Semmelweis: ID hero


You may or may not be familiar with the name Ignaz Semmelweis. It’s not one that’s typically taught to school children, like Koch or Pasteur may be. He even tends to get glossed over in upper-level biology courses. But Semmelweis was an important figure in the history of microbiology (indeed, I picked his work as the greatest experiment in my field). Here’s what I wrote about him in that post:

Semmelweis was a physician in Vienna in the 1840s, with an interested in “childbed fever,” a leading cause of mortality in women who’d given birth. During this time, he noticed that the mortality rate from this disease in a hospital division where medical students delivered babies was 16%, while in a division where midwives delivered them was ~2%. It was also known that childbed fever was rare when women gave birth at home. Semmelweis thought there was something the med students were doing that served to raise the rates of childbed fever in those divisions.

In 1847, Semmelweis’ friend, another physician, died due to a wound acquired while performing an autopsy. Semmelweis examined the tissues of his friend, and noticed the pathology there was similar to those in women who’d died of childbed fever. According to history, this led to his “eureka” moment: medical students performed autopsies, and midwives did not. The students must be bringing some contagious agent from the autopsy room back to the delivery room.

To test this, Semmelweis instituted a procedure, requiring students to wash their hands in a chlorine solution before entering the maternity ward. Mortality dropped dramatically, and Semmelweis extended the procedure to include surgical instruments as well. However, colleagues scoffed. Semmelweis actually lost his job, and took a position in Budapest–where he again instituted his handwashing protocol, with similar incredible results. Sadly, he died in 1865 in an asylum, disgraced.

Of course, many of you realilze that IDers love to tell the stories of scientists who were persecuted and scorned when they first proposed their idea, only to have history vindicate them. They compare their own ID supporters to Galileo, Barry Marshall, and other noted scientists (and, of course, Dembski’s been called the “Isaac Newton of information theory,”) and like to pretend that, like these esteemed scientists, history will give them the last laugh. Well, it seems that Semmelweis also has become something of an iconic figure to some who support “intelligent design.” Find out more about it at Aetiology.


Presumably, Dembski’s work won’t be validated in the scientific arena (since it’s not science), but rather in the religious arena. This will happen sometime shortly after the Second Coming, or maybe the rapture, or failing that surely shortly after the theocracy assumes the power of Gods Kingdom on Earth.

Nor will Dembski’s work be valided by evidence (that’s science), but rather by consensus or coercion (believe OR ELSE) - that’s religion. So the parallel with Semmelweis is THAT Dembski will be vindicated, not HOW he will be vindicated. Religious methods are very distinctly different.

fyi…Semmelweis there is interesting review/essay and back and forth response in the NY Review of Books:

The cultural/social/econimic/political context in which both disease (e.g., childbed fever) occurs and Semmelweis makes his observations and interventions are fascinating. Which subset of women have births in hospital, but examined by multiple physicians and trainees? How much was Semmelweis rejected by Austrian elite because he was Jewsih and/or Hungarian? How much because he was a difficult personality? How much because it was change in paradigm and status quo?

I may be wrong about this, so feel free to correct me, but when IDers compare Semmelweis to their folks, it seems there is a fatal flaw in their reasoning. Wasn’t Semmelweis’ work so important because of the transmission of bacteria from the med students’ hands? And the bacteria are a problem most primarily because they have such an incredibly high reproduction rate (compared to mammals like us), allowing to a much faster rate of genetic drift, allowing for them to adapt to us at a much faster rate, and evolve faster? So bacteria can then become a pathogen that fits us just right, even as we, today, are trying to eradicate them with antibiotics. If bacteria didn’t have this faster rate of evolution, we wouldn’t be effected by them to nearly this extent. So it seems that using Semmelweis as a good example for ID has some major flaws- the only reason he was right was because of one of the most obvious examples of how true evolution is.

I think that the comparison fails because when Semmelweis came up with a novel explanation for a phenomenon, he performed experiments which supported his hypothesis. A priori rejection of his ideas can be considered pig-headed because he actually had produced supporting data. What he did not do was hire a PR firm and simply assert repeatedly that he was correct without supporting data.

There’s a lot to object to in the IDers statements quoted at Aetiology. 1. That Dembski has been rejected hasn’t only happened with science, but mostly in math where he is supposedly the genius of information theory. Look at Skeptic, vol. 11, no. 4 2005 or at the book Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism, edited by Matt Young and Taner Edis. The articles and chapters dedicated to Dembski are embarassing. When you read them, it is no wonder he had couldn’t hold a position at Baylor where he was supposedly the head of an ID Think Tank. More like an Unthinking Tank. 2. Semmelweiss proposed a jeopardizable hypothesis. ID has proposed and followed no such thing. It is so offensive that Behe’s, Minnich’s, Dembski’s, Nelson’s, and Johnson’s have had the gall to compare themselves with Semmelweiss who did more for new mothers than almost anyone. What purpose have the IDers served other than to distract political attention away from matters that really matter and shift money and productivity away from the focus of good and thorough scientific research. Sometimes, it’s so infuriating.

