Between Science and Pseudoscience: A case of Dr. Akyala Ishaku and Professor Cyril Otoikhian/ Dr. Akyala Ishaku and Prof. Cyril Otoikhian

I recently watched a short debate on Channels TV, Sunrise Daily programme, between two Nigerian academics. The two scholars were: Dr. Akyala Ishaku, who came to the programme to establish the existence of the COVID-19 virus in Nigeria and the other gentleman was Professor Cyril Otoikhian, who was there to disprove the existence of the virus altogether. For the avoidance of doubt, I am neither a life scientist nor a virologist. So, I will resist the temptation of passing a verdict on who among them won the debate. Rather, in this piece, I would like to concentrate on the instruments of science, academic methodologies and scientific references deployed by both parties to argue their cases.

For your information, before watching the program, I have never heard of the two senior colleagues. It was after watching the said program that I did a little background check and found out that Dr. Akyala is a lecturer and a virologist at the Faculty of Natural and Applied Sciences, Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Nasarawa State and he also has an affiliation with the Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands. While Prof. Cyril is a Professor of genetics at the Novena University, Kwale, Delta State. Also, I have never heard of the Novena University in Nigeria until that same day (please forgive my ignorance).  Therefore, I can safely declare that I do not have any conflict of interest in their debate.

To begin his defence, Dr. Akyala laid out how a scientific debate is done, how hypothesis are being proven with empirical evidence, and how a counter argument is being put forward to disprove existing order or hypothesis. He then reeled out established scientific evidences as published by reputable first quartile high impact factor scientific journals like the Lancet and Nature that established the existence, origin, and evolution of the Coronavirus in over 700 published journal articles. He later narrowed down his arguments to Nigeria and cited the results of a recent research conducted by African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases headed by Prof. Christian Happi at the Redeemer’s University, Ede, Osun State. The research was able to establish the existence of COVID-19 in Nigeria with over 20 clusters spread around the country. At this point, I was already deep in thought of what the counter argument of this TV debate is going to look like. Because, to me, the debate is already over before it actually began.  

To my surprise, Professor Cyril started his defence by saying he wonders why Dr. Akyala is sounding this way. Then, the University Don goes ahead to explain what he knows as the scientific method. In his words, he said: “whatever they are doing inside (the Lab), let them bring it outside and put it on a table. Let every scientists be available, let all samples be available, let all reagents be on the table, the cameras be available and let them show us what they are calling COVID-19.” He added: “but all I saw was a funny attempt that would not yield any results”. He mentioned the name of the American immunologist Anthony Fauci, but did not make reference to any of his published works and then concluded that COVID-19 is not even real at all. And the Professor went on rambling until I got lost. But I can understand why the professor wondered why Dr. Akyala is sounding the way he did. The truth is that, the scientific method and reference sources used by Akyala are actually alien to the University Don. To put it mildly, Cyril came to the fight with a stick, while Akyala showed-up with a bazooka!

In his second outing on the same TV programme, Dr. Akyala said that he did a little background check on Professor Cyril by searching for his contributions in Google Scholar and he found out that he has never publish any work in virology in any impact factor journal. That was the last straw that broke the camel's back. But when the Professor was given a chance to defend himself on why he has no published contribution in an impact factor journal. The University Don quickly created an imaginary enemy for himself who is all over the internet pulling down his contributions to knowledge, including his social media posts. He said that he became a professor by assessment, and that he has more than 121 publications across different areas of specialisations that he has studied. Then, he made references to videos of Fauci and videos of himself in ITV Benin. This, to me, is a national disgrace! Because I cannot imagine a professor making reference to edited online videos posted by conspiracy theorist as evidence to win a scientific debate on a national television.

In all honesty, I can understand the type of publications Prof. Cyril was referring to have allegedly published to become a professor (I do not want to say much on that, but they are normally packaged in Ghana-must-go bags and move around our campuses during promotion exercise). I can verify that his publications are not on any impact factor journal. I can also understand the type of publications that Dr. Akyala is making reference to as well. The two scholars were actually not talking about the same thing and therefore cannot flow at the same frequency. In reality, we still have academics that cannot recognize high impact factor journals, reputable scientific sources like ISI Web of Science or Scopus, and we have others that still did not understand the concept of rigorous peer-review process. That is our little secret. Unfortunately, it cannot be my burden to educate you in this limited space. If you are a University lecturer and wish to make claims to scientific contributions in your area, I will strongly advice that you should study best practices in scientific methodologies and know about academic databases for reputable scientific literatures. Try as much as possible to put what you learnt into practice without making compromises. Then, establish yourself by publishing your works in such internationally recognised platforms. Unless of cause if you want to become what one of my academic friends used to call Ghost Professors (which simply implies academics whose works cannot be found any serious academic database).

The fact that Dr. Akyala reduced his co-debater to only Google Scholar shows how low he rated him, because in all honesty Google Scholar is not even a serious academic database. We only use the Google Scholar to monitor general citations and h-index which still are not even recognized by research Universities. And anybody with a good first degree in science ought to know what science is and how it works. So, for the professor to argue the way he did inspite of the scientific evidences for COVID-19 as presented by Dr. Akyala shows that he's a mediocre. Therefore, the professor's main problem is not even because his works are not on Google Scholar, but rather he misunderstood science with pseudoscience and mythology.

The wider implications of this are beyond the four-walls of our Universities and research institutions. It would affect the quality of graduates that we produce from our universities, which eventually become unemployable in the economy. It would also affect the quality of research outputs produce by our universities with no real impact on the development of the nation. This pandemic is exposing our weaknesses and by the time it would be over, we would be left with more questions than answers.

Dr. Shafi’I Hamidu is a lecturer at Federal University of Technology Minna and he wrote-in from Doha.