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Observational Studies 4 (2018) 57-60 Submitted 5/17; Published 1/18 Another Ground Rule Charles S. Reichardt Department of Psychology University of Denver Denver, CO 80208 USA Bross (1960, p. 394) wrote, “If both proponents and critics have to watch their P’s and Q’s, we might hope that it would be easier to achieve broad agreement on scientific issues.” Bross then went on to offer a ground rule (i.e., one of the P’s and Q’s) explicitly for critics of research hypotheses, though he emphasized (pp. 399-400) the “same ground rules should apply to both” proponents and critics. I have two purposes. First, to quibble with Bross about his ground rule. And second, to propose another ground rule. Bross argues that alternative explanations should be judged tenable before they are allowed to see the light of day. And for an alternative explanation to be judged tenable, it must agree with available data. Certainly this is correct. Except that agreement with available data is not an infallible indicator of the adequacy of an explanation. Consider Darwinian evolution. Significant data argued against Darwins theory at the time it was proposed (Bryson, 2003). For example, the best available evidence was that the earth was far too young, even according to Darwin’s own account, for species to have evolved per natural selection. And the fossil record was too sparse providing too little evidence of the intermediate life forms that Darwin required. Plus Darwin’s theory was at odds with well accepted contemporary thinking. Even T. X. Huxley, who was one of Darwin’s staunchest supporters, believed Darwin was wrong about the rapidity with which evolution took place. Huxley, a saltationist, believed evolution happened suddenly rather than gradually. So was Darwin’s alternative explanation for evolution in sufficient agreement with available data, and therefore sufficiently tenable, to permit publication according to Bross? Or consider the work of Ingaz Semmelweis. When Ingaz Semmelweis was hired as a physician at the Vienna General Hospital in 1846, as many as twenty percent of the women giving childbirth in the hospital’s First Obstetrical Clinic died from puerperal fever, also known as childbed fever. Semmelweis was determined to discover the cause. He uncovered a telling clue when a colleague cut his finger while performing an autopsy and died from symptoms similar to puerperal fever. Based on that evidence, Semmelweis hypothesized that the disease was caused by contamination from “cadaverous material” and found his hypothesis could explain another mystery. The First Obstetric Clinic at Vienna General had a much higher death rate from puerperal fever than the Second Clinic. The difference? The First Clinic was attended by physicians who often performed autopsies before serving on the obstetrics ward; the Second Clinic was attended by mid-wives, who did not perform autopsies. Acting on his hypothesis, Semmelweis instituted a policy that physicians wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime before examining patients. Occurrences of c ⃝2018 Charles Reichardt. Reichardt puerperal fever declined dramatically. In April 1847, before the policy of hand washing was instituted, eighteen percent of the patients in the First Clinic died from puerperal fever. A month later, after hand washing was implemented, the mortality rate dropped to two percent. The same outcomes were obtained whenever hand washing was implemented by either Semmelweis or his students. The results of Semmelweis’ hand-washing experiments became widely known. But the findings ran counter to the conventional medical beliefs current at the time. Puerperal fever was thought to be due to multiple causes including effluviums that were thought to be spread through the air. In addition, the causes of illnesses were thought to be as unique as individuals themselves and determinable only on a case by case basis. As a result, Semmelweis’ unconventional proposal that a simple cause such as a lack of cleanliness could be responsible for puerperal fever was rejected out of hand by the medical profession. Indeed, physicians believed their social status precluded them from having unclean hands. In spite of Semmelweis’ demonstrations of the effectiveness of hand washing in reducing puerperal fever, most doctors did not adopt the practice...


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pp. 57-60
Launched on MUSE
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