Thursday, October 07, 2010

2009 Book of the Year

This is a severely late edition of The Daily Doubter Book of the Year post, but I figured better late than never. Let's get right to it. My pick for best Doubter related book read during the previous year is:

I must say that after reading The Ghost Map, I was truly disappointed that I managed to complete my primary education without ever hearing about John Snow's victory for public health during the London cholera outbreak of 1854 - the focus of the book - as it is a remarkable demonstration of the scientific process in action.

Here is an extremely short-hand synopsis of the book: it is the tale of how two men, employing critical thinking, were able to solve the riddle of one of the deadliest epidemics in London's history. The doubter related aspect of the book would be the political and medical establishments who instead employed a form of pseudo-doubt, conducting research to arrive at a predetermined conclusion to resist what they considered Snow's wrong-headed ideas about cholera; in contrast, the Rev. Whitehead, who ended up identifying the epidemics zero case, had started out with the intention of disproving Snow but ended up collaborating with him after being confronted with the evidence.

There is also a fascinating analogue to the discovery of evolution. Darwin found strong enough evidence to demonstrate the existence of evolution but was unaware of a mechanism of heredity despite Gregory Mendel being a contemporary. Likewise, Snow was able to infer that cholera was being transmitted in contaminated water but did not know the mechanism of transmission, yet Filippo Pacini in 1854 discovered the cholera bacterium. Unfortunately, Pacini's work was ignored for much the same reason as Snow's.

It really is tragic that so many people died at the hands of a disease that could have been cured by drinking more (clean) water.

Previous Doubter Books of the Year:

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