The Snow Storm -- The Weather


The following circumstance is hardly known to be paralleled in the annals of meteorology. On Friday sen'night the cold was so intense that, by a self-regeristing thermometer, the temperature was found to be down to 18 degrees Fahrenheit, 14 degrees below freezing point. Next morning, at half-past nine, the temperature had risen to 38, being a variation of 20 degrees in a few hours. ("The Snow Storm-- The Weather." The Illustrated London News, 7 Jan., 1854, p.7.)

The rapid development of technology in the nineteenth century inevitably led to a popularization of science for the masses. From the fiction and from the journalism of the day, it is evident that many people became so excited by technology, and so optimistic in regard to its potential, that they began to invest faith even in false knowledge. Because so much knowledge was being rapidly accumulated and presented to people, even the most superficial observation came to be taken for a great improvement in the condition of man. This is not to say that a significant amount of genuine progress did not occur in the nineteenth century. However, as with the culture of the late twentieth century, many people were eager to obtain a taste of knowledge without paying the cost of obtaining it. People wanted to make great discoveries, wanted to chronicle them, and wanted to become part of the mysterious elite that composed the scientific world. Many were so eager to become involved in this process, that they did not trouble themselves too greatly about the relevance of the knowledge that they recorded, nor did they pursue their observations with sufficient depth to make the information that they accumulated of much use even for comparative purposes.

The above example, a result of this, demonstrates this phenomenon of inflating pseudo-science in the fervor of chronicling knowledge. Obviously, a drop in temperature overnight would not ordinarily warrant publication in many major newspapers, and the publication of such a "remarkable" discovery is representative of the random, inaccurate, or simply irrelevant "data" that many people floated as science. Novelists of the period, noting this, created satire for the purpose of demonstrating the fallacy of becoming carried away with science. One example of this, from Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers, satirizes the discovery of an "elderly gentleman" who, sitting in his study one night, observes a strange light outside. This light reveals itself to the reader, if not to the old man, to be the lantern of Sam Weller, carried as he keeps watch while Pickwick pursues a "romantic adventure" for his friend:

Mr Weller struck three distinct blows upon his [the elderly gentleman's] nose in token of intelligence, smiled, winked, and proceeded to put the steps up, with a countenance expressive of lively satisfaction.

As to the scientific gentleman, he demonstrated, in a masterly treatise, that these wonderful lights were the effect of electricity; and clearly proved the same by detailing how a flash of fire danced before his eyes when he put his head out of the gate, and how he received a shock which stunned him for a quarter of an hour afterwards; which demonstration delighted all the Scientific Associations beyond measure, and caused him to be considered a light of science ever afterwards. [The Pickwick Papers, 649]

Because of the gentleman's hasty incorporation of limited evidence into a "theory", and because of the scientific world's eagerness to accept information without particular interest in its source or in evidence, the integrity of research conducted in the name of science is compromised.

Incidents like this recur in the novel. Pickwick's astounding archeological discovery of a stone which clearly read, "Bill Stumps, his mark," but which to the scientific community contained some vital intelligence from antiquity, is another example (228). It bears a remarkable similarity to headlines representative of the quantity of information being offered to the Victorians during the first half of the 1800s. In the same edition of The Illustrated London News that contained the meteorological discovery mentioned above, is the following excerpt:


The year 1853 will be remembered as a remarkable one in the annals of archaeological history, for having been singularly productive... The resting-places of the dead, ever more or less respected, afford the largest amount of the antiquarian treasure, and assist us in forming an idea of the manners, customs, and art of a people to whose inspirations we turn for inspiration. ["Interesting Discovery of Greek Tombs at Canosa." The Illustrated London News (7 Jan., 1854): p.5.]

Of course, this article differs from Pickwick's discovery in that it is the result of serious research. However, satire such as that of Dickens suggests the danger of the popularization of knowledge for the masses in such large amounts. The result is akin to the state of people of the twentieth century in the "Information Age". Although there is a good amount of valid information being gathered and discoveries being made, a lot of the knowledge that is understood by people at large is perverted or overblown, leading them to put their faith in falsehood.

