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Causal inference, mechanisms, and the Semmelweis case

Scholl, Raphael (2013) Causal inference, mechanisms, and the Semmelweis case. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 44 (1). pp. 66-76.

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Abstract

Semmelweis's discovery of the cause of puerperal fever around the middle of the 19th century counts among the paradigm cases of scientific discovery. For several decades, philosophers of science have used the episode to illustrate, appraise and compare views of proper scientific methodology. Here I argue that the episode can be profitably reexamined in light of two cognate notions: causal reasoning and mechanisms. Semmelweis used several causal reasoning strategies both to support his own and to reject competing hypotheses. However, these strategies have gone unappreciated in the existing literature. I show that a causal reasoning approach makes sense of the multitude of tables in Semmelweis's main text, which in later editions were often abridged because they appeared redundant. Moreoever, the existing literature tends to focus on Semmelweis's clinical intervention and on the extent to which it alone confirms his theoretical conclusions. This neglects Semmelweis's efforts to show by animal experiments that his clinical results are in agreement with a demonstrable mechanism of puerperal fever pathogenesis. I argue that the full evidential force of Semmelweis's argument can only be appreciated if both his clinical and his laboratory investigations are taken into account.


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Item Type: Published Article or Volume
Creators:
CreatorsEmailORCID
Scholl, Raphaelraphael.scholl@philo.unibe.ch
Keywords: methodology causal inference numerical tables mechanisms animal experiments
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Biology
General Issues > Causation
General Issues > Confirmation/Induction
General Issues > Experimentation
General Issues > History of Science Case Studies
Specific Sciences > Medicine
Depositing User: Raphael Scholl
Date Deposited: 12 Feb 2013 14:26
Last Modified: 25 Jun 2013 05:54
Item ID: 9556
Journal or Publication Title: Studies in History and Philosophy of Science
Publisher: Elsevier
Official URL: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S...
DOI or Unique Handle: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsa.2012.04.002
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Biology
General Issues > Causation
General Issues > Confirmation/Induction
General Issues > Experimentation
General Issues > History of Science Case Studies
Specific Sciences > Medicine
Date: 2013
Page Range: pp. 66-76
Volume: 44
Number: 1
URI: https://philsci-archive-dev.library.pitt.edu/id/eprint/9556

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