Monday, March 28, 2005

The Galileo Gambit

The appearance of the Herbinator on my blog last week and his sarcastic invocation of Galileo reminded me of a topic I've wanted to write about almost since the beginning of Respectful Insolence. It's a favorite tactic used by alties (not to mention pseudoscientists, pseudohistorians, and other cranks). Alties frequently invoke Galileo and other scientists like Ignaz Semmelweiss, who were at first rejected by the scientific orthodoxy of the time and had to fight to get their ideas accepted. The implication, of course, is that their ideas, whatever they may be (alternative medicine, intelligent design, Holocaust denial, psychic abilities, etc.), are on the same plane as those of Galileo or Semmelweiss. Frequently, they will add a list of famous scientists or experts who made predictions about the impossibility of something or other and were later found wrong, so much so that the statements sound ridiculous today. For example, here's a famous list that's been making the rounds on Usenet for years. Some of these quotes may in fact be urban legends (and, in fact, I'd be grateful to anyone who points out urban legends in here to me), but let's for the moment assume they are all legitimate quotes:

..so many centuries after the Creation it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value. - Committee advising Ferdinand and Isabella regarding Columbus' proposal, 1486

I would sooner believe that two Yankee professors lied, than that stones fell from the sky. - Thomas Jefferson, 1807 on hearing an eyewitness report of falling meteorites.

Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You're crazy. - Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.

Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction. - Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

[Orac's note: This one is particularly amusing to me, given that so many alties reject Pasteur's theory in favor of Beauchamps. Here, they seem to want to have it both ways. They reject Pasteur when arguing against antibiotics, claiming that bacteria are not the cause of disease, or attacking vaccines as useless and harmful. However, they have no problem invoking this quote. Of course, they don't seem to realize that their use of this quote implicitly acknowledges that Pasteur's theories, although initially quite controversial, were ultimately proven correct.]

The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon. - Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873.

[Orac's note: As a surgeon, I have to point out that, at the time, this was not an entirely unreasonable statement. Operating in the abdomen was risky in the extreme, with a high rate of death from peritonitis (that is, until the invention of antibiotics). In fact, I sometimes wonder how the great surgeons of 100 years ago managed to operate on anyone's abdomen and have them actually survive the procedure. Operating in the chest was also out of the question, given the problem of reinflating the lung afterward, and certainly the brain was completely off-limits. In any case, there was no way Sir Ericksen (or anyone else) could be faulted for failing to forsee the advancements in anaesthesia, antibiotics, surgical technique, and patient care that would ultimately allow such surgery to succeed (although one does have to point out that surgeons were already operating in the abdomen reasonably successfully at the time).]

Such startling announcements as these should be deprecated as being unworthy of science and mischievious to to its true progress. - Sir William Siemens, 1880, on Edison's announcement of a sucessful light bulb.

We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy. - Simon Newcomb, astronomer, 1888

Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever. - Thomas Edison, 1889

[Orac's note: It's well-known that Thomas Edison wanted to promote the use of direct current rather than alternating current. It was a battle of rival technologies (sometimes called the War of Currents), not unlike the war between Betamax and VHS, but on a much larger scale. Edison ultimately lost.]

The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.... Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals. - physicist Albert. A. Michelson, 1894

Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. - Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895.

It is apparent to me that the possibilities of the aeroplane, which two or three years ago were thought to hold the solution to the [flying machine] problem, have been exhausted, and that we must turn elsewhere. - Thomas Edison, 1895

The demonstration that no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery, and known forms of force can be united in a practicable machine by which men shall fly for long distances through the air, seems to the writer as complete as it is possible for the demonstration of any physical fact to be. - astronomer S. Newcomb, 1906

Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value. - Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre.

Caterpillar landships are idiotic and useless. Those officers and men are wasting their time and are not pulling their proper weight in the war. - Fourth Lord of the British Admiralty, 1915, in regards to use of tanks in war.

Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools. - 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard's revolutionary rocket work.

