The Last Resort

Vladimir Jankovic, “The Last Resort: A British Perspective on the Medical South, 1815-1870,” Journal of Intercultural Studies 27, no. 3 (2006): 271-298.

In this piece on British health travel to the Mediterranean, Jankovic aims to focus on the “…ways in which the medical reasoning and disease etiology impinged on the choice of resorts and regimens, and how such choice meshed with the broad understanding of the region based not only on the geographical and medical documents but also on its changing cultural stereotypes.” (272) He argues that medical opinion explained some aspects of health travel, but not all, as evidenced by the rapidly changing resort hotspots. Though Jankovic asserts that the “career of British climatotherapy… often drew upon the lay rather than scientific consensus and… often passed it verdicts in accordance to the Victorian environmental mores rather than observations, mortality tables or climatological statistics…,” he acknowledges the vital role that the “garb of impartiality and… use of scientific jargon…” played in legitimizing and differentiating different resorts. (272-73)

Explains how temperature was understood to be a determinant of environment-specific physiologies and moralities (environmental determinism) (275)

Some physicians (?) (Sir James Clark) were calling for a more “scientific” approach to health traveling, insisting that “the migration South ought to be based on the knowledge of climatic specificity and the taxonomy of resorts based on morbidity statistics,” but this taxonomy was only beginning to emerge in the 1830s. The prerogative to travel and choice of destination were considered primarily in the context of social factors; “fashion and custom ruled.” (276)

Jankovic touches on the “diseases of civilization,” which, alongside chronic physical illnesses like TB, skin diseases, kidney and liver issues, and cancer, afflicted many health travelers.

Similar to the book on health-seeking in the West by the guy from OU, this article touches on health travel as impetus for territorial/colonial expansion (277)

Science and statistics coming into resort therapy: “From the mid-nineteenth century…[n]ew medical researchers began to seek the attention of the public and the profession by using whatever (quantitative) observations they could put their hands on to dissect climatological hearsay which, in their view, had spurred a facile and unjustified veneration of Southern Europe among the deluded expatriates.” (281)
Use of data to find “truth” in accounts of therapeutic efficacy — attempt to base traveling for health on a scientific epistemology.
“For this emerging group of climatotherapeutic statisticians only a careful attention to meteorological conditions might dispel (or confirm) popular perception and determine which, if any, of the environmental factors could be identified as curative in landscapes of brighter sun, drier air, and warmer breeze.”

Anti-resort therapy science: Discussion of the counter-narrative (exemplified by the work of John Charles Atkinson and Thomas Burgess), which held climatotherapy to be a fad; Atkinson believed that “fresh air” didn’t help cure people and that traveling was dangerous. People were better suited to the climates from whence they came, and modifications in temperature exposure could be conducted in the home by wearing more or less clothes and using heaters, respirators, etc. “Such arguments made understandable the fact that eudiometry (the sciences of measuring the ‘virtue’ of pure air) and chemical analyses failed to discriminate…” between air/water from resorts and from inner cities. Both men used statistics to bolster their arguments against the effectiveness of warm climates on mostly TB. (283-285)

Jankovic uses a controversy over the salubrity of Madeira’s climate to delve into the role of science in determining health benefits/disadvantages. James Mackenzie Bloxam, who traveled to Madeira for health reasons yearly, wrote out against the scientists defaming the resort. “The thrust of Bloxam’s argument was to challenge the validity of scientific methods in identifying the influence of climate on disease, especially when independent means existed by which these influences could be demonstrated… [d]ata might be fictions made up by badly calibrated instruments, and read by people without qualification and experience.” Bloxam was bothered by the total reliance on “meteorological journals and quantitative science,” believing that it should be accompanied by “a clinical picture or patients’ own reports.” “Why use science…[when] common knowledge and personal feeling would suffice? Why call upon meteorologists when patients might be more qualified to pass the climatological verdict?” “Bloxam appealed to tradition and common sense. He thought that the practice of medical travel was sufficiently established to tolerate an ‘expert’ intervention from the outsiders like Burgess.” (288-289)
This is the same sentiment I see in early ads for ES. When science fails to explain therapeutic effects that have been witnessed, the inclination of those who have witnessed it (or just want to believe?) is to question the authority of science in the realm of therapeutics. Is not the patient’s experience a more important component to understanding therapeutic efficacy? Why bring in a scientist to determine the answer to a question that’s already been determined in a much more immediate, real way?

