Monday, October 24, 2005


From time to time, when I can find something short enough, I like to enter a little example of how a logical scientific mind works, to show the method in practice. Heaven knows that if goddites could prove the existence of their gods with such clarity, there'd be no argument at all. We'd even know exactly what these gods would want us to do. There'd be no contradictions or muddy instructions.

In an essay from MYSTERIES OF LIFE AND THE UNIVERSE called "Pulling the Handle Off the Pump: Sunlight, Cancer, and the Brothers Garland" (itself a great tale of scientific mystery solved), Peter Radetsky portrays another example of scientific sleuthing.

[OPEN QUOTE] It's a famous story in medical circles—the Garlands revere it as a model of how to conduct an epidemiological investigation. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a devastating epidemic of cholera descended upon England. Snow, a London anesthesiologist who lived in the Soho district of the city, took it upon himself to look into a local outbreak that had killed over 500 people in just ten days. The prevailing theory at the time was that cholera was caused by miasmas, foul emanations wafting through the air. Snow suspected otherwise. He noticed that in the heart of the afflicted neighborhood, at the intersection of Broad and Cambridge streets, was a well renowned for its water's taste and supposed purity. In those days when most houses lacked piped water, the Broad Street pump was used by virtually everyone in the neighborhood. Rather than these vague miasmas, might not the disease be the result of something in the water? Snow decided to find out.

Snow drew a map of the area, marking deaths with tiny coffins. He found that in the streets surrounding the pump they clustered like iron filings around a magnet. The circumstantial evidence was compelling. But then Snow was confronted with exceptions. Among them was the mystery posed by the 70 employees of a nearby Broad Street brewery—none of them had come down with the disease. If the water were at fault, surely some of them should be dead.

Snow interviewed the brewmaster, and soon the solution to the puzzle became clear: The men drank only beer. As the brewery had its own well, they had never once used the Broad Street pump. That was why, in the midst of death, they had survived. But what about the death from cholera of an old woman, a former resident of Broad Street, who had moved miles away to Hampstead some time before? There was no cholera in her new neighborhood—why had this woman been stricken? Snow took a carriage ride to her home and asked her son if there had been anything unusual about his mother's habits. Nothing, the son replied, except for one minor idiosyncrasy. It seemed that from her earlier residence in Soho the old woman had developed a taste for water from the Broad Street pump. To keep her in good spirits, the family had paid a porter to fetch a large bottle of pump water every day. So although the woman did not live in the area at the time of her death, in effect her coffin belonged there. She, too, had been drinking the water.

The exceptions proved the rule. Snow convinced city officials to remove the handle from the Broad Street pump, and the epidemic subsided. [CLOSE QUOTE]


Here's another letter to the editor which I helped draft:

For a quarter century, America’s been careening toward “Republican religion”, and we should evaluate the results.

Are we still the most modern, forward-looking nation on the globe, the most financially sound, liberal-hearted nation ever? Is America still the world leader in science, on the cutting edge of scientific research? Is our educational system the best in the world? Are we turning out world class students, fitted for the technologically and scientifically challenging future? Is the gap between rich and poor shrinking? Is our middle-class increasing in numbers and in wealth? Are we still considered by the democratic nations of the world to be the most peace-loving power among them? Is America as widely respected as before?

Most importantly, after decades of increasing “born again” leadership, are we a united America, at peace with one another and sharing a common sense of American destiny? Are minority beliefs valued? Are we certain that government won’t meddle in our personal choices and religious affairs while working diligently to increase the common economic good?

No? Why? Look around the globe and observe that fanatical religious leadership generally impoverishes rather than enriches nations, and ask yourself, “Should religiosity be the business of our government?”

1 comment:

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