Discover more from Paul’s Pitch
We are not doing Science well
The manufacture of a pleasing history of Science drives the conduct of Science today
A small number of minor typo-fixes have bumped the date on this article. It was written and first published here, essentially as-is, in August 2022.
I refer to an Idle Words post from twelve years ago, Scott and Scurvy
There we are reminded British sailors were called Limeys because for centuries they were given a daily dose of lime juice to keep scurvy away. But, we are told, limes contain far less Vitamin C than lemons and the switch from lemons to limes was convenience, done on an administrative or budgetary whim, and was not tested by experiment. Convenience had it that the lime juice consumed on board ship was concentrated and preserved for the voyage by boiling it. Heat destroys Vit-C. The lime juice thus consumed played little part in keeping scurvy at bay. Scurvy actually went away in the British Navy when steam power was introduced and voyages became shorter. The consumption of boiled lime juice wasn't much better than a superstition.
What killed Robert Scott and his companions on their South Pole expedition was not cold and hardship, as is commonly thought, but weakness brought on by scurvy. A persuasive case for this conclusion is made in the article. That the consumption of citrus fruit was the best prevention of scurvy had been widely forgotten. Scurvy was commonly thought to be the effect of acidic blood caused by a bacterial infection. According to the expedition’s doctor, darkness, cold, and hard work were important causes of scurvy.
I think this Scott and scurvy story is interesting from each of a philosophy of science and a history of science perspective. We rewrite history to suit our psyche, the way we want to think of ourselves. As masters of the Universe our onward progress is inevitable, the white heat of technology solves all problems. We are taught that scurvy was conquered when the first properly conducted medical science experiment established 1747 that the consumption of lemons would provide a quick cure and keep the disease at bay. Yes, but the lesson was forgotten and ineffective boiled lime juice was consumed for many decades. Scurvy had to be reconquered again, almost two centuries later.
The replacement of lemons with limes wasn’t tested, the effectiveness of boiled lime juice was not tested. That first properly performed controlled medical science experiment might as well also have been the last. It made little impact on the conduct of science. The story told about the conquering of scurvy is false, it’s the story of a 1747 spark extinguished.
Not too much has changed. Science is regarded by many of us as a matter of boiled lime juice faith, the scientific method is performed as liturgy and ceremony. What the scientist high priests practice is too often Scientism, the religion, not Science. It’s a ritualistic hand crank of the magical machine turning attractive speculations or convenient hypotheses into published papers which look like Science.
Much so called Science appearing today in peer reviewed scientific journals is no such thing. Most papers cannot be replicated, as demonstrated by the rare occasion when verification of the results is attempted. Please refer John Ioannides’ paper, Why Most Published Research Findings are False, and a commentary thereon, and the eponymous Wikipedia page.
We're not doing Science well.
Thanks for reading Paul’s Pitch! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.