In the end, science (statistics) wins the battle. It gains authority in the field of climatotherapeutics. Despite these misgivings about scientific intrusion, Madeira was obsolete two decades later. Doctors quit sending their patients there. Mounting evidence of the resort’s failure to cure, and even exacerbation of, TB, lent credence to “the quantitative approach to… Mediterranean climatotherapy,” and its propensity to influence “…the medical profession’s judgement on the value of health travel…” “Scientific writers presented their case as a long-overdue audit of a complacent medical opinion that concealed professional idiosyncrasy, anecdotal evidence, and social prejudice. Climatologists staged a putsch using the weapon of impartiality.”


Water Cures and Science

George Weisz, “Water Cures and Science: The french Academy of Medicine and Mineral Waters in the Nineteenth Century,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 64, no. 3 (1990): 393-416.

In this piece, Weisz discusses institutional and individual attempts in nineteenth century France to place mineral waters and the therapies that involved them on a biomedical, statistical, and chemical foundation of therapeutic efficacy. He argues that the different way in which spa therapies are understood, utilized, and supported in Europe versus in North America is due to the medical and scientific fields’ support of hydrotherapy in the former, where it is largely absent in the latter.

“Water cures in North America were largely an entrepreneurial activity with limited links to public health authorities and even less to academic medicine.” (394)
He doesn’t cite anything here, so I wonder from where he has gathered this impression. Not that I disagree, but it’d be nice to see where this is discussed elsewhere.

The French Academy of Medicine was put in charge of “authorizing” mineral waters in the 19th century “on the basis of chemical analyses carried out in the Academy’s laboratory.” They didn’t make judgements on the therapeutic efficacy/action of the waters, but just looked at what was in it and compared it to other well-known spots. (396) They added bacterial analyses by the end of the 19th century. (397)

The organization had a branch of inspectors whose job it was to “study scientifically the properties of local waters, to supervise the medical functioning of spas, to suggest improvements to appropriate authorities, and to provide free medical care to indigents.” Their role changed in emphasis from statistics-gathering to the production of original scientific research as the century wore on. (398)

The reports they submitted were gathered, cross-referenced, and published by the Academy yearly (though this was sometimes poorly done and late). “…the aim was to set down information in a logical manner so that correlations among what we would call variables could be made visible. The key question in this case was the extent to which a particular water could be shown to be especially effective against particular diseases or conditions. The goal was to determine each water’s therapeutic specificity…” (398-99)
This is the exact kinda thing that’s going on in climatology. Woot woot!

Weisz spends some time discussing how the reports and the scientific validity they gave the waters were a source of medical authority for the Academy over mineral waters. They advocated for legislation that would prevent people from using the waters without the aid of a physician (this failed — legislation in the early 1860s made waters free to use for anyone).

Spa proprietors were understood as greedy; “the only counterbalance to commercial greed was medical authority.”
Since there was little medical authority in ES, this may explain why the spa industry didn’t take off in America like it did on the continent. Capitalists were permitted to make outrageous claims, and nothing was regulated — they became untrustworthy as medicine scientized. They tried to jump on the bandwagon of scientific legitimacy, but the commercial aspects of their endeavor were too pronounced. Too many unsustainable claims. Trust (particularly of the thin variety, I’d imagine) is a ruthless balancing act. 

The Academy believed that “[t]he prosperity of the spa industry would be ensured if the applications of water cures could be determined scientifically; if a degree of therapeutic specificity were to be established physicians could be made fully to understand the range of conditions for which each water was useful. Explaining the actual mechanisms through which waters acted on the body might be part of this task, but it was secondary to the precise determination of therapeutic efficacy.” (402-3)
This focus on empirical evidence over explanatory theory may have sustained therapeutics through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but as bacteriology, pharmaceutical chemistry, and other sciences provided a mechanistic (word choice?) explanation, this kind of mass evidence based on “subjective” experience would cease to be as convincing.

