Scientists today spend little time learning about prescientific or debunked scientific theories; these are studied by historians and philosophers of science and largely ignored in the hard sciences. However, in his book Is Water H20? Evidence, Realism and Pluralism philosopher of science Hasok Chang calls for a plurality in science aimed at keeping multiple systems of scientific practices alive synchronically. He wishes to use knowledge embedded in discarded systems while recognizing the rough-edged intersections of science and myth. To illustrate what he means, I’ll first present an example of a useful debunked theory.
Pre-germ concepts of disease saw climatic phenomena as the culprit responsible for ailments such as influenza and smallpox. The pre-Socratic philosophers believed that the environment—the air, the water, even the location—correlated with disease. The Romans believed air could become poisonous when infected by rotting organic matter. They called these poisonous vapors stench, or miasma. Through the Middle Ages, miasma was thought to be responsible for cholera, chlamydia, and the Black Death. To this picture, a (Christian) moral twist was added, deeming sickness to be both a physical and spiritual issue, with rotting substances functioning as breeding places for satanic creatures (Cole, Imperfect Creatures, 2016).
Today epidemics are caused by germs or viruses, but as late as the eighteenth century, plagues were believed to be caused by polluted air and mediated by creatures of putrefaction such as rodents and witches. Rats, lice, and witches shared familial connections with "unnatural breeders," those beings whose breeding was accounted for with variants of pre-germ spontaneous generation theories. In the miasmic paradigm, these unnaturally breeding rodents were mediating agents within cycles of bad weather, environmental stress, corrupted air, moral degeneration, and communicable disease. Hence, descriptions of plagues merged the immoral with the impure pollutants into one health hazard:
[The] Plague proceedeth from the venomous corruption of the humors and spirits of the body, infected by the attraction of corrupted aire, or infection of evil vapours, which have the property to alter mans bodies, and poysons his spirits after a straunge and dangerous qualitie (T. Lodge, A Treatise of the Plague, 1603).
Theories of spontaneous generation, miasma, and Galenic humorism were slowly replaced by biomedical germ theory thanks to Joseph Jackson Lister, who improved microscope technology in the year 1850. This new visually aided system of scientific practice gave Louis Pasteur (born 1822) and later Robert Koch (born 1843) the instruments to create the new disease paradigm with effective medical treatments.
My claim is that the miasmic mythical thinking was on the mark. Although witches and rats are not biologically related in our day and age, public health specialists agree that the sanitary efforts brought about under the miasmic paradigm were effective. This is because miasma theorists, underneath their mythical frameworks, did in fact see modern day pollutants as disease carriers: "Even though the theory underlying the interventions was inaccurate, the strategies were nonetheless effective in improving the health of the population" (MacDonald, "From Miasma to Fractals," 2004).
Ignaz Semmelweis (born 1818) was an obstetrician in the University of Vienna hospital. He was perplexed by the death rate of postpartum women caused by puerperal fever, which seemed confined to the doctor’s ward. His meticulous data collection brought him to a miasmic diagnosis and a corresponding effective solution: The fever is caused by cadaver particles, which cause the stench in the autopsy room; the cure is chloride, which eliminates the odors (Gaynes, Germ Theory, 2011).
So, if myths can prescribe methods of practice that are successful, where exactly is the theoretical line between scientific germs and mythical miasma?
Biophysicist and philosopher Henri Atlan (Sparks of Randomness, 2011), elucidates the differences and similarities between the mythical and the scientific modes of thought. In a nutshell, Atlan claims that myth is polysemic and metaphoric in character, while the scientific model is mos geometricos. The geometrical method progresses from axioms through theorems to corollaries and lemmas, thriving in the confines of a closed logical fortress. Myths thrive on word-game multiplicities, using one semantic gesture for many meanings. This is not to say that the metaphors relied on in mythical thinking are irrational or arational, nor that scientific inquiry is devoid of mythical thinking. Atlan suggests we study the transition into modernity from this magical stance:
We are well advised to return to the watershed moment when science was not yet clearly distinguished from magic. That can offer us a better vantage point on the tokens employed by these different forms of reason, while the advantage of three centuries of testing this modernity allows us to evaluate their results. The moment of the break between science and magic, between philosophy and theology—the seventeenth century in Europe—is the transitional period, the window through which we can learn something from the ancient philosophers without giving up the accomplishments of the Critique and, of course, with no mad and chaotic confusion.
