Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Semmelweis Reflex

The Semmelweis Reflex is essentially defined as the automatic rejection of an factual and/or obviously truthful statement with no logical grounds for dismissal other than the fact that the idea is contrary to a widely held popular belief. Long story short, sometimes people don't believe the truth even if it's staring them in the face. In the following article I'll briefly explain the phenomenon and examine it's effect on society.

Very few people have ever heard of Ignaz Semmelweis or the societal reflex named after him. Ignaz was born on July 1, 1818 in Hungary to a prosperous family and ended up becoming a renowned physician. By 1847 he was earning himself the admiration of his patients and the title "savior of mothers" due to a groundbreaking technique he had discovered. He was able to reduce then current mortality rates of puerperal (childbirth) fever from as high as 18% to less than 1% by simply washing his hands in a chlorinated lime solution before working with the patient. Oddly enough the medical community thoroughly rejected Semmelweis' claims and publications regarding this discovery as "unscientific" and "lacking in reasoning". His critics claimed that there was no direct cause and effect between handling corpses, decaying matter, and other nasty infected tissue then wiping off your hands and giving birth only to watch the patient die of infection 10-35% of the time. Semmelweis died in 1865 in a asylum after suffering a nervous breakdown at the age of 47 upon failing to convince people his technique saved lives. A few years later Louis Pasteur and a few other scientists finally convinced the medical community of the "germ theory" of disease which proved what Semmelweis was talking about all along. To even a modern child this seems like simple logic and common sense but it turns out that the rejection effect Semmelweis experienced from his educated peers is a common human trait developed by our society.

Sometimes it's manifested in small day to day interactions and other times it can have a larger effect. From ancient philosopher spurning ideas of a spherical earth until Pythagoras and Aristotle argued otherwise to the churches resistance of Copernican heliocentric theory championed by Galileo, we have seen great truths blatantly denied by the masses. These theories and the brave revolutionary men who defied the status quo to share them should be not only an inspiration but a reminder to constantly re-evaluate our perception of reality. Especially in this social networking era when things can become clouded with so many options and ideals floating around. Theories abound and truths are becoming far stranger than fiction. It seems it's becoming more and more difficult to differentiate the forest from the trees as the old proverb says. To weed out all the "spam" we've set our neurological filters to a higher security level so to speak. As a natural defense to unwelcome chance we have become increasingly more critical and doubtful of one another in general. As this shift occurs we can see more and more instances of the Semmelweis Reflex on all levels of society.

I'm not worried so much about the small denials in life such as rejecting a certain brand of car, clothing, or any other merchandise with no real intrinsic purpose. For an example of this ask any "Chevy guy" about Fords or vice versa. In this example the reality is both vehicles will perform the desired purpose of 95% of their users but some feel that one is worthless while the other sets a standard for them. Why? No apparent reason other then they are a "Chevy guy" or a "Ford guy", and usually have been for some time. I have no problem with this even though I find it to be a worthless argument. I feel the problem lies in other forms that are more influential to society and those that can be outright dangerous both psychologically and physically if controlled by a nefarious third party. Enter the realm of politics, religion, and finance. The three dirty dinner table words!

The scariest applications of the Semmelweis Reflex are those that are contrived and designed for a specific outcome. This inherent human need to follow the pack even at the expense of others is a powerful tool to control societal sentiment. To keep this article relevant I will stick to examples found within the last decade or so but if one looks back this has been repeated throughout history en mass. It's almost hard to figure out where to start but i would say the biggest single event in many of our lifetimes was September 11th, 2001. We all know that day well and it will go down in history as a beginning of a new era but to this day there seems to be a heated debate as to the specifics of that day and what actually happened. The government has one version, foreign media has another version, and people from the 9/11 truth movement have yet another. All politics aside there are some facts that independent scientists and experts can agree on such as melting points of steel and how hot jet fuel burns. There are many controlled demo experts across the world who would have been proud if they had managed to take down 3 buildings so neatly within their own footprint in a crowded metropolitan area. Yet, when confronted with hard fact and empirical data people who wish to believe one story or the other vehemently do so and urge you to see it their way. Their acceptance has been conditioned by their chosen brand of media which is the largest direct channel to the people available besides the internet. By sheer volume if a populous is convinced that something is a truth they will embrace it and decry the minority who resist it, even if the resistance is morally correct or is based upon factual information. For chilling examples of this look back to the horrors of Nazi Germany.

