muove (yet it moves) said Galileo Galilee after the papal decree instructing his incarceration for proving that the earth is flat, revolves on its axis and rotates around the sun. For Pope Urban VIII this was blasphemy against God and Galilee deserved a life punishment.

Let me appreciate the memo titled Therapeutic Bronchoscopy For Mucus Removal and its Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) contents on 12 November seems to explain or justify the lukewarm response to the successful and novel methods of Dr Emmanuel Taban’s treatment of removal of mucus from the lungs of Covid-19 patients.

I may not proffer to the authenticity of the memo but it has been circulated on the Bank of Phillipine Istands platform on discussions of Taban’s invention and the deafening silence about this from government.

The memo is quite informative and well-argued at that by eminent scientists. I am no medical except but if Taban, like Dr Chris Barnard, executed this intricate procedure which posed risks successfully, should the posture be discouraged or be embraced as a ground breaking discovery that defies the laws and practices of prohibition which the memo proffers?

Barnard’s heart transplant operation was intricate and dangerous, but gave Louis Washansky a few days more to live. Heart transplant research went into overdrive since and is now a routine procedure. From a probability application, Barnard’s assertion that the chances of success for a transplant and Washanky’s survival were 50/50 was unscientific and fallacious, because there was no prior evidence of outcomes on heart transplant success or failure from which you could draw.

This was the first and the only experiment but there was success that led to further medical advancement. The case of Taban’s medical prowess and novelty is certainly resolved by the Barnard effect.

Taban experiment is interesting in that it successfully treated a few patients who would have died.

Barnard based on a few days of survival of one single swallow - Washansky - and revolutionarised the medical profession.

Taban, with a few more swallows seen in the middle of a pandemic, showed success, patient after patient with documented evidence of why he is succeeding - evidence based.

A science driven institution would have asked questions of why is there an outlier and what makes that outlier special.

Science would mobilise resources to higher platforms which in Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy were referred to as science as refutations that lead to paradigm shifts.

It is inconceivable and insulting of humanity’s progression to treat a scientific discovery as a fluke because we want to hold onto some witchcraft of “scientific” fear.

Cutting edge discoveries in scientific experimentation are usually single events. They are driven to perfection by experimental designers such as Barnard.

You do not put an anti-science lid on them. A papal prohibition on Galilee is pariah in science. As a scientist you open them up and support them with everything to advance science and knowledge.

The world honoured Drs Anthony Fauci of the US and Salim Karim of South Africa for pursuit of science uncertainty not withstanding. Barnard thought with his hearts and Taban can summon the power of science and evidence in acting towards the emancipating medicine.

What is in the way of the world from recognising Taban? The tone and the note of ministerial advisory is condescending to the philosophy of science as a progressive endeavour in discovery and refutations.

If posited against how the apartheid government responded to Barnard’d innovation and how the democratic state responded to Taban’s, it has taken Galilee to prison for proving that the earth is round.

Pope John Paul apologised to Galilee 200 years posthumously for imprisoning him on a ground breaking scientific discovery. =Taban has the last word - E pur si muove. - Ours is to wait for an apology in another 200 years to our modern-day Galilee - Taban.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa.

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