Studies in history and philosophy of biological and biomedical sciences

TitleCausal (mis)understanding and the search for scientific explanations: a case study from the history of medicine.
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsDe Vreese, L
JournalStudies in history and philosophy of biological and biomedical sciences

In 1747, James Lind carried out an experiment which proved the usefulness of citrus fruit as a cure for scurvy. Nonetheless, he rejected the earlier hypothesis of Bachstrom that the absence of fresh fruit and vegetables was the only cause of the disease. I explain why it was rational for James Lind not to accept Bachstrom’s explanation. I argue that it was the urge for scientific understanding that guided Lind in his rejection and in the development of his alternative theory that humidity was the primary cause of the disease. Central in this process was the search for causal mechanisms which could provide understanding of how the disease developed and which fitted in with the knowledge of the time. Given that the relevant background knowledge and statistical methods were not yet available to Lind, he was right to prefer his own explanation to that of Bachstrom. Although his explanation turned out to be wrong, and Bachstrom’s right, from a historical point of view it offered deeper causal understanding of both the development of the disease and the preventive and curative effects of fresh vegetable food. This case study illustrates how the search for causal mechanisms can not only be enlightening, but also very misleading.

Citation Key393211