The Fascinating Thing About History

“There is something fascinating about science.  One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

— Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi 1883.

History is much more fun and profitable, because you can get in on the action, without any investment of fact.  The SEC ought to look into this.

Consider the historians of silicosis:

“In the postwar era, professionals, industry, government, and a conservative labor movement tried to bury silicosis as an issue.”

David Rosner & Gerald Markowitz, Deadly Dust:  Silicosis and the Politics of Occupational Disease in the Twentieth Century America 213 (Princeton 1991).

Now, I pick on Rosner and Markowitz because they pick on me, they are easy targets, and their writings are illustrative of what I believe is so wrong about importing historians’ broad, and sometimes glib, judgments into the courtroom.  Of course, Rosner and Markowitz have made themselves actors in various litigation efforts to advance their radical and Marxist views.  See Ronald Johnston & Arthur McIvor, “Workshop Handout:  Approaches and Methods in the History of Occupational and Environment Health,” presented at The Fourth Annual International Conference on the History of Occupational and Environmental Health (June 2010)(asking whether Rosner and Markowitz are not the best writing in the tradition of radical and Marxist approaches to the history of workers’ health).

Before World War II, there were notable, unfortunate large scale outbreaks of silicosis.  The silicosis outbreaks among workers in the Barre, Vermont, granite quarries and sheds, and of course, among  workers at the Gauley Bridge/Hawk’s Nest tunnel, are among the most notorious.

After WWII, the most notable outbreak was a fantasy and a fraud, created by plaintiffs’ counsel who conspired with reprobate physicians.  In re Silica Products Liab. Litig., 398 F.Supp. 2d 563 (S.D.Tex. 2005) (Jack, J.).

Occasionally, empirical evidence can be brought to bear to embarrass the glib generalizations that historians make.  Consider the claim, above, by Rosner & Markowitz that everyone (other than the heroic Leninist labor unions) sought to bury the issue of silicosis.

Well, we can obtain something of a reality check by measuring the number of publications in the National Library of Medicine’s database (PubMed) on silicosis.  A simply search on “silicosis,” with limits to each decade after the 1930s reveals a pattern that silicosis had not been buried at all:

Date Range                    Number of Articles from Keyword Search

1940 – 1949                      113

1950 – 1959                    1,421

1960 – 1969                    1,867

1970 – 1979                    1,178

1980 – 1989                       940

1990 – 1999                       882

2000 – 2009                      843

Considering the major post-War developments in the medical world, from antibiotics, poliomyelitis, tobacco-related cancers, and other chronic diseases, the continued interest in silicosis after World War II is remarkable.

I suppose that Rosner and Markowitz would discount the words of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), because, after all, the CDC is part of government, which in turn is part of the conspiracy with medical professionals, industry, and non-Marxist labor union leaders, to bury the silicosis issues.  If you see through Rosner and Markowitz’ broad brush generalization, you might be interested to know that the CDC mentioned silicosis as among the ten great public achievements of the twentieth century.  CDC, “Ten Great Public Health Achievements – United States, 1900 – 1999,” 48(12) CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 241 (April 02, 1999)(“Work-related health problems, such as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung), and silicosis — common at the beginning of the century — have come under better control.”).

This brand of historical generalizations does not belong in courtrooms.

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