Atlan recognizes the transitional period as a richer one, because (I paraphrase here) it is less plagued by the Kuhnian loss. A Kuhnian loss, named after Thomas Kuhn, is the unwanted outcome of scientific transformations and paradigm shifts; it is a social revolutionary process that discards not only the bad science of the discarded paradigm, but good ideas as well. Atlan therefore calls not for a dogmatic reacceptance of bygone myths and prescientific superstitions, but rather for a thoughtful study of this period. There we can find both components, the modern and the mythical, supporting each other, mutually reinforcing even in their divergence.
But Atlan further argues that the mythical is still embedded in scientific inquiry today. To support this claim he gives an example from his branch of science—biology.
Beliefs in the immortality of the soul or reincarnation are superimposed, helter-skelter, on the idea of cloning living individuals, in a delirious projection by a vulgarized genetics that has assigned the properties traditionally ascribed to the soul to mythological entities known as 'DNA' and 'the genome.'
Even if this interpretation of the mythical status of scientific entities such as DNA doesn’t win the argument, one can’t escape the fact that biology is still held to be the "science of life" or the "science of the living" while simultaneously rejecting ideas such as the vital force. No legitimate scientist can employ these lofty terms freely and literally the way laymen do, even if they do harbor a superstitious inclination to that effect. Thus, we may argue that to this day mythical notions of soul and life, which can no longer be an object of scientific inquiry, haven't really vanished but have rather been meticulously sublimed.
What If Miasma Had Not Been Dropped?
My claim is that miasma should have been kept as a working system of epidemics. The paradigm shift to the germ theory entailed an unexpected Kuhnian loss that took years to overcome: In the miasmic paradigm, one may sense the presence of a disease carrier, be it a supernatural agent or poisonous vapors, by one's sense of smell. However, the new germ theory allowed only for biological pollutants, thus losing sight of health threats arising from toxic gases. Who can tell what benefits could have been won if Ignaz Semelweiss had argued that doctors must wash their hands before treating patients while other legitimate scientists continued to worry about murky waters and poisonous vapors?
This shift away from olfaction to microscope is also marked by the modern-day obsession with the sense of sight. In the current state of science, germs can be detected using the appropriate instruments, hence germ theory is good science (Philpott, Bennett, & Murty, 2008). But smelling something? Smelling is perceived as the imprecise method of witches and peasants, and maybe chefs, but not scientists. This is obviously a drastic oversimplification, but still I feel we cannot ignore this issue: We have infinitely more words to describe what we are seeing collectively, than to describe what we are smelling. And pragmatically speaking, the invention of the olfactometer is two millennia (at least) later than the invention of the scale. Still today, olfaction remains the least well understood of our senses, even though olfaction is phylogenetically the oldest sense. No respectable scientist lets his or her nose be a guide.
The current concept of pollution is a key concern for public health, posing threats to human health that match those posed by bacterial and viral epidemics. When we add recent studies that claim human’s olfaction is so good that we can detect a trillion smells, it seems a great loss indeed. Miasma was useful in the past as a public health sanitary paradigm, and even today it is helpful for disease control and health education in some tradition-keeping settings.
This brings to mind the criteria for the reality of scientific entities favored by philosopher of science Ian Hacking. After watching his friend controlling and measuring the charge of a niobium ball, Hacking wrote, “From that day forth I’ve been a scientific realist. So far as I’m concerned, if you can spray them then they are real” (Representing and Intervening, 1983). Perhaps if scientists continued doing science with the miasmic theory, new scientific methods of measuring and manipulating miasma would have been developed, thus making it ever more real.
To conclude: If we think that current views of epidemics and pollution are devoid of the mythical thinking of our predecessors, we might humbly want to reassess our position. Like the demons created by Lilith from stolen man-made nocturnal emissions, we have a new, very real demons. Instead of the spermatic demons of antiquity, they are the greenhouse gases. If we don't quickly repent, overcome our petroleum-fed delirium, we will face our Armageddon. And if this whole rant about miasma has not made my point clear, I will elucidate for safety's sake: This is not to say that because climate issues can be expressed in mythical terms, they are not real! Their reality is fully evident in the system of practices in which they were conceived. And yes, we should stop emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Netta Schramm is a doctoral candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem working on hermeneutics, rhetoric, and Performance theory in Modern Jewish Thought. She also has a bachelor's degree in physics and has contributed to Ted-Ed with a video on perpetual motion machines.