Cholera is interesting…

Whatever you think of Socialism now you would have been very hard pressed to have argued against it in Victorian London. The `let the market sort it out’ line of thinking resulted in child poverty, new forms of indenture and outbreaks of cholera, a disease that is really only most effective in large population centres where people regularly consume each others faeces. Without advocates for large-scale government intervention, such as Edwin Chadwick, London might well have ended with the fate that its numerous detractors felt it deserved.

The only problem was that Chadwick was a miasmatist.

The Miasmatists believed that all smell was, ultimately, disease and that if you got rid of the stench of London then you would get rid of the diseases that afflicted the City. The Victorian Age was an age without good microscopes and very few people had seen bacteria et al. The notion that undetectable substances caused disease was considered by many to be nonsense; it was obvious from contemporary reportage that disease-stricken locales smelt and that people who spent a long time in these localities often succumbed to disease.

There was something right about their thinking; the two factors, disease and smell, were correlated, just not in the causal order that most Victorians had thought. Numerous advocates for the plight of the lower classes caught on to this; if smell was disease then why didn’t the sewer works and the night-soil men die pretty much instantaneously as soon as they went to work? (Indeed, sewer workers and night-soil men had such robust health that the average life span of such a man was sixty years, which was far higher than the local average of twenty-four years for everyone else (this takes into account the high infant mortality rate at the time)). Smell couldn’t be the cause of the disease, but if it were not, what was?

The confusion between cause and correlation is one that some thinkers believe is a necessary evil in human psychology. In the savannah of Africa we simply didn’t have the time to test causal chains; if one of your siblings approached a lion and was eaten by it you pretty much assumed that if you repeated the same experiment again the same results would occur. The same kind of thinking went behind not eating the mushrooms your now dead sister had been eating the night before and so forth.

Correlates are often the bread and butter of the Conspiracy Theorist. Events occur that look like they are causally related and thus we develop a story that makes that causal linkage look true. The question, as always, is how do we know that the explanation presented is good? Are we really dealing with causation or are we dealing with correlation? It’s a pressing question. I would argue that we would be hard pressed to deny that the climate looks as if it is changing; I don’t seem to remember many icebergs having come so close to the coast of New Zealand as there have been this year, and the bushfires in Australia seem to be getting more frequent rather than less (although there are some good stories about urban spread that explains this). But can we construct a causal story that indicts humans or is it mere correlation that the rise of the Industrial Age seems to be linked with a distinctive change in climate? That debate is being played out at the moment and I’ve been arguing my side elsewhere. As for Conspiracy Theories… As usual, more on that later.


About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.

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