We can see this manifested in election politics all the time as well. People making wildly false claims from either the extreme left or the extreme right are backed immediately by people who identify with their political party even though what they say may not even be in their own best interest. Countless people vote every year for this or that based solely upon republican or democratic affiliation regardless of the beliefs of their candidate or what they have to offer. These rejections are a dangerous trend in politics. By not voting based upon merit and action we are essentially destroying the democracy we love to talk so honorably about.

And finally, perhaps the greatest battle of them all when it comes to unfounded rejections ala Semmelweis, we have religion. Religion is the most necessary and beneficial evil man has ever been blessed to be cursed with. How contradictory of a statement but how deeply true it is. I will use the christian church as an example since I was raised by a pastor in a very christian household until my early teenage years and so I am familiar with many aspects of the faith. Let me briefly explain what I mean by a necessary evil then I will elaborate on how I believe religion to be the largest mass example of the Semmelweis Reflex known to man. Throughout history we can find examples of higher faith dating back to the beginning of modern human civilization. Many of these faiths instructed their followers to live lives of meaning and love. To have compassion for their fellow man, treat each other with kindness, and give thanks to the higher power that gave them life on this beautiful planet. These are all inherently good things and having a purpose to life and a higher meaning can give humans the necessary strength and motivation to accomplish things which still to this day amaze us. Being able to believe that if they strive to be a good person they will be rewarded with the riches of heaven is essential for motivation while here on earth. Subsequently they are kept in line with the promise of a painful fiery hell if they do not live according to the standards of the religion. This is the classic carrot in front of the donkey cart that parades the leaders of the church around while they relay the word of god to the wretched masses. By repeating this story and set of guidelines for hundreds and hundreds of generations on end the populous accepts it as a natural fact of the universe. When it is questioned, as it has been by many brilliant minds throughout history (and made to look like foolish nonsense), it becomes the natural response of the congregation to get angry at the heretic and immediate deny any claims that are in opposition to "the word of god". As discussed before briefly Galileo and other scientists such as Giordano Bruno, Cecco D’Ascoli, Roger Bacon, and more, met varying degrees of fate from imprisonment to death for suggesting the factually inaccurate claims of the church at the time were, well... dead wrong! Today the fight between science and religion continues as heated as always. Sadly, a correlated result (as it has been for ages) is the capitalization of this passion people have for higher understanding for benefit of one man over the other. Whether it be tithe plates, selling books on scientology, or promoting one big bang book over another it all boils down to control of the consumer and ultimately their wallet.

In conclusion, I dind't write this to bash religion or politics specifically. Nor did I write it because I was dying to tell you who Ignaz Semmelweis was and how his paradox came to be. I wrote it because I felt the need to show people the forest hidden amongst the trees. I felt the need to challenge peoples unwavering gut reaction to new information. The next time you find yourself dismissing something too wild to be true or something you were told not to agree with, take a second to really look at it. Examine the proverbial bark of the tree so to speak. How does this person know what they are telling you? Why are they telling you? What do you or them stand to benefit from knowing or sharing the information? And finally, what is the FACT of the matter, or the bigger picture so to speak? As often as I can, I try to pause my instinct to wave off new ideas or try not to be cynical about something I can't agree upon. In practicing this I have caught myself actively engaging my own Semmelweis reflex. The difference is now that I understand the phenomenon I can begin to take steps to ensure it has less of an effect on me. I concede that the nature of the reflex infers that there very well could be even larger concepts we are missing due to our inability to comprehend them and are therefore stuck with the limited knowledge our brains are capable of processing. On the largest end of the scale, again, I am ok with this. In summation, the macro and micro levels of the Semmelweis reflex are generally less harmful that the middle spectrum that comprises daily life for us humans. By understanding the forces we face within ourselves we can work towards taking the next step forward as a civilization. We must realize that in order to progress change needs to occur and we must be brave enough to stand in defiance of what the masses say to be right when we know the truth is otherwise. So take that with you today friends and make your decisions wisely. Fight for what you know is right and don't quit just because someone told you that you're wrong or crazy. Otherwise we'd all still be living on a flat germ infested splotch of purgatory!

John Thomas

NOTE: This is not an attempt to discredit anyone's belief and is solely an opinion I hold dearly. Please direct hate mail to the people responsible for the degradation of your chosen institutions. Thanks!