The “Semmelweis Reflex” is a metaphor for our tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts our established norms, beliefs, or paradigms. It is named for Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian obstetrician who found lasting scientific fame, but only posthumously.
Semmelweis discovered that the often-fatal puerperal fever, common among new mothers