The real threat of the large amounts of manipulated information that was being hurled at the people of the nineteenth century was not the information itself, but the ease with which people trusted anyone or anything who associated "science" with his or her name or work. Punch makes note of this in its satire, applying mathematics to a parody of the British government:

The Political Elucid-- No. 2 Prop. II-- Problem

From a given point draw out a Radical Member [of Parliament] to a given length.

Let A or his ancestors be the given point, and an A s s the given length; it is required to draw out upon the point of his ancestors a Radical member equal to an A s s. [A complicated-looking diagram follows demonstrating that the Radical member is truly an ass.] ("The Political Elucid." Punch, 1, p.166, July-Dec, 1841")

The unknown author of this satire suggests that by corrupting science, the individual can demonstrate anything that he or she wants to and, because it is delivered under the guise of science, it will be accepted.

The direct result of such a realization in contemporary satire lead to the further conclusion that perhaps many people whom others trusted as the holders of science were as ignorant as everyone else; and that some charlatans, realizing the opportunities inherent in professing to possess knowledge, went to work as "man of science". In the generalization which is part of satire, this lead to the popular satirical practice of painting many scientists, particularly doctors, as crackpots and deceivers.

Punch runs a serialized account of the life of a medical student. Examples of the treatment doctors receive in this narrative include the following:

The second season arrives, and our pupil becomes "a medical student" in the fullest sense of the word. He has an indistinct recollection that there are such things as wards, in the hospitals as well as a key or the city, and a vague understanding, like the morning's impression of the dreams of the preceding night, that in the remote dark ages of his career he took some notes upon the various lectures, the which have long since been converted into pipe-lights or small darts, which, twisted up and propelled from between the forefingers of each hand, fly with unerring aim across the theater at the lecturer's head, the slumbering student, or any other object worth aiming at. ("The Physiology of the London Medical Student, 5.-- Of His Maturity, and Latin Examination."Punch, 1, p.185, July-Dec, 1841")


Our old friends are assembled to prepare for their last examination, in a room fragrant with the amalgamated odours of stale tobacco-smoke, varnished bones, leaky preparation, and gin-and-water. Large anatomical prints depend from the walls, and a few vertebrae, a lower jaw, and a spheroid bone, are scattered on the table. ("The Physiology of the London Medical Student, Part 6." Punch, 1, p.166, July-Dec, 1841")

In such satire even students of medicine at genuine institutions of learning seem to engage in their profession as a means for an easy and lucrative survival while they amuse themselves by drinking and, generally, engaging in any diversion other than the serious pursuit of knowledge. The danger suggested by the satire, although it is never made explicit, is that not only is the progress of real science inhibited by such people, but that many innocent people who, as above demonstrated, have placed their trust in all things carrying the name "scientific," might be taken advantage of and injured.

Dickens produces an earlier, and more involved, satire of the medical profession in the conduct of Bob Sawyer and Ben Allen:

'Dear me, I see,' observed Mr Winkle; 'what an excellent plan'"

"'Oh, Ben and I have hit upon a dozen such,' replied Mr Bob Sawyer, with great glee. 'The lamplighter has eighteenpence a week to pull the night-bell for ten minutes every time he comes round; and my boy always rushes into church, just before the psalms, when the people have got nothing to do but look about 'em, and calls me out, with horror and dismay depicted on his countenance. 'Bless my soul, everybody says, 'somebody taken suddenly ill Sawyer, late Nockemorf, sent for. What a business that young man has [The Pickwick Papers, 624]

The two good doctors will do anything to improve their practice but practice their profession with integrity. Most of their time is spent freeloading, drinking, entertaining, and devising plans for convincing people that they hold more knowledge about science than they actually do, for the purposes of making money.

It is interesting that the Dickens' example of medical satire, and the description in Punch that followed its approach, seemed to be so commonly found in the nineteenth century. Indeed, there were many examples of genuine science and honest scientists that improved people's lives. In fact it was because these flowered so much that people became hungry for more information and, as a result, that it was possible to fool people into accepting something that was not the genuine article.

Last modified 1996