Re “but when IDers compare Semmelweis to their folks, it seems there is a fatal flaw in their reasoning.”

Flaw in their what, now? ;)

When the IDers make testable hypotheses that get results, they can call me.

I admit to being a bit miffed that they’re hijacking the name of Mr. Semmelweis, who sounds like he was a decent fellow. It sounds like he wanted to save lives, whereas IDers seem to be about self promotion and self aggrandizement.

I have read the following quote that has been attributed to Alfred Romer from an undisclosed 1967 publication, supposedly on page 227. I have looked through several of Romer’s works, and have not been able to locate this statement. Does anyone know if it is real, and where it comes from if it is?

“We arbitrarily group the therapsids as reptiles (we have to draw a line somewhere) but were they alive, a typical therapsid probably would seem to us an odd cross between a lizard and a dog, a transitional type between the two great groups of backboned animals.”

What is it that IDists want us to do that is the analogue of handwashing in this story? What do they think will change if we do it?

If Semmelweis had been an IDist, he wouldn’t have bothered with the chlorine solution. He would have gone straight to the school boards and insisted they teach his idea.

The tree of life website shows Therapsids and its containing clade Synapsida as including mammals and a bunch of extinct relatives, but no living reptiles.

It puts all living reptiles in the Reptilia clade, with Synapsids and Reptilians being separate branches in the Amniota clade.

Looks to me like early therapsids were closer to current mammals than they were to current reptiles. Certainly the author of that website isn’t regarding therapsids and reptiles.


Make that

Certainly the author of that website isn’t regarding therapsids as reptiles.

Well, if the best that ID can offer is a chest-beating comparison with a long-dead doctor, then ID is simply no longer worth paying any serious attention to.

No WONDER they got crushed in court. (shrug)

Lenny, did you notice Gregg Davidson’s question above? Looking on google, it appears that your site uses the quotation he is trying to locate the source of.

Lenny, did you notice Gregg Davidson’s question above? Looking on google, it appears that your site uses the quotation he is trying to locate the source of.

I have read the following quote that has been attributed to Alfred Romer from an undisclosed 1967 publication, supposedly on page 227. I have looked through several of Romer’s works, and have not been able to locate this statement. Does anyone know if it is real, and where it comes from if it is?

“We arbitrarily group the therapsids as reptiles (we have to draw a line somewhere) but were they alive, a typical therapsid probably would seem to us an odd cross between a lizard and a dog, a transitional type between the two great groups of backboned animals.”

Sorry, missed that — it’s from Alfred S Romer, _The Vertebrate Story_, University of Chicago Press, 1967, p 227.

And any creationists who thinks it supports creationism, is a damn liar.

See the quote in its context at:

Certainly the author of that website isn’t regarding therapsids as reptiles.

Not if the website in question is mine.

I’m smarter than creationists.

i guess because im female ..i was long aware of dr semmelweiss and the benefits he had dicovered for women …that whole issue was a rather nasty part of victorian history …the way i heard it .…doctors feared getting sued and refused to adopt the new sterile techniques .…their med students would just use them behind the old-folks backs.…..semmelweis went mad bbecause he saw his collegues as deliberately killing women because of arrogant pride and selfish fears.…

killing people because of arrogance .….that’s about the only similarity i see between ID and the whole issue around dr semmelwies

Paraphyletic reptiles: I see that someone has dug up the outdated paraphyletic definition of reptilia. In current terminology synapsids and sauropsids are separate clades. Phrases like “mammal - like reptiles” are quite incorrect in phylogenetic terminology.

Semmelweis vs Disco: in addition to employing scientific methods, Semmelweis was on the side of saving lives. Some leaders of Disco argue that HIV does not cause AIDS, a view with the opposite effect.

DragonScholar Wrote:

I admit to being a bit miffed that they’re hijacking the name of Mr. Semmelweis, who sounds like he was a decent fellow. It sounds like he wanted to save lives, whereas IDers seem to be about self promotion and self aggrandizement.

Ahh, but it works like this: if the bacterial flagellum is designed, bacteria is the property of someone (either the designer or the designer’s customer), and civil law forbids you to destroy someone else’s property. So the IDers are actually trying to save the lives of bacteria, you see.

The IDers may seem like a bunch of immoral pre-modernists to the rest of us, but really thet are simply trying to promote bacterial rights.

The Semmelweis affair could yield a good ID analogy, if one actually bothered to try.