[Orac's note: Why the New York Times would be considered an "expert" in rocketry such that it would be of interest to use it as an example of an "expert" making a statement that is later proven wrong, I have no idea. This quote is at best irrelevant.]

The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular? - David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

"All a trick." "A Mere Mountebank." "Absolute swindler." "Doesn't know what he's about." "What's the good of it?" "What useful purpose will it serve?" - Members of Britain's Royal Society, 1926, after a demonstration of television.

This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of the absurd lengths to which vicious specialisation will carry scientists. -A.W. Bickerton, physicist, NZ, 1926

Who the hell wants to hear actors talk? - H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.

Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau. - Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929.

[Orac's note: Of course, we had the same sort of idiotic statements coming from "experts" during the Internet bubble of the 1990's; for example, this book predicting that the Dow would reach 36,000. How many times did we hear that the Internet "changed everything" and that the stock market had no where to go but continually up?]

There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will. -- Albert Einstein, 1932

The energy produced by the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine. - Ernst Rutherford, 1933

The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space]...presents difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss the notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author's insistent appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed impossibility of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually accomplished. Richard van der Riet Wooley, British astronomer, reviewing P.E. Cleator's Rockets in Space, Nature, March 14, 1936

Space travel is utter bilge! -Sir Richard Van Der Riet Wolley, astronomer

I think there is a world market for maybe five computers. - Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons. - Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

[Orac's note: Heh heh. This statement isn't an incorrect prediction. Think about it. Most computers don't weigh more than 1.5 tons these days, do they?]

I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year. - The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957

Space travel is bunk. -Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of Britain, 1957, two weeks before the launch of Sputnik

There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States. -T. Craven, FCC Commissioner, 1961

We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out. - Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

But what... is it good for? - Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.

There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home. - Ken Olson, President, Chairman and Founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977

The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C,' the idea must be feasible. - A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)

I'm just glad it'll be Clark Gable who's falling on his face and not Gary Cooper. - Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in Gone With The Wind.

A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make. - Response to Debbi Fields' idea of starting Mrs. Fields' Cookies.

If I had thought about it, I wouldn't have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can't do this. - Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3M "Post-It" Notepads.

So we went to Atari and said, 'Hey, we've got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we'll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we'll come work for you.' And they said, 'No.' So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, 'Hey, we don't need you. You haven't got through college yet.' - Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and H-P interested in his and Steve Wozniak's personal computer.

You want to have consistent and uniform muscle development across all of your muscles? It can't be done. It's just a fact of life. You just have to accept inconsistent muscle development as an unalterable condition of weight training. - Response to Arthur Jones, who solved the "unsolvable" problem by inventing Nautilus.

640K ought to be enough for anybody. - Bill Gates, 1981

[Orac's note: Of course, in 1981, Gates was correct. No one really needed more than 640K in a personal computer. There wasn't much you could actually do with more than that in 1981...]
So, again, what's the point of alties or other pseudoscientists invoking Galileo or any of the hideously incorrect prognostications listed above? Again, obviously, this technique seeks to denigrate the experts who reject the altie's claims as not knowing what they're talking about or as close-minded, unable to have the vision that they do. It also deceptively tries to associate the quack, crank, pseudoscientist, or pseudohistorian with the theories and findings of great visionaries that went against conventional wisdom and were thus rejected by the experts of the day--and then later shown to be correct. It's a transparent ploy, about which Michael Shermer once said, "Heresy does not equal correctness."

Some call it the Galileo gambit (although in actuality Galileo is probably a bad example for pseudoscientists to use, given that he was persecuted by the Church, and not by his fellow scientists). History is indeed full of tales of the lone scientist working in spite of his peers and flying in the face of the doctrines of the day in his or her field of study. No doubt there are still a fair number of such scientists today. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon your point of view), the vast majority of them turn out to be utterly wrong. They disappear into the mists of history, leaving not even a footnote in the grand history of science. As Shermer so correctly put it in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in improving his or her critical thinking skills):
For every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for advocating scientific truth, there are a thousand (or ten thousand) unknowns whose 'truths' never pass scientific muster with other scientists. The scientific community cannot be expected to test every fanstastic claim that comes along, especially when so many are logically inconsistent.
Precisely.