Weisz spends some time discussing the difficulties in establishing the extent of therapeutic efficacy; do you take a clinical approach? The variables are very difficult to isolate, particularly for hydrotherapy, where many things are at play. Clinical testing strategies were also in their infancy. The laboratory is another strategy (that became increasingly popular as time wore on), but it is even more reductionist and restrictive. How could you conduct a laboratory test on the community healing aspect of a health spa?

Details attempts at establishing hospitals and laboratories near spa towns, which don’t seem to have happened.

“Chemistry was in certain respects hydrology’ main claim to rigorous scientific status…” though there was some tension between “chemistry adn clinical therapeutics.”

Discusses the case of Forges-les-Bains, a site where chemical testing indicated that the waters had very little mineral content (like Eureka Springs!). The Academy authorized the waters anyway, citing the history of therapeutic efficacy. This was an instance in which, Weisz argues, “…the primacy of therapeutic effects over chemical analysis was affirmed.” (406)
Idea for the conclusion of my thesis (in which I plan to briefly speak on why spa therapies did not take off in America): the fact that Eureka Springs did pretty well despite chemical analyses proving no active agents speaks to the weakness of chemical/hydrological science in the US. 

On data collection, which Hamlin also discusses –
“Collecting data, on the model of public health statistics, seemed in fact one of the few ways to ridge the gap between chemistry and therapeutics by permitting the Academy to utilize inspectors’ reports in order to process these two types of knowledge into data that might conceivably show clear relationships between chemical composition and the healing of particular diseases.”
Hamlin details this same process in England; he refers to it as an attempt, in the Baconian vein, to gather voluminous information about something in order to subsequently construct an underlying theory. I wonder if this was going on in America as well, or if chemistry wasn’t well established enough or interested in different kinds of questions than therapeutics or mineral waters? This could also help shed light on the question of why hydrotherapy didn’t do well in America. If its handmaiden, chemistry, wasn’t organized, authoritative or interested enough to provide solid medical legitimacy, especially considering the active role it played in establishing the science of hydrology in France… there’s no way it could compete with other therapeutic systems. 

Weisz argue that the Academy “helped keep hydrology alive as a scientific speciality in the nineteenth century and invested it with whatever prestige the Academy itself possessed. It also produced a body of medical writing that pretty much confirmed the belief in the efficacy of water cures.” (415)
I don’t think hydrotherapy/hydrology/climatology had similar institutional support. This would be a good argument to make at the end of chapter two; cite the differential in university appointments and commmittees in public health and other government bodies that concern mineral water, hydrotherapy, hydrology, climatology, etc. 

“The scientific effort expended on mineral waters…has in the final analysis been most significant because it has made a clear statement that water cures are valuable enough to be the object of such interest by the medical elite. In so doing, it has helped keep this therapy within orthodox medicine (though far from the center), in spite of the fat that it does not conform easily to the dominant models of scientific explanation.” (416)

Transactions of 7th Meeting of AR State Medical Society (1882)

Transactions of the State Medical Society of Arkansas at its Seventh Annual Session (Little Rock: Kellogg Printing Company, 1882).

List of Members of the Arkansas State Medical Society – total = 197, 2 from ES

Doctors who were practicing in ES:
J. O. Ducker — physician in Eureka Springs, AR — graduate of Jefferson Medical College, PA
M. Harrison — physician in Eureka Springs, AR — graduate of Louisville Medical College, KY (where Daniel Drake lectured for awhile!)