Here’s Semmelweis, unfairly maligned (as Darwin was) by many, but he has the evidence to back up his claims. He goes mad (according to at least one commenter), but his methods win out in the end. That’s how it is in science–even if Semmelweis’s science was more back-of-the-envelope than is evolutionary science, the correlation was too great to ignore.

After a century and a half, however, intelligent filthiness comes along. They don’t have any evidence to back up their claims that cadaver filth is good for women, and indeed, we see much evidence to the contrary.

An explanatory filter is devised, though, which states: Either cleanliness, or filth, but not both, is compatible with life. And so, if life does not come from the clean, filth is better than sanitation.

So they look at the reproductive cycle, from conception to parturition, and notice that much “filth” is involved in procreation. The dead seem to also have filth? Yet they came from life, and in fact life thrives on filthy cadavers. Therefore, the filter rejects clean conditions as incompatible with life, and demands are made for their “intelligent filthiness” theory to be taught in schools.

We point to evidence, to causal mechanisms that explain the differences between cadaver filth and birth filth (sorry, I don’t like that term associated with birth either, but it fits the word games that IDists play). We note how sloppy their use of terms is, how “filth”, like “design” and “intelligence”, should be used only contingent on the evidence. This perturbs the “intelligent filthiness” proponents not at all, since anyone with eyes can see that birth is a filthy process, hence mothers and babies cannot be harmed by cadaver filth.

Only committed materialists insist that material results and material methods are all that are available to human judgment in these matters. Methodological naturalism is all that stands in the way of intelligent filthiness, not open minds and hearts which understand the importance of calling “filth” by its right name. Materialists demand evidence, while intelligent filthiness has no reason to match our “pathetic level of detail”.


I don’t write this simply to make fun of the IDists. I write this because there is a predictive theory which has passed numerous evidence-based tests for explaining the changes in life through time, which is “challenged” by a load of claptrap whose proponents want to change the rules (away from evidence) which allowed, even forced, Darwin and Semmelweis to win out in the end–no matter what the prejudices of scientists and doctors.

The Semmelweis analogy with ID (the one coming from IDists, that is) is about as inapt as any analogy could be. Semmelweis was not challenging an established working model (not that established working models should not be questioned, but one needs good reasons, and evidence, to do so), he was challenging practices which did not work in many ways.

Most importantly, Semmelweis used the rules of science in order to demonstrate that hand-washing works. The IDists want to waive the rules of evidence, of science, in order to allow astrology and ID to be considered to be science. Were Semmelweis arguing for hand-washing based upon unknown and unseen “designers” who had simply designed hands to work well only when clean, we’d have every reason to consider him to be a crackpot, even though his conclusions turned out to be correct.

And of course Semmelweis wasn’t claiming that current theory was correct to a point, yet there were aspects to hands and cleanliness which fall out of the causal scheme of classical science. He was instead appealing solidly to science, so that even though many causal aspects involved with hand-washing remained unknown at the time (such as the germ theory), he made no claims which went beyond normal evidence.

IDists are the complete opposite of Semmelweis. In a kind of folk logic, they state that unknowns are due to an unknown designer(s), that a theory lacking in evidence and causal mechanisms should be equal in status to one having both of those, and they complain that the rules of science are unfair to them. Semelweis’s point was that the rules of science should be followed, but that unfortunately they were not.

Most of all, the IDists are not going to find science heroes who mimic their own disregard for evidence and for proximate causes (where appropriate). QM is probably the closest to changing the rules of science (arguably it has bent some commonly understood rules), and it depended quite decidedly upon adhering quite closely to at least most of the requirements of science (evidence, causality as far as it takes us), even those understood in the early 20th century.

IDists want to rewrite the rules which eventually granted Semmelweis victory. For, they cannot bear the conclusions of the science that forced people to recognize that Semmelweis was right.

Glen D

The causes of puerperal fever are credited to this Hungarian with hygiene. Thankfully, his goal was not to win a popularity contest.

So when a scientist gets scorned and later turns out to be right, the IDists cite it as a reason why ID is really right even though scientists strongly disagree with them.

And when a scientist gets praised and later turns out to be wrong, the IDists cite it as a reason why evolution is really wrong even though scientists strongly disagree with them.

I wonder, is it possible for scientists to do anything that doesn’t get spun as support for ID?

Yes, they can say something that gets derided, and which turns out to be wrong! Nobody in the ID crowd is crowing about how they’re just like Elaine Morgan and Aquatic Ape Theory, rejected by the establishment and… still wrong!

In fact that the vast majority of ideas derided by the “establisment” turned out to be dead wrong, and the IDers have no interest in making any parallels.

Regarding AAT, perhaps it is simply coincidence that only humans and aquatic animals can hold their breath?