For every Galileo, Ignaz Semmelweis, Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, etc., whose scientific ideas were either ignored, rejected, or vigorously attacked by the scientific community of his time and then later accepted, there are untold numbers of others whose ideas were either ignored or rejected initially and then were never accepted--and never will be accepted. Why? Because they were wrong! The reason the ideas of Galileo, Semmelweis, Copernicus, Darwin, Pasteur, et al, were ultimately accepted as correct by the scientific community is because they turned out to be correct! Their observations and ideas stood up to repeated observation and scientific experimentation by many scientists in many places over many years. The weight of data supporting their ideas was so overwhelming that eventually even the biggest skeptics could no longer stand. That's the way science works. It may be messy, and it may take longer, occasionally even decades or even longer, than we in the business might like to admit, but eventually in science the truth wins out. In fact, the best way for a scientist to become famous and successful in his or her field is to come up with evidence that strongly challenges established theories and concepts and then weave that evidence into a new theory. Albert Einstein didn't end up in the history books by simply reconfirming and recapitulating Newton's Laws. Semmelweis and Pasteur didn't wind up in the history books by confirming the concept that disease was caused by an "imbalance of humours" (although Semmelweis probably did hurt himself by refusing to publish his results for many years; his data was so compelling it remains puzzling why he did not do so). I daresay that none of the Nobel Prize winners won that prestigious award by demonstrating something that the scientific establishment already believed. No! They won it by discovering something new and important!

Unfortunately, to most lay people who don't have a strong background in science, the scientific method, or the history of science, such trickery can sound convincing on the surface. For example, you have a quack like Hulda Clark claiming she has a cure for cancer and AIDS and then claiming that the scientific establishment can't accept it. Add a dash of paranoia about big medicine and big pharma "suppressing" her "cure," and it's a potent brew of deception. This ploy is particularly appealing to Americans, because our whole national psyche has in its core a tendency to root for the outsider, the underdog. Alties, pseudoscientists, and cranks tap into that deep-seated sympathy we tend to have for the persecuted outsider and use it to their advantage. It's the same with creationists, who use every well-deserved debunking they get as evidence that they are a "threat" to the established scientific order. The only way to combat such deceptive comparisons is to point out again and again Shermer's dictum that "heresy does not equal correctness" and try to keep the discussion on the hard evidence.

I think it's appropriate to finish with another Michael Shermer quote: They laughed at Copernicus. They laughed at the Wright brothers. Yes, well, they also laughed at the Marx Brothers. Being laughed at does not mean you are right.

Use it the next time an altie tries to imply that the fact that the scientific establishment mocks their ideas means that they must be on to something. Except do what I do and use the Three Stooges instead of the Marx Brothers.

Especially Curly. Nyuck, nyuck, nyck.

18 example(s) of insolence returned:


At 3/28/2005 9:13 AM, Blogger james gaulte said...

This one should be widely read.Great qoutes!

 

At 3/28/2005 10:57 AM, Anonymous JY said...

They laughed at Copernicus. They laughed at the Wright brothers. Yes, well, they also laughed at the Marx Brothers.

I think the original of this is actually Carl Sagan, who wrote: "But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

 

At 3/28/2005 10:57 AM, Anonymous JY said...

They laughed at Copernicus. They laughed at the Wright brothers. Yes, well, they also laughed at the Marx Brothers.

I think the original of this is actually Carl Sagan, who wrote: "But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

 

At 3/28/2005 12:03 PM, Blogger Orac said...

