Skeptic History: A Tale of Two Scientists, Redux PDF Print E-mail
Written by Tim Farley   

The stories behind momentous scientific discoveries are always of interest to skeptics.  This is because promoters of pseudoscience often claim to be breaking new ground, and invoke the names of scientists like Galileo or Einstein who had to defend their breakthrough ideas.

Of course, all scientists must defend their ideas with, among other things, data. In a sequel to a post from back in November, I have here a tale of two scientists, both born in the 19th century, both during the month of July, who both made discoveries that were initially rejected.

The first scientist was a medical doctor who was born July 1, 1818. Working in obstetrics, he noticed anomalies in the mortality rate among patients in two clinics.  He studied the differences between the two clinics to discover the cause.

He found the main difference was the presence of medical students, who often worked with cadavers as part of their studies. He theorized there was an unknown substance, some sort of “cadaveric agent” that got onto students hands and caused the illnesses in the clinic.  (Keep in mind the germ theory of disease was still decades away).  He instituted a policy of hand washing after autopsies, and the death rate in the clinic dropped 90%.

Our second scientist was born just as the first one was making his discoveries, on July 3, 1849.  He went into physics, not medicine.  In 1903 he noticed an interesting phenomenon in a lab experiment involving electric sparks.  Just a few years earlier, a new form of radiation known as X-rays had been discovered.  Our scientist theorized he had discovered yet another form of radiation as well, one that he found emanating from many substances.  It could only be detected by careful observation in a darkened room by trained observers.

Both scientists ran smack into skepticism of their work.  The medical doctor was derided and told he had discovered nothing. His theories of the source of disease ran directly counter to the prevailing notion at the time.  Other doctors were also offended to be told to wash their hands.

The physicist, on the other hand, managed to convince several other prominent scientists that he was correct. Others even tried to claim credit for his discovery. Skepticism arrived from scientists visiting from another country, when they observed the experimental apparatus and tried to replicate.

So were both of these men crackpots?  Were both of them right?  If you’ve been reading carefully, you know one of them had data on their side, and the other had only personal observations.  That’s the key.

The medical doctor was Ignaz Semmelweis, born in Hungary in 1818.  Although he didn’t know of the germ theory, he had correctly determined that something on doctors’ hands caused disease.  He backed up his hypothesis with data derived after his hand-washing policy went into effect.

The physicist was Prosper-René Blondlot, born in France in 1849. His observations of N-rays were purely experimenter bias.  There is no such radiation, and he had no real data to back up his claims.  He was debunked when physicist Robert W. Wood visited from America, and showed that his results were not consistent.

Semmelweis’ ideas were never accepted in his lifetime, and he died at age 47 in a mental hospital.  He was vindicated years later and is now regarded as a pioneer.  

Blondlot, on the other hand, was still highly regarded after his N-rays mistake, and there are parks and other monuments to him in France to this day.

Both provide interesting lessons to skeptics.

You can get a daily dose of the history of skepticism with JREF’s free Today in Skeptic History app for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. Or subscribe for a daily fact on Twitter or Facebook.

(This is adapted from a segment that originally appeared on the Skepticality podcast episode #159)


Tim Farley is a Research Fellow for JREF and will speak and present a workshop at TAM2012 in Las Vegas.