Avoid the Semmelweis reflex

In the 1840s, a young obstetrician in Vienna named Semmelweis noticed that doctors who performed autopsies and then delivered babies had a high rate of disease among the children they delivered (known as childbed fever). So he made the audacious and until then, unheard of, suggestion that doctors wash their hands between doing an autopsy and delivering a baby. He recommended that they wash in a solution of chlorinated lime, which apparently solved the problem; there were fewer cases of childbed fever.

Sadly and incredulously, instead of being praised for his life-saving solution, he was ostracized from the medical community because at that point in history, there was no germ theory; scientists had not made the connection between microscopic germs and illness; science doubted that the unseen could be a cause of death.

Psychologists have coined a term to describe the tendency to ignore information simply because it does not fit within one’s worldview: the Semmelweiss reflex, or Semmelweis effect. Daniel Kahneman calls it theory-induced blindness—an adherence to a belief about how the world works that prevents you from seeing how the world really works.

It’s an interesting anecdote from history but let’s try to apply the lesson to our lives so we can avoid the tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge simply because it contradicts established norms, beliefs, or paradigms.

In our society:

  • Many are reluctant to accept global warming even though 97% of scientists agree that global temperatures have increased during the past 100 years; 84% say they personally believe human-induced warming is occurring; and 74% agree that “currently available scientific evidence” substantiates its occurrence.
  • Managers have been slow to accept the fact that the “carrot and stick” approach to motivation (rewards and punishment) doesn’t work in the modern workplace; employees are motivated by autonomy, purpose, and mastery. [Not convinced? See Daniel Pink’s terrific book, Drive]
  • People spend billions of dollars on the latest weight-loss craze, sadly ignoring the factual approach to weight-loss: calories in/calories out.
  • Despite the fact that there is absolutely no scientific evidence that biorhythm works, millions of dollars are still spent on this movement every year.
  • Neurolinguistic programming for education still has its adherents despite the scientific evidence declaring it a ruse.

We suffer from the Semmelweis reflex every time we refuse to accept facts and instead rely on our prejudice or unfounded convictions. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” but sometimes we think our opinions are tantamount to facts.

They are not.

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16 Replies to “Avoid the Semmelweis reflex”

  1. Don, your writing and your thinking just keep getting better acquainted. I’m grateful to have the privilege of looking over your shoulder and reading such profound insights into my life. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Wayne, I’ll remember your phrase “Your writing and your thinking keep getting better acquainted.” Nice thought. Don

  2. Very evident in this country in many disciplines and at many levels! Another I can add is the supposed link between childhood vaccinations and autism inspite of proof that the basis of this belief was false and manipulated data and subsequent studies show NO connection.

  3. For me, your comment on global warming killed the entire message. The issue before us today is not whether the earth is warming or cooling; the issue is what (if anything) to do about it. Many people might agree that the climate is changing, but they disagree with a movement determined to cripple our economy and deny access to electricity to millions of people in third world countries in an effort to attempt to change the temperature by one degree 100 years from now and to feel good that we are “reducing our carbon footprint.”

    1. Mark, yours is an interesting argument. I’m surprised that my example of global warming would “kill the entire message.” Do you not embrace the basic idea? Come up with your own examples, but don’t dish the thought because you disagree with one example.

  4. The use of global warming displays the big problem with your whole article. If your paycheck depends upon you sticking to the party line, science goes out the window. Look up Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs. Most people will do what ever is necessary to survive, even lie about facts. The group think trumps individual thought most of the time in science.

    1. Bob, thanks for writing. I am a bit confused about where you stand on the issue. Do you agree or disagree with the thought that most people are reluctant to embrace new ideas that are contrary to their held beliefs?

  5. It is not the facts that are the problem, it is the conclusions drawn from the facts based on presuppositions supplied by a world view or spiritual view that give me the heart burn. When science becomes a leap of faith based on interpretation of the facts we have to watch our pocket books.

  6. Good point. Nowhere is this more true than among “believers.” Time after time, I share scriptures to no avail. People choose their feelings, opinions, and traditional beliefs over the word of God. Prov.18:17

    1. Pete, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Isn’t it amazing how we become blinded to that which is true. Take care, Don

  7. While I embrace your main idea, i too identify with Mark and Bob’s comments. The Global warming/climate change analogy, makes the point in reverse. And the 97% and 84% fallacy, form an unscientific argument where precision and facts are key. Ex. While Nancy’s use of vaccines is spot on, 99% of doctors would agree there is side effects.

    1. Robert, thanks for writing. The global warming issue is getting a lot of push-back. We probably won’t know for sure for another 50 years if global warming is truly an issue. My thought is, if we deny it and do nothing about it, it will soon be too late to reverse the affect, if it is, indeed valid; so what harm is there in reducing the use of carbon fuels? But…I hold to the basic idea of the Semmelweis reflex; no one questions the idea that physicians should wash their hands in-between procedures. Where do you get the statistic of 99% of doctors agree that there are side effects to vaccines?
      Thanks for our friendship. Don

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