Actually, I took the quote straight from Shermer's book verbatim. The complete paragraph from which the quote came is as follows:

They laughed at Copernicus. They laughed at the Wright brothers. Yes, well, they laughed at the Marx brothers. Being laughed at does not mean you are right. Wilhelm Reich compared himself to Peer Gynt, the unconventional genius out of step with society, and misunderstood and ridiculed as a heretic until proven right: "Whatever you have done to me or will do to me in the future, whether you glorify me as a genius or put me in a mental institution, whether you adore me as your savior or hang me as a spy, sooner or later necessity will force you to comprehend that I have discovered the laws of the living" (in Gardner 1952, p. 259). Reprinted in the January-February 1996 issue of the Journal of Historical Review, the organ of Holocaust denial, is a famous quote from the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, which is quoted often by those on the margins: "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident." But "all truth" does not pass through these stages. Lots of true ideas are accepted without ridicule or opposition, violent or otherwise. Einstein's theory of relativity was largely ignored until 1919, when experimental evidence proved him right. He was not ridiculed, and no one violently opposed his ideas. The Schopenhauer quote is just a rationalization, a fancy way for those who are ridiculed or violently opposed to say, "See, I must be right." Not so.

It may well be that Shermer paraphrased Sagan without attribution. I'll have to go back and check the book.

 

At 3/29/2005 2:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Caterpillar landships are idiotic and useless. Those officers and men are wasting their time and are not pulling their proper weight in the war. - Fourth Lord of the British Admiralty, 1915, in regards to use of tanks in war."

It's Liz from http://lizditz.typepad.com.

But I don't think it was as early as 1915.


http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/bltractor.htm

The name 'caterpillar' was coined by a photographer working for Benjamin Holt who was taking photos of one of Holt's track-laying or 'crawler' tractors. Looking at the machine's upside-down image through his camera lens, he commented that the top of the track undulating over its carrier rollers looked like a caterpillar. Benjamin Holt liked the comparison and adopted it as the name for his track-laying system. He was using it for some years before the formation of the Caterpillar Tractor Company.

The Caterpillar Tractor Company was formed by the merger of the Holt company and their major competitor, the C. L. Best Gas Tractor Co., in August, 1925.

http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/tanks_and_world_war_one.htm

Invention of the Tank

The leading light in support of the tank was Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Swinton. In 1914, he had proposed the development of a new type of fighting vehicle. In fact, it is a common misconception that no fighting vehicles existed in August 1914. The Germans, British, Austrians, Russians and French all had armoured fighting vehicles that could fight on ‘normal’ terrain. But these vehicles could not cope with trenches that were soon to dominate the Western Front. Caterpillar-type tracked vehicles were already in France as the British used them as heavy gun tractors.

Swinton had received some support from those in authority but many in the army’s General Staff were deeply suspicious. Swinton needed an example of the machine that he believed would alter warfare on the Western Front. By June 9th 1915, agreement was made regarding what the new weapon should be.

However, in the early days, it remains clear that even Swinton saw the tank as supporting the infantry in their efforts to break the German front lines as opposed to the tank being a weapon that could do this by itself.
[more at link above]

 

At 3/29/2005 4:15 AM, Blogger Ahistoricality said...

Most of those quotations fall under the rubric of Arthur Clarke's First Law of Science

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

For reference, here are laws 2 and 3 (Law 3 is undoubtedly the most quoted line of Clarke ever):

2. The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

 

At 4/01/2005 10:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a well-known quote that seems apropos here:

"To wear the mantle of Galileo, it is not enough to be persecuted by an unkind establishment. One must also be right."

 

At 4/05/2005 11:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

More on tanks - the people the 4th Lord was having a go at were the 'Royal Naval Air Service Landships Committee' (prop. W Churchill), who were having a fine time inventing the tank, rather than doing what they were paid to do: i.e. work for the Navy. Possibly the most extreme example of 'function creep' that I can think of off hand. Of course the 4th lord wanted them to get back to their proper places - he had a navy to supply.

 

At 4/06/2005 7:48 AM, Blogger Orac said...

I wasn't aware of that tidbit about the British Navy and tanks.

