Tuesday, November 8, 2016

WEEKLY COMMENTARY: When Facts Do Not Change A Strongly-Held Belief

Moral attitudes are especially difficult to change because the attached emotions may largely define who we are.  Certain beliefs are so important to us that they become part of how we define our identity.

Take, for example, a story about Dr. Ignaz Semmelwies.  A bulletin board exhibit, entitled "The History of Hand Washing," once on display at Overlook Hospital, illustrates how difficult it can be to change strongly-held beliefs.

Dr. Semmelwies was the Chief Resident in surgery at the Vienna General Hospital in 1847.  At the time, the theory of diseases was highly influenced by ideas of an imbalance of the basic "four humors" in the body, for which the main treatment was blood lettings.

At the Vienna General Hospital, there were two OBGYN clinics.  Clinic #1 was a broad-ranging teaching service for medical students.  Clinic #2 was exclusively for the instruction of midwives.  At the time, the staff were quite puzzled about a consistent difference in the mortality rates of the two clinics.

A good friend of Dr. Semmelwies died after accidentally being poked with a student's scalpel while performing a post mortem exam.  The autopsy of the deceased friend showed a pathology similar to that of women in Clinic #1 who were dying of puerperal fever.  The latter is an infection of a woman's placenta following delivery or abortion, sometimes causing death by the infection passing into the bloodstream.

Dr. Semmelwies proposed that there could be a connection between cadaver contamination and the puerperal fever.  He concluded that he and the medical students carried "cadaverous particles" on their hands from the autopsy room to the patients in OBGYN Clinic # 1, causing puerperal fever and the higher incidence of patient deaths than in Clinic #2.  He believed this explained why the student midwives in Clinic #2 (who were not engaged in autopsies and had no contact with the corpses) saw almost no mortality.

Dr. Semmelwies instituted a policy of using a solution of calcium hypochlorite for washing hands between autopsy work and the examination of patients in Clinic #1. Mortality rates then dropped dramatically in Clinic #1.

Regardless of these facts, many doctors in Vienna were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands.  They felt that their social status as gentlemen was inconsistent with the idea that their hands could be unclean.  As a result, Dr. Semmelwies' ideas were rejected by the medical community.  Perfectly reasonable hand-washing proposals were ridiculed and rejected by Dr. Semmelwies' contemporaries in the 1840's.  The ideas of Dr. Semmelwies were in conflict with established opinions, regardless of being consistent with scientific facts.

It was years after his death that Dr. Semmelwies' handwashing requirement earned widespread acceptance, when Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease. Pasteur's experiments demonstrated that organisms such as bacteria were responsible for souring wine, beer and even milk.  Today, the process he invented for removing bacteria by boiling and then cooling a liquid (pasteurization) is not in dispute, but it took decades for acceptance.  Today, Dr, Semmelwies is recognized in medical circles as a pioneer in antiseptic policy.

According to the Overlook Hospital exhibit, "Semmelwies Reflex" is a term applied today to a certain type of human behavior characterized by reflex-like rejection of new knowledge when it contradicts entrenched norms, beliefs or paradigms.

When the subject of climate change comes up in conversation today, some people deny the scientific findings which other people have accepted as true. Likewise, if we think humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, can we accept as fact the theory of Evolution?  To believe in Evolution requires some rejection of Biblical teaching, which in turn could cause some believers to fear that they are compromising their personal belief system.  Furthermore, some might fear that such rejection of Bible teaching could alienate them from their particular group and its values, like their church denomination or political party.  Many times such doubters just feel their identity and sense of self are being challenged by the new information.

We tend to side with people who share our identity ---- even when their "facts" disagree with ours. Calling someone a "flip-flopper" is a way of calling them morally suspect, as if those who change their minds are in some way being unfaithful to their group.

However, people change their minds all the time.  But, when the stakes are high, achieving that change of mind may be hard to do.  That's why just marshaling data and making rational arguments often will not work.

Whether you are changing your own mind or someone else's, the key often is emotional, persuasive storytelling.  Stories are more powerful than data because they allow individuals to identify emotionally with ideas and the people they might otherwise see as "outsiders."
These thoughts are brought to you by CPC's Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage in you some spiritual growth this fall.

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