The main idea of the book “The ghost map” (2006) by Steven Johnson, although focusing on the worst cholera outbreak in Victorian London, was in that science develops in accordance to the problems that it has to face. Accordingly, the book traces the way the knowledge is born in progressive relation to the scale of the natural catastrophes the human kind encounters. In that regard, this paper analyzes such statement in the context of the differences in the measurements made by Dr. John Snow, a British physician among the contribution of which is locating the causes of the Cholera outbreak and Henry Whitehead, the two main protagonists in the book, and measurements made by other researchers at the same historical period.
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It can be stated that the differences between the data collected by Snow and Whitehead, and other researchers are in their social context. Such social context, which combined with the local knowledge brought by Henry Whitehead, another main character in the story, allowed Snow to indentify the chain of infection, traced back to the source. Such information included the preferences for the water source, washing habits, drinking habits, geographic patterns, relatives’ address, etc. All these data was related to the statistics of deaths and infection, contrary to other researchers who relied solely on statistics.
The acknowledgement of the importance of such data came with the map that Snow draw of the location of the houses, where death occurred. In that regard, initially being an assumption that the water was the cause, Snow’s decision of the importance of the data led to the conclusion through an experimentum crucis, an experiment through which Snow would convincingly prove his hypothesis.
In that regard, it can be stated that the absence of any assessment methods of any discoveries at that time was among the main factors hindering the researchers from acknowledging which data was important. The latter was combined with social and cultural factors, where people, either through word of mouth or through newspapers (Johnson 46), shared the results of such unproved researches, in which a sign of cure, proven or not, contributed to moving in the wrong directions.
The decisions regarding deserving and undeserving data can be critical in data collection, and in turn affect the direction of the research. The latter can be seen through many delusions caused by wrong data collection, caused in turn by social and cultural hindrances in assessing the importance of such data. An example can be seen through Thomas Sydenham, who introduced the “internal-constitution theory of the epidemic, an eccentric hybrid of weather forecasting and medieval huinorology” (132).
The situations in which the cultural and social understanding might bias our decision can be seen through any religion and belief related aspects. It can be assumed that the people at the time of cholera if cured using any useless cure, would refer to the cure as its reason, while if the reason was unknown, people would refer to any miraculous power corresponding to their cultural and social setting. Accordingly, it can be assumed that any data collection, which intentionally or not would destroy the belief in such miraculous power, would contain bias. An example can be seen in the article “Virgin Mary Crying Blood?”, which as the title implies is concerned with a phenomenon of a statue that appears to be crying (Morales). Reading the article and the reaction of the people, it can be seen that they are already biased toward an explanation that is far from science.
Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map : The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006. Print.
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Morales, Tatiana. “Virgin Mary Crying Blood?”. 2005. CBSNews.com. CBS Interactive Inc. Web.