 

At 5/02/2005 3:12 PM, Blogger HaloJonesFan said...

The vast majority of these quotes are taken so far out of context that they couldn't even see it on a rainy day. Orac, you even note it yourself in some of them.

Of course, the problem with putting in the context is that it makes the quote no longer stupid, which blows the list all to hell.

 

At 5/03/2005 8:53 AM, Blogger Orac said...

That was exactly my point. Alties and pseudoscientists use this list of quotations as "evidence" that the experts don't know what they're talking about, with the implication that their favorite pseudoscientific idea is just too "visionary" for the experts to appreciate. However, as I say to the cranks who like to propagate this list: "Just because experts of the past were unable to predict the future accurately does not mean that the experts of the present are incorrect in rejecting your idea. You have to provide data, not quotes, to show that the experts are incorrect about your crackpot concept!"

When you look at these quotes in more detail, you'll find that some are of questionable veracity; some are simply an inability to predict accurately the future; and others make perfect sense if you put them in the context of what was known at the time they were made.

 

At 7/22/2005 8:45 PM, Blogger another orphan said...

They laughed at Copernicus. etc.

Before Sagan, I heard a version of this in the original Peter Cook & Dudley Moore version of Bedazzled. Roughly, the dialog was:

Moore: "You're a bleeding nutcase!"
Cook: "Hah! They said that about Galileo."
Moore: "They also said it about a lot of nutcases."

 

At 8/11/2005 2:53 PM, Anonymous sophia8 said...

"They laughed at..." was used to great effect in a scene from a marx Brothers film (A Night At The Opera, perhaps?):
Groucho: "They laughed at Marconi! They laughed at Edison! They Laughed at Einstein! They laughed at my Uncle Herbert...!"
Chico: "Your Uncle Herbert? But I ain't never heard of your Uncle Herbert!"
Groucho: "Aha! That's because he was mad!"

 

At 10/09/2005 11:09 PM, Anonymous Chris Noble said...

Crichton's ideas about "consensus science" is also connected to the Galileo gambit

When two Australians were recently awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine

I was of course very happy.

Nobel Prize 2005



I knew, too, that people who use the phrase "consensus science" perjoratively in reference to HIV science would find comfort in this outcome.

I was right.

Dean's world

What I don't understand is that Crichton said:

"There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period."


Helicobacter pylori bacterium and ulcers is consensus science. There is a consensus that this bacteria causes the majority of stomach ulcers.

According to Crichton's Law it is therefore not science. "If it's consensus, it isn't science".

Now it got to be consensus exactly because Marshall and Warren could produce convincing evidence.

I would go so far to say that all scientific Nobel prizes are consensus science. The Nobel foundation typically waits several years or even decades after the intitial publication before awarding a Nobel prize. This was the case for 2005. They wait until there is a consensus.



Crichton confuses reality with his fiction. In his fiction the maverick is always right. This is good for his book sales but does not reflect reality.



In reality most mavericks are wrong. In the AIDS field most of the mavericks contradict each other about what causes AIDS. Logically the majority are wrong, they can't all be correct.


Dembski aslo seems to get consolation from this year's Nobel prize winners.


Chris Noble

 

At 10/10/2005 7:50 AM, Blogger Orac said...

Dean's a pseudoscience maven. He has no clue what science is or what "consensus science" is. The problem with pseudsoscientists and cranks like "intelligent design" advocates, HIV denialists, etc., is that they want their ideas to be taken seriously as "science" without actually doing the heavy lifting in terms of providing data, research, and experimentation to make their ideas worthy of being considered "science." They want to don the mantle of science without earning it.

The H. pylori story is a perfect example. Yes, the discoverers were met with skepticism and even ridicule at first, but they persevered and, most importantly, provided the data and experiments to prove their case. Their data and experiments were confirmed by others, and eventually a new consensus formed. That's how science works.