It’s not so much a coincidence as simply untrue:[…]#Breathing_2

Of course, Michael, we wouldn’t want to give any kind of impression that ID was anywhere as close to good science as AAT :-)

Ahh, I shall now change my mind, for I find the acceptance of my peers far more appealing than truth.

Now, Martin, I have enjoyed Morgan’s provocative writing over the years. Even Dawkins, in “Ancestors’ Tale,” has some nice things to say about her.

But you’ve been pointed to statements that contradict the claim that only humans, among non-aquatic animals, can hold their breath.

And you haven’t come back with counter-examples or counter-evidence.

That’s not how we do things around here, if we expect to be listened to with respect.

And I don’t mean that rudely–I’ve already indicated that I’m not a hopelessly-entrenched anti-Morganist. I’d be receptive to some counter-evidence.

But hand-waving doesn’t cut it…

Oh, AAT is MUCH more scientific than ID. I mean, I don’t personally buy it, I find the evidence for it flimsy and overstated (and some of it’s proponents bask in the worst of of pseudo-scientific “We’re so oppressed!” self-righteousness), but at least it’s an interesting proposition that’s stimulated actual debate and has shaken the orthodoxy in interesting ways.

While ID remains a fundamental rejection of the very concept of science wearing a lab coat.

I also applaud AAT backers for not once trying to force AAT into schools before achieving general acceptance among scientists. In fact, I’ve often used AAT as an example of exactly how a genuine scientific idea that hasn’t been accepted behaves while striving to unset the orthodoxy, as opposed to ID’s end-run around the process.

The thrust of the argument is that Semmelweis was mocked by his contemporaries, but later proved right. This smacks of another (possibly apocryphal) argument often mentioned by ID activists: “Darwin recanted on his deathbed”. Both arguments are appeals to emotion.

In the Semmelweis case, a new hypothesis – which is part of a theory generally believed nowadays – was rejected by an establishment which held conflicting beliefs. Dembski’s arguments (which, by virtue of their untestability, cannot be considered to be a scientific theory) are being unjustly compared to a hypothesis supported by repeatable experiments. (It’s also worth noting that many billions of pounds are spent convincing us to buy detergents, disinfectants and medicines; some of which are undoubtedly necessary, but the paranoia regarding germs verges on the unhealthy. There is a school of thought that the rise in childhood allergies is related to raising children in over-sterile environments, where their over-active and under-worked immune systems attack anything for want of “proper” germs. Also, the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA could in itself be construed as evidence for evolution!)

In the Darwin case, the phallacy is that the original proponent’s continued belief in a theory is somehow necessary for its acceptance. A scientific theory stands or falls on its own merits, independent of who believes it or not. Here is a trivial example of a counter-intuitive statement: “A litre of skimmed milk weighs more than a litre of whole milk”. (Strictly speaking it is social conditioning, rather than intuition, to which this runs contrary.) We can measure the mass of both and confirm or deny it, and the result will still stand, irrespective of whether or not anyone believes it (and I fully expect someone who witnesses this experiment to blame the result on local and temporal variations in the value of g).

I think, while on the subject of belief and disproof, I ought to mention another scientific experiment here. Back in the early 19th century, Simeon-Denis Poisson sought to disprove Fresnel’s wave theory of light (which built upon the earlier work of Huygens). Poisson reasoned that if Fresnel’s theory were true then, due to the phenomenon of diffraction, a small sphere illuminated by a point source ought to cast a shadow with a bright spot in the centre. He therefore set up an experiment to disprove this; a lantern with a pinhole in its shutter, a ball-bearing and a screen. In front of a crowd of observers he lit the lantern, slid the perforated shutter into place, and drew the curtains.

There, in the centre of the shadow, was a tiny, bright spot.

My take on stupid ID claims like this is that they (the IDiots) are the guys that they are complaining about. They are the ones stuck pre 19th century trying to prop up a view point that has never been verified in the history of science. They are the ones trying to make stupid claims so that they can ignore the new discoveries.

Just look at the way that they are still holding up Paley as if his junk ever amounted to anything. What reasonable excuse is there for them not being able to look in the mirror and see how they are making unflattering comments about themselves? Who are the the naysayers? Who are the guys with no positive evidence? Who are the guys that had to admit in Dover that they aren’t actively testing any hypotheses, because they don’t have any hypotheses that they can test? Who are the ones that used to have “renewal” in the name of their ID creationist scam outfit if they didn’t realize how backwards their thinking was? How many of their examples of embattled scientists deal with trying to bring back a failed concept that was dumped on the ash heap of failed notions around two centuries ago. The IDiots aren’t breaking new ground, they are the naysayers that these type of examples deal with.

They are only shooting themselves in the feet using this type of argument because all they have are negative arguments.

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This page contains a single entry by Tara Smith published on September 13, 2006 10:00 AM.

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