Breakdown of training by state:
NE Coast –
Maryland (8); New York (8); Pennsylvania (29); Maine (2)

SE Coast –
South Carolina (4); Virginia (3); Florida (1)

South –
Louisiana (20); Georgia (6)

Upper Midwest –
Michigan (2); Ohio (10); Iowa (3); Kentucky (38)

Lower Midwest –
Missouri (24); Arkansas (3); Tennessee (29)

Canada (1)

2 from L. I. H. Medical College, can’t figure out where that was located

Address on the Practice of Medicine, E. R. Duvall, Chairman of the Committee 

…by reason, treatment is more concise, more methodical, more scientific, results more satisfactory. All organs are systematically interrogated — in this manner the reflex and other manifestations, so often puzzling alike to patient and and medical attendant, are accounted for, and their significations placed in their proper relationship.” (50)

“To dose, dose, and dose again, originally significant of the erudition of our calling, and viewed with admiration by confrere and the laity, is now, through the agencies and by the influence of a progressive advancement all along the line, the least of the test by which fitness for responsible trust is to be determined.” (51)

Uses statistics in pro-Smallpox vaccine argument; discussion of English and German critiques of American vaccination practices, which proves they were reading literature from across the Atlantic? (52)

Report by committee appointed to investigate reforming (making more uniform, more rigorous) medical education; report by committee appointed to investigate and attempt to change medical legislation

Both pieces stress a need to monopolize & standardize medicine for the benefit of the people, who are being cheated by charlatans, quacks, and improperly trained doctors.

Piece on using blood to diagnose illness — the “Salisbury method,” from Dr. J. H. Salisbury (OH)

Advocates skilled and knowledgable use of microscopy to observe blood “corpuscules.” Pretty detailed account of what blood does when you add various concentrations of different substances.

Report on Bilious Fever by G. M. D. Cantrell of Hope, AR

Discusses weather, elevation of areas particularly affected by the disease
“…Klebs and Tomasi Crudeli, by their investigations, have discovered in the atmosphere of the Potine marshes peculiar rod-like bodies, which they have called bacillus milariae, and which, by inoculation, they claim will produce paroxysms of intermittent fever.” (96)

“A Plea for Some Neglected Branches in Medicine” by George C. Hartt, Little Rock, AR

Argument for wider, broader training for doctors — “languages, mathematics, philosophy, and the sciences”

“All must acknowledge” that the acquirement of “some” languages — “especially French and German” — “cannot fail to afford both profit and pleasure, enabling him to understand the fresh utterances of foreign masters in their native tongue, and also many words and phrases which these languages are constantly contributing to medicine and to science.” (122)

Advocates knowledge of “geology,” so that physicians can be consulted in healthful locations for building stuff. Wonder why he doesn’t mention health resort therapeutics here? 😦

Argues that botany isn’t considered a real science because it is associated with mysticism (“astrology and alchymy,” “Thomsonian, or steam system, and botanic system…”) (127-128)

References Cuvier



Foucault: The Birth of the Clinic

Foucault’s is a history (if we can call it that) of discourse — of the way people talked about the body, particularly in its diseased state, and the way they’ve understood the doctor and the patient himself in relation to the disease.

« …commenter, c’est admettre par définition un excès du signifie sur le signifiant, un reste nécessairement non formule de la pensée que le langage a laisse dans l’ombre, résidu qui en est l’essence elle-même, poussée hors de son secret; mais commenter suppose aussi que ce non-parle dort dans la parole, et que, par une surabondance propre au signifiant, on peut en l’interrogeant faire parler un contenu qui n’était pas explicitement signifie. »

To comment on something is to assume that the ultimate meaning of what you’re getting at is more important than what you’re saying — that there’s something more, something left in the shadows of your words. I think Foucault is laying the foundations for the kind of work he will do in the rest of the book here, asserting that if we can read through the way that doctors talk about the body, the patient, the disease, and themselves in relation to it, we can understand at a deeper, more complex level how they saw and understood these concepts.

This is a history of reading between the lines, of seeing what was not explicitly stated and looking underneath for larger take-aways. I’m unsure how I feel about this, because it doesn’t seem to be based in anything tangible. It feels farfetched and difficult to substantiate, problems that Foucault does resolve, in my mind, in the remainder of the text.