And, boy were these guys punished. They only won the Nobel Prize. That goes to show how much we scientists hate people who buck the establishment. When they're right, they might get the Nobel Prize.

Dean is what I term a "pseudoskeptic." Hmmm. I've been meaning to write about pseudoskepticism for some time now...

 

At 10/11/2005 8:08 PM, Anonymous Chris Noble said...

I am particularly interested in how people tell the difference between science and pseudoscience. I wish there was an easy method to separate the two.

Unfortunately there is no method that is 100% specific and 100% sensitive.

There are some good guidelines. Does the work appear in peer-reviewed literature? If it doesn't there is a good chance that it is pseudoscience. Peer-review does a reasonable job of weeding out poor science. However, like all other human activities, it is far from perfect. There are many papers that are rejected that should be accepted and there are many papers that are accepted that should be rejected.

Asking whether the majority of scientists accept it is also a reasonable method, statistically speaking, of separating science from pseudoscience. Most mavericks are wrong (except in Crichton's fiction). People like Dean use the reverse method. His criteria appear to be that if the majority of scientists say something is pseudoscience then there is a good chance it is Nobel prize material. The more strongly other scientists condemn the maverick the stronger Dean's belief.

Intelligent design proponenets and HIV "dissidents" use this type of mentality (Dean is not alone). The first step is to contruct a "controversy" in the minds of laypeople. Directly target laypeople. Bypass peer-review. Write books. When other scientists react to this use the "no smoke without fire" principle. If they are reacting to us this must mean they are afraid. On the other hand if other scientists do not react then this should be portrayed as "they cannot refute what we say".

Chris Noble

 

At 10/21/2005 9:20 PM, Anonymous garry culhane said...

Semmelweiss, was he the guy who told the surgeons to wash their hands, just out of the belly of a corpse and about to be inserted to the body of a living and pregnant female? Was he not shunned, shoved , and finally hunted into suicide? And still, today, you who are a surgeon squash him into a list of strangers and express puzzlement that he did not publish sooner (he was lucky to get out of some areas with his life). Poor guy, in his grave all these years and still he is only dragged out in order to give him another kick. Well, Orac, I read the book and I am really pleased to have this opportunity to tell one of the butchers...whoops...surgeons: Wash your damm hands.

 

At 10/22/2005 10:50 AM, Blogger Orac said...

Yes, I am amazed that he didn't publish sooner, because there were enough physicians who found his work compelling that he very well might have overcome the skepticism. This does not excuse the reaction of the medical establishment at the time, but Semmelweis was well known not to like presenting publicly and was reluctant to publish. In 1857, for instance, he actually turned down an offer to become chairman of obstetrics in Zurich. I doubt he would have been offered that if the medical establishment was as unrelentingly hostile to him as you describe.

As always, the story is more complicated than usually represented. For example, the germ theory of disease had not yet been developed; making a mechanism difficult to imagine at the time. Also, his results were not universally rejectd. Even Wikipedia shows this to be so:

The breakthrough for Semmelweis occurred in 1847 with the death of his friend Jakob Kolletschka from an infection contracted after his finger was accidentally punctured with a knife during a postmortem examination. Kolletschka's own autopsy showed a pathological situation similar to that of the women who were dying from puerperal fever. Semmelweis immediately proposed a connection between cadaveric contamination and puerperal fever and made a detailed study of the mortality statistics of both obstetrical clinics. He concluded that he and the students carried the infecting particles on their hands from the autopsy room to the patients they examined in the First Obstetrical Clinic. The germ theory of disease had not yet been developed at the time. Thus, Semmelweiss concluded that some unknown "cadaveric material" caused childbed fever. He instituted a policy of using a solution of chlorinated lime for washing hands between autopsy work and the examination of patients and the mortality rate dropped from its then-current level of 12.24% to 2.38%, comparable to the Second Clinic's

Despite this dramatic result, Semmelweis refused to communicate his method officially to the learned circles of Vienna, nor was he eager to explain it on paper. Ferdinand von Hebra finally wrote two articles in his behalf but although foreign physicians and the leading members of the Viennese school were impressed by Semmelweis' apparent discovery the papers failed to generate widespread support. His observations went against the current scientific opinion of the time, which blamed diseases (among other quite odd causes) on an imbalance of the basic "humours" in the body. It was also argued that even if his findings were correct, washing one's hands each time before treating a pregnant woman, as Semmelweis advised, would be too much work. Nor were doctors eager to admit that they had caused so many deaths; indeed, they tended to claim that their profession was one divinely blessed and thus their hands could not be dirty.

