Semmelweis and Germs

Ignaz Semmelweis was an obstetrician in Vienna who laid a foundation for germ theory in the 1850s.

He traced child-bed fever (and death) in his ward to doctors dissecting corpses then delivering children -- without washing their hands.  By imposing a chlorine-lime wash, Semmelweis was able to reduce illness and death in his ward significantly.

However, spreading the word proved challenging.  The medical community was committed to ideas of "the imbalance of humors" to explain disease and "miasma" to explain contagion.

This new idea of "cadaverous particles" seemed absurd to many.  How could something so small it can't be seen kill a human being? No poison (known at the time) is that strong!

Semmelweis wasn't measuring bacterial growth.  Rather he was measuring outcomes, impacts, shadows of these theoretical entities--in a region of science already jam-packed with explanations and ideas.

Added to this, his idea triggered the emotional defenses of his audience.  He was asking doctors devoted to care of women and newborns to recognize they caused many deaths.  He was asking gentlemen to consider they might carry filth - even when the social structure constantly reminded these men of their elite, cultured and clean status.

Semmelweis confronted the immune response of the scientific process ("what proof do you have?"), ("you aren't saying anything new") and the emotional-immune response of men heavily invested in the status-quo. He was successful in recruiting students to his cause -- but that wasn't enough.  He was faced with his own emotional response to unnecessary suffering and death.  The more time passed the more women died.  The message had to be accepted quickly at the highest levels.

Claims of authority & statistics work top-down in science -- but they don't work from the ground-up.  The scientific establishment is skeptical of those on the fringe bringing new perspectives in.  Semmelweis failed to connect with his audience, failed to inspire.  Instead he met fire with fire -- dismissals with counter-punches of idiocy and murder.

Instead of providing the establishment with graceful exists, he upbraided them.  He may have been right, logically and biologically.  His heart may have been in the right place.  But he alienated his audience.  He increased resistance to hand-washing which ironically, prolonged suffering.

Some hard-liners in memetics insist we must be the voice in the wilderness, stating facts and refining measurements -- "an audience's feelings and sensibilities be damned".  The idea goes that once enough data is collected people will have two options:  Accept the data or be branded "unscientific".

No.  We must resist the myth that we are prophets or exceptional minds that cannot integrate with others.  Science only progresses with collaboration.  We can't have the mindset of "now or never".  Instead, let's try: "sooner or later, but we prefer sooner".

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