I think it has the potential to be very powerful, though, and I love that Foucault states he is not arguing that this epistemic change in the late 18th century was doctors/scientists suddenly waking up and seeing what had really been there all along — rather, that a new kind of science (by which I mean what was considered scientific) emerged, and through its lenses, scientists and doctors saw different things. They were looking for different things.This way of looking at things, I think, is something a lot of historians of science don’t like. It’s the ultimate critique to the progress narrative and to positivism, to viewing the history of science, technology, and medicine as the story of how scientists eventually “got it right.”

Espaces et Classes

Primary (disease), secondary (disease + individual), tertiary (disease + individual + health infrastructure, or « l’ensemble des gestes par lesquels la maladie, dans une société, est cernée, médicalement investie, isolée, repartie dans des régions privilégiées et closes, ou distribuée a travers des milieux de guérison, aménages pour être favorables »). Big changes took place in the tertiary.

Une Conscience Politique

Begins by talking about epidemics, exploring how they were understood and why the concept of contagion was largely unimportant.

« On a discute beaucoup et longuement, et maintenant encore, pour savoir si les médecins du 18ieme siècle en avaient saisi la caractère contagieux, et s’ils avaient pose le problème de l’agent de leur transmission. Oiseuse question… »

Details growing « conscience collective » of medicine, as observations around France were being collectivized and disseminated through medical infrastructure.

« Le lieu où se forme le savoir, ce n’est plus ce jardin pathologique où Dieu avait distribue les espèces, c’est une conscience médicale généralisée, diffuse dans l’espace et dans le temps, ouverte et mobile, liée à chaque existence individuelle, mais bien à la vie collective de la nation, toujours éveillée sur le domaine indéfini où le mal trahit, sous ses aspects divers, sa grande forme massive. »

Discusses change in the doctor’s role being reinstituting an individual, idiosyncratic “normal” to, in the 19th century onwards, adhering to a common, popular normal as the standard for health.

Importance of the concept of healing the state — health as something the entire nation should be concerned about.

Le  Champ Libre

Account of the debates surround the reformation of medical education during the French Revolution;

Hospitals should be abolished; they shouldn’t be needed in the ideal state, because everyone will be healthy. They end up becoming the new “natural” place for disease, though, replacing the family.

Arguments over whether education/medical field should be regulated.

The Old Age of the Clinic

“Before it became a corpus of knowledge, the clinic was a universal relationship of mankind with itself; the age of absolute happiness for medicine. And the decline began when writing and secrecy were introduced, that is, the concentration of this knowledge in a privileged group, and the dissociation of the immediate relationship, which had neither obstacle nor limits between Gaze and Speech: what was known was no longer communicated to others but put to practical use once it had passed through esotericism of knowledge.”

Theory vs. seeing — to what extent do our theories dictate what we see? (“When Hippocrates had reduced medicine to a system, observation was abandoned and philosophy was introduced into medicine.”)

I’ve felt this way about learning history a lot. If I read so much theory, it’s going to change the way I do history. It’s going to change the way I read sources, the way that I understand them, and the way that I relate them to contemporaneous and modern-day situations and ideas. Is this less pure? Or merely substituting someone else’s bias for my own?

Details how the clinic is different from a hospital, one being that, while in a hospital, “one is dealing with individuals who might suffer from one disease or another,” in the clinic, “one is dealing with diseases that happen to be afflicting this or that patient: what is present is the disease itself, in the body that is appropriate to it, which is not that of the patient, but that of its truth.”

The Lesson of the Hospitals

Clinical hospitals became a space where “truth teaches itself… offers itself to the gaze of both the experienced observer and the naive apprentice; for both there is only one language…”

They made possible “the immediate communication of teaching within the concrete field of experience… effac[ing] dogmatic language as an essential stage in the transmission of truth.” (68)

Interesting, although I’d still argue there was a lot going on with medical language at this time. Someone didn’t just walk in and know how to talk about the body. The body still wasn’t speaking for itself.

“What makes medicine, thus understood, a corpus of knowledge of use to all citizens is its immediate relationship with nature; instead of being, like the old Faculty, the locus of an esoteric, bookish corpus of knowledge, the new school would be ‘the temple of nature’; there one would learn not what the old masters thought they knew, but that form of truth open to all that is manifested in everyday practice…” (70)

Signs and Cases

Begins by discussing similarities and differences between natural history and this new brand of medicine; continuing conversation distinguishing classificatory medicine and clinical medicine. Instead of just classifying everything by their differences and similarities, clinical medicine embodied “a gaze… not bound by the narrow grid of structure (form, arrangement, number, size), but that could and should grasp colors, variations, tiny anomalies… it must make it possible to outline chance sand risks; it was calculating.” (89)

Discusses signs and symptoms — actually kind of defines something for once — and the changing amount of space between what was a signifier and what was signified. Symptoms, instead of being a sign of something, become themselves part of the whole of the disease.

Fascinating discussion of the rising importance of statistics in medicine (WISH THERE WAS MORE SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE), which “gave the clinical field a new structure in which the individual in question was not so much a sick person as the endlessly reproducible pathological fact to be found in all patients suffering in a similar way; in which the plurality of observations was no longer simply a contradiction or confirmation, but a progressive, theoretically endless convergence…” (97) “The only normative observer is the totality of observers…’Several observers never see the same fact in an identical way, unless nature has really presented it to them in the same way.’” (102)

Seeing and Knowing

Difference between experimentation and observation

“The observing gaze manifests its virtues only in a double silence: the relative silence of theories, imaginings, and whatever serves as an obstacle to the sensible immediate; and the absolute silence of all language that is anterior to that of the visible.” (108)

The setting of the hospital is important, permitting “pathological events to be reduced to the homogenous; the hospital domain is no doubt not pure transparency to truth, but the refraction that is proper to make possible, through its constancy, the analysis of truth.” (110)

“…by saying what one sees, one integrates it spontaneously into knowledge…” (114)

This is a really important point for Foucault, I think. He’s writing about discourse as a way of knowing. How we put into language what we see is how we construct knowledge.

Long-winded analogy between disease and languages:

“Disease, like the word, is deprived of being, but, like the word, it is endowed with a configuration.” (119) – nominalistic (denies the existence of universals and abstract objects, but affirms the existence of general or abstract terms and predicates)

Open Up a Few Corpses

Argues that the histories of anatomy that posit dissection was not common until the mid-19th century are false, constructed to explain why pathological anatomy (the correlation of lesions with symptoms) wasn’t a thing earlier.

Historical narratives constructed as “retrospective justifications.”


“On the Frontier of the Empire of Chance”

Arwen Mohun, “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance: Statistics, Accidents, and Risk in Industrializing America.” Science in Context 3 (2005): 337-357.

In “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance,” author Arwen Mohun examines the rise in statistics and probabilistic thinking in the American vernacular context from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries. Through the lens of a cultural historian of technology, Mohun takes a closer look at how the industrial-era quantification of risk altered the way people understood it; she asks why and how this transformation took place, and then delves into how these understandings were shaped and used in order to mold individual behavior and enact widespread change. Mohun argues that the actors in her narrative existed on the periphery of the Empire of Chance. While experts, primarily located in European centers of statistical theorizing, formed the “epicenter” of the empire, those on the frontier employed statistics as a tool in social manipulation. Far from relegating popular audiences to a primarily observational, inert role, however, the author also acknowledges their agency in the story by explaining how their motivations affected their choices regarding risk and reward.

Obviously, Mohun’s work builds off of the book she references in her title — The Empire of Chance. Her piece is different from that of Gigerenzer et al., however, in that it addresses how the methodological and intellectual developments of professional statisticians found their way into popular understandings of variability and the risks associated with it. This is reminiscent of Dr. Pandora’s assigned reading for her two weeks of 5990 at the beginning of the semester — Spectacular Nature and The Whale and the Supercomputer. Like Mohun’s work, Susan G. Davis looks at how ideas from the “top,” the professional scientists, filter down into the vernacular through institutions like SeaWorld. Mohun also looks at how institutions influence the way that popular audiences understand scientific theories, their consequences, and their uses. In contrast, Charles Wohlforth focuses on how non-professional ways of knowing had a major impact on the way scientists looked at and understood climate change in the arctic. Mohun mimics this approach when she includes in her analysis how the importance of individual experience affects the way that the average American understood and behaved in regards to risk-taking. When the approach involves popular science, both perspectives — top-down and bottom-up — are important for a holistic understanding of how science and vernacular audiences interact and influence one another, and in this regard, Mohun as clearly covered all of her bases.

Something I found particularly interesting in this piece was the discussion of the “pragmatic approach” to science that Mohun discusses primarily on pages 339 and 340. She argues that it was especially characteristic of American statisticians in the time period she covers, and cites as evidence their absence from histories of statistics. American statisticians worried less about developing sound theories and methods and more about applying their knowledge (no matter how unsound or theoretically dubious) to real-world problems. This embodied what I have come to understand as being a very Industrial-American ideal; the self-made, self-trained practitioner unconcerned with the useless, bookish knowledge so characteristic of their less hard-working, impractical European counterparts. I wonder if the different approaches caused animosity between American and European statisticians; they were obviously sharing ideas. What did these conversations look like, and how did they take place? Was it common for Americans to train abroad, or were universities in America training these frontiersmen of the Empire of Chance?


The Empire of Chance

The Empire of Chance: How Probability Changed Science and Everyday Life, Gerd Gigerenzer, Zeno Swijtink, Theodore Porter, Lorrain Daston, John Beatty, and Lorenz Krüger

            In their collaborative work, authors Gerd Gigerenzer, Zeno Swijtink, Theodore Porter, Lorrain Daston, John Beatty, and Lorenz Krüger attempt a cohesive study of how the science of statistics “transformed our ideas of nature, mind, and society.” (xiv) The first three chapters present a timeline on which the intellectual development of the science of statistics — with some consideration of its particular applications — is situated, the middle three deal with statistics in particular fields, and the last two concern broader implications of statistical analyses, ideologies, and methodologies. A central theme of the book is the idea that the science of statistics was both shaped and shaped by the sciences that it aided and that helped to develop it for their own explanatory and predictive goals. Professing to be the first of its kind, the survey offers detailed technical descriptions and examples that flesh out the mathematics and theories with which its actors are working.

The passages dealing with mid-nineteenth century debates surrounding the viability of statistical methods for physicians reminded me of S. Lochlann Jain’s criticisms of the same methods in her work, Malignant. Jain and her unlikely intellectual compatriots cite similar issues with the “numerical method” in medicine; it denies the complexity and uniqueness of the individual patient, aiming “not to cure the disease, but to cure the most possible out of a certain number” (Risueño d’Amador, 1836, 46). This results in the emotions Jain so skillfully articulates in her first-hand account as a cancer patient. Reduced to numbers, cancer sufferers are identified by the statistical methods their doctors use to diagnose and treat them. Equally concerning is the reliance of pharmaceutical companies on results from statistical studies to produce drugs that will target cancer on a broader scale, to the detriment of patients who would have benefitted from more personalized treatments. Perhaps these nineteenth century critics were not off base in their hesitancy to adopt such a dehumanizing method of handling disease.

Another bit I found particularly interesting was section 3.5, “Hybridization: the Silent Solution.” Having taken statistics and seen it in what I am now realizing was a surprising amount of my undergraduate science classes, I was struck by the fact that the statistical methods we learn as absolute and established are in fact far from it. Integral tenets to the type of statistics I was taught are, in actuality, theoretically at odds with one another, and yet, as the authors contend, “Statistics is treated as abstract truth, a monolithic logic of inductive inference.” (107) Because statistical methods are so widespread, I find it both surprising and alarming that these obvious impediments to its image as a well-established and unproblematic method of analysis are kept more or less hidden. It lead me into thinking about how oftentimes, when scientific disciplines are “successfully” mathematized, we deem them somehow more intelligible; they become more solid, their results more trust-worthy. Is this a valid logical jump to make, especially if statistics, one of the mathematical sciences that is employed most often, rests on shaky ground?