During 1848 Semmelweis widened the scope of his washing protocol to include all instruments coming in contact with patients in labor and he statistically documented success in virtually eliminating puerperal fever from the hospital ward, leading Skoda to attempt to create an official commission to investigate the results. The commission proposal was ultimately rejected by the Ministry of Education due to a political conflict in the university and government bureaucracies. Semmelweis was an active liberal, but a conservative movement gained power in 1848 and in 1849 he was fired from his position. Skoda delivered an address on the subject in the Imperial and Royal Academy of Sciences in October of 1849, but Semmelweis had neglected to correct his friends' papers to make known their mistakes in describing his work. Semmelweis was finally persuaded to present his findings personally in 1850 with some success. However, Semmelweis abruptly left Vienna later that year to return to Pest, apparently due to financial difficulties, without notifying even his closest friends. This hasty decision ruined his chances to overcome the Viennese sceptics.

In Hungary, Semmelweis took charge of the maternity ward of Pest's St. Rochus Hospital from 1851 to 1857. His hand- and equipment-washing protocols reduced the mortality rate from puerperal fever to 0.85% there, and his ideas were soon accepted throughout Hungary. He married, had five children, and built a large private practice. He became chair of theoretical and practical midwifery at the University of Pest in July 1855. Semmelweis turned down an offer in 1857 to chair obstetrics in Zurich. Vienna remained quite hostile to him, however.

In 1861 Semmelweis finally published his discovery in a book, Die Ätiologie, der Begriff und die Prophylaxis des Kindbettfiebers. A number of unfavorable foreign reviews of the book prompted Semmelweis to lash out against his critics in series of open letters written in 1861-1862, which did little to advance his ideas. At a conference of German physicians and natural scientists, most of the speakers rejected his doctrine. One of them was Rudolf Virchow.

There were politics involved. There were also some errors:

In October, 1849, Professor Josef Skoda delivered an address upon the same subject in the Imperial and Royal Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately, Semmelweis had neglected to correct the papers of these friends of his, and thus failed to make known their mistakes, so that the inference might be drawn that only infection from septic virus caused puerperal fever. It was not until 15 May, 1850, that Semmelweis could bring himself to give a lecture upon his discovery before the Society of Physicians; this address was followed by a second on 18 June, 1850. The medical press noticed these lectures only in a very unsatisfactory manner. In 1861 he published his work: "Die Aetiologie, der Begriff und die Prophylaxis des Kindbettfiebers" (Vienna), in which he bitterly attacked his supposed and real opponents. It was not until after his death that Semmelweis found full recognition as the predecessor of Lister and the pioneer in antiseptic treatment.

And his results were not universially rejected. Indeed, some physicians were quite impressed:

In spite of the dramatic practical results of his washings, Semmelweis refused to communicate his method officially to the learned circles of Vienna, nor was he eager to explain it on paper. Hence, Ferdinand von Hebra finally wrote two articles in his behalf, explaining the aetiology of puerperal fever and strongly recommending use of chlorinated lime as a preventive. Although foreign physicians and the leading members of the Viennese school were impressed by Semmelweis’ apparent discovery, the papers failed to generate widespread support.


Yes, Semmelweis' ideas were initially resisted, but eventually they were accepted. However, to use Semmelweis (or Galileo) as an example in support of some pseudoscience or other is an insult to Semmelweis.

 

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