The value of scientific inquiry
The following comment was attached to the post, “Monday morning myth: small-cell foundation discourages Varroa mites.”
I do think it is sad that everyone believes research monitored over such a small time frame. Beekeepers like Dee Lusby, Michael Bush etc with well over 30 years of small cell experience should be taken very seriously . . . perhaps the researchers should start studying their methods . . . It is hard to argue with success.
I think it is sad when people do not understand the scientific method. You say it is hard to argue with success, but it is not success when so few people can make it work. One of the major precepts of scientific inquiry is repeatability. That is, for a theory to be considered valid, many scientists in many places must be able to repeat the experiment and obtain the same results.
Let’s say fifty scientists repeat an experiment and only five get the same result as the initial experimenter. In that case, something is clearly wrong. Either they weren’t doing the same experiment, or the parameters being tested have no bearing on the outcome.
In the case of small-cell combs and the suppression of Varroa mites, many scientists have tried to replicate the success of people like Bush and Lusby and they have been unable to do so. Does that mean that Bush and/or Lusby are wrong? Does that mean they are lying? Of course not. I have no doubt that they accurately report their findings.
But scientific experimentation is fraught with things known as exogenous variables. These are variables that the experimenter is probably not even aware of. For example, most people have at one time or another followed a “fool-proof recipe” that bombed. Mine was a cream pie that curdled like cottage cheese. I went back through the recipe and checked every detail but couldn’t find my error.
Does that mean the author was wrong? Or that he lied? Of course not, but maybe my cream was older than his, maybe my eggs were bigger or smaller, maybe my kitchen was too cold, or my beaters too hot. Maybe the altitude of my kitchen was different, or my timer was inaccurate, or his timer was inaccurate. Maybe I interpreted his instructions in a way he didn’t mean. Any of these—and many others—could affect the outcome. Unless every condition is identical, the results may be different. Until we know which variable is the important one, the recipe can’t reliably be repeated.
Maybe Bush and Lusby (and I use these names simply because you did) have hives that are in a better location or in a particularly good microclimate. Maybe the paint they used on their hives, the feeding supplement they used, or the forage they have available made a difference. Maybe the particular way they handle their bees, or the exact strain they raised, or the length of the daylight, or the temperature of the hive made a difference. Maybe they sang to them.
The point is, until we can isolate the specific element that made the difference, other people cannot repeat the experiment and get the same results. We don’t want to trust our bees to a technique that might work, especially when we don’t know why it works in some cases and not in others.
If an aeronautical engineer with 30 years of experience designed and built a crash-proof airplane and flew it many times without crashing, should we all trust that plane or should some other engineers try to replicate the design? And if 20 engineers replicate the design and they all crash, should we still trust the first guy and all climb aboard? I don’t think so.
In our modern lives, we have peer-reviewed science, independent testing councils, and all manner of protocols to guard against assuming something is scientifically sound when, in fact, it is not. In the case of Varroa mites, we all want something as simple as small cell size to be the magic bullet, but when researcher after researcher can’t make it happen—or can only make it happen sometimes—we have to revisit the theory. Believe it or not, most researchers just want to discover the truth; they rarely have hidden agendas.
The beekeeper who can raise bees year after year with no Varroa mite problem is probably onto something. But what exactly? That is the real question. Until we find an answer—a formula—that works reliably for most beekeepers most of the time, we have to keep looking.