Sunday musings about syphillis and politics

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about Ludwig Fleck. You’ve probably never heard of him. If you have, we need to find a designated driver and have an epic night at a bar somewhere. As I said, though, you probably never heard of him. It’s not a character flaw. I only learned about him because I had to read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn in grad school and I wanted to understand it beyond being able to use ‘paradigm’ as a buzzword like everyone else in grad school. Kuhn talks about  Fleck’s 1935 book The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact and I decided to read it.  It never really left me and I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot lately.

Flecks’ book is a monograph describing the history of how Western societies understood syphillis from ancient times to the development of the Wasserman test. That test, for those of you who don’t remember your history of syphillis1, only became possible when it became commonly accepted that it was possible that syphillis was a blood-borne pathogen. His contribution to the philosophy of science is the notion of the Denkkollektiv, the “thought collective” or “thought community.” In a nutshell, Fleck argued that facts only exist usefully in the context of a kind of collective or common understanding of how the world works. Phenomena that don’t fit these notions are either ignored or, more often, not detected because no one thinks to look for it. It’s important here to say that I’m probably butchering his argument. Implicit in everything he argued is that phenomena have a reality independent of human perception. The point of his work was to try to illustrate the mental gymnastics that we, as a species, are willing to go through to try to understand things we don’t have the language to express or the mental constructs to use as a lens.

Ludwig Fleck. It’s probably best if you don’t think too hard about what’s in those jars.

It’s been decades since I’ve thought about Fleck. He only made an appearance on my list of things I think about when I’m staring into space when we were at the Ales Through The Ages conference over in Willuamsburg a couple of weeks ago. It came up in the context of yeast. We know now that beer (and bread and wine) ferments because of yeast. We know ridiculous numbers of things about yeast now, but much of what we can explain only dates from the 1870s or so. Beer’s been around for more than 3000 years. Clearly people knew that there was something going on and that it was similar to what went on with bread, but the details were pretty fuzzy. I thought (and still do) think it would be interesting to look at the understanding of yeast through the same sort of lens that Fleck used to look at syphillis. It’s on my to do list.

One of the problems with my brain, though, is that it makes a nail out of everything once I’m given a hammer. And my current hammer is the Denkkollektiv. What a great way to describe the supporters of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. Systems of thought, largely internally consistent, that allow for certain things to be “facts” and others to be “false” or “irrelevant.” Of course the what counts as a fact and what’s irrelevant are quite different depending which thought community you belong to. Politics becomes an exercise in convincing folks that your thought collective does a better job of explaining the world you care about than others. I guess that’d be true of religion, too. Or maybe it’s in the realm of the thought collective that politics, religion, and science really are different names for the same thing.

I really don’t know where I’m trying to go with this. I need to keep at it. Maybe something will come of it. But hey, it’s not another damned haiku, right?

1Well, not your history per se. Not that I’m judging you if you have one.  I’d rather not know, though.