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W. Clayton Brumby on Surviving Obsolete Science
In the May 2001 issue of Touchstone, Patrick Henry Reardon spoke eloquently about “the Errors of Determinism.” While I agree with him that fate does not somehow cause history to repeat itself, ignorance can do the job quite nicely.
James Kushiner’s editorial in the same issue, “Baylor’s Bastard Child,” chronicled Dr. William Dembski’s treatment at the hands of Baylor University’s science department and administration. Dembski’s application of information theory to the question of the origin and development of life obviously does not sit well with doctrinaire Darwinists, and for good reason. His dismissal, however, as the head of the Michael Polanyi Center was a poignant reminder of Santayana’s oft-quoted maxim that those ignorant of history are destined to repeat it.
An Eighteenth-Century Scourge
One of the great scourges of the eighteenth century was smallpox. By one estimate, smallpox took the lives of 60 million people during the 1700s. It killed one out of five of its victims, leaving others blind, sterile, or physically marred for life. An odd consolation of survival, however, was that one could never again get smallpox; survivors were immune to any future infection.
In the mid-1770s, as the story goes, a dairymaid told an English country doctor named Edward Jenner that she would never get smallpox because she had had cowpox. Cowpox is a related disease, infecting cattle but few humans. People who did contract it, however, experienced something far milder than smallpox. The dairymaid’s conviction was a known agrarian superstition at the time, but Jenner became intrigued: Did the farmers know something the medical profession did not?
After careful research, he found that the dairy farmers were right: Being infected by cowpox could indeed protect someone from smallpox. He then came up with a vaccine (from vacca, Latin for cow) using cowpox. But when he took his findings to his peers, the oddest thing happened: Instead of welcoming his research as the life-saving discovery it was, they took vehement exception to his work. They felt that, if nothing else, it was sacrilegious.
How could he even think that the disease of a common animal could be used on human beings as a protection? When he tried to persuade them that he could prove it scientifically, he was stonewalled. Further, he was lampooned in the press—cartoons showed those receiving his inoculations turning into bovines. The Royal Society (England’s equivalent to our National Academy of Sciences) refused to publish his work.
Seeing that it was futile to fight the intellectual bigotry surrounding him, he published his findings using his own funds. And, as they say, the rest is history. Supposedly, within 18 months he vaccinated 12,000 people. The Royal family, Napoleon’s soldiers, even Thomas Jefferson and his family eventually received Jenner’s inoculations.
Jenner was fortunate. By publishing, he was able to circumvent the ignorance and prejudice of his medical peers. Because of this, his findings were not held captive; the word got out, and we all benefited. Going public is no guarantee of success, however. In science, it can make you a hero, as it did in Jenner’s case, or, as in the following instance, it can destroy your career.
A Nineteenth-Century Scourge
Fifty years after Jenner’s remarkable discovery, medical science gave us one of its most tragic sons: a brilliant and passionate Hungarian obstetrician named Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis.
In the mid-1840s, Ignaz Semmelweis was a promising young doctor and an assistant professor on one of the two maternity wards at Vienna General Hospital. At that time, hospitals were a dangerous place to give birth; a conservative estimate is that one in eight mothers died. In May of 1846, for instance, the mortality rate on Semmelweis’s ward alone reached 96 percent!
Because Vienna General was a teaching hospital, it was a common practice for both doctors and students to do autopsies first thing in the morning on those patients who had died the previous day. Following this, and without washing, they would come into Semmelweis’s maternity ward to examine the women.
One of Semmelweis’s initial observations was that it was mainly the mothers examined by the staff who had just come from the autopsies that contracted puerperal fever (blood poisoning), the main cause of death on his ward. After a colleague who had been doing the examinations fatally contracted the same type of infection through an open scalpel wound, Semmelweis instituted the practice that all doctors and students would wash after the autopsies and before examining live patients.
Immediately the medical staff protested, yet once instituted, this single requirement resulted in a dramatic drop in the mortality rate. In June 1847, the mortality rate on his ward dropped to 1 in 42. In July it fell even lower. Semmelweis’s procedure virtually screamed for further investigation.
Following the initial institution of his antiseptic regimen, Semmelweis himself played an unwitting role in the deaths of women patients he was trying so desperately to protect. A woman admitted to his ward was assumed to be pregnant, but when he examined her, he found instead that she was suffering from cervical cancer. Following this exam, without thinking to wash, he then delivered five babies. Within three weeks, all five mothers died of puerperal fever. Surmising that he had been the cause of the infection, he immediately instituted a washing requirement after each individual patient was examined. Protests erupted again.
Semmelweis’s Skeptical Peers
Semmelweis did find forward-thinking allies in two former professors, but their defense of him and his findings proved futile. The doctors in Jenner’s day had found it inconceivable that a common animal disease could be used to protect human beings. Semmelweis’s medical peers found it inconceivable that, simply by not washing, doctors themselves were the cause of so much death and misery.
Instead of doing all they could to understand why his procedures resulted in such a dramatic improvement in mortality, they complained loudly that the constant washings were a nuisance. In spite of the fact that the mortality rate continued to fall (eventually reaching a confirmed low of 1 in 79, or 1.27 percent), Semmelweis was scorned and belittled.
In short order, due to the political maneuvering of a jealous and powerful superior, Semmelweis was dismissed. His successor immediately did away with the washing procedures with predictable results; the mortality rate soared to the previous horrifying level. Did this make any difference? Sadly, it didn’t; mothers just continued to die.
In frustration, Semmelweis returned to his native Budapest. Eventually, he obtained the position of professor of obstetrics at the university hospital. This time his antiseptic regimen achieved an even lower rate than it had in Vienna (1 in 117, or 0.85 percent). But again he faced the ignorance of his peers.
In 1861 his findings were finally published, but they were widely lampooned. After years of trying to publicly defend his work, Semmelweis suffered a breakdown. He ended up dying in a Viennese mental institution.
Did Semmelweis’s peers have scientific justification for their sarcastic dismissal of his work? Hardly. His findings simply did not fit their very limited and naïve view of things. It was only after Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease received wide acceptance that anyone recognized the brilliance of Semmelweis’s insights. Likewise, it might take some time before science comes to an appreciation of a William Dembski.
Dr. Dembski is a highly credentialed scholar who is not afraid to think “outside the box” of naturalism or question its assumptions; he is on the leading edge of scientific thought in the area of intelligent design. Like Jenner and Semmelweis before him, he is on to something. Did Baylor’s faculty have scientific justification for their dismissal of his work? Hardly.
Someone once asked Stephen Hawking what happened just before time began. His response was to ask what was one mile north of the North Pole; the answer, of course, is inexplicable to science. Adherents of naturalism don’t mind questions like these because they are irrelevant. Who cares what happened before time began? It is so long ago.
It must be unnerving, then, for a scientific materialist to be working on the bull’s-eye of biology—the genome—and come to the realization that there is nothing in its constituent chemical structures that can account for the informational sequencing of the base pairs. As Robert Jastrow concluded in God and the Astronomers:
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.
After a grand voyage of nearly 150 years, Darwin’s ship of state has encountered an iceberg called information theory and is lying dead in the water. Darwinists are running around offering hot toddies and telling people to come in out of the cold, that all is well. But the ship is seriously down at the head and will soon slip beneath the waves of history, joining other scientific miscues like geocentric theory (Earth-centered universe) and phlogiston (an eighteenth-century attempt to explain why substances lost something while burning, which turned out to invert the true nature of combustion).
On the other hand, after 2,000 years, the historical evidence for the physical resurrection of Christ remains, from the standpoint of the best legal tests anyway, incontrovertible. And today, men like Dembski are telling us that at the heart of biology, a scientific discipline whose leading minds have been known for their hostility to faith, there is incontrovertible evidence that the origin and development of life cannot be attributed to unintelligent matter and processes. We are, in fact, designed.
As Sir Francis Bacon once commented: A little science leads one away from God, while a little more science brings one back again. Dembski and his colleagues at the Discovery Institute have brought us to the threshold of a monumental paradigm shift, one rivaling Copernicus or, in our own day, the fall of Communist Eastern Europe.
But the churches are remarkably silent. In the early Church, the apostles and their successors took direct and public aim at the gospel’s ideological competitor: Gnosticism. Yet when it comes to neutralizing the Christian message, naturalism makes Gnosticism look like a tea party. One wonders if Christians are on the ship going down or on the boats rowing away.
W. Clayton Brumby graduated from Florida State University with a Bachelor of Science in Speech Communication and a double minor in History and Religion. He spent a number of years in youth ministry before entering a sales career. He, his wife Elizabeth, and their four younger children make their home in Sarasota, Florida, where they attend Church of the Redeemer (Episcopal).
Much of the historical material was taken from Patrice Debre’s Louis Pasteur (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Mea Culpa, The Life and Work of Semmelweis (Howard Fertig, 1979), and S. I. McMillen’s None of These Diseases (Pyramid, 1968).