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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Scott and Scurvy ... and 'Science!'

Idle Words: Scott and Scurvy -- I post this partly because history interests me and partly because there is a lesson in it for 'Science!' worshippers, if only they will seek to understand it:
... But with regard to scurvy, at least, the Polar explorers were in an impossible position.

They had a theory of the disease that made sense, fit the evidence, but was utterly wrong. [bolding added] They had arrived at the idea of an undetectable substance in their food, present in trace quantities, with a direct causative relationship to scurvy, but they thought of it in terms of a poison to avoid. In one sense, the additional leap required for a correct understanding was very small. In another sense, it would have required a kind of Copernican revolution in their thinking.
There are several aspects of this 'second coming' of scurvy in the late 19th century that I find particularly striking:
Second, how difficult it was to correctly interpret the evidence without the concept of "vitamin". Now that we understand scurvy as a deficiency disease, we can explain away the anomalous results that seem to contradict that theory (the failure of lime juice on polar expeditions, for example). But the evidence on its own did not point clearly at any solution. It was not clear which results were the anomalous ones that needed explaining away. The ptomaine theory made correct predictions (fresh meat will prevent scurvy) even though it was completely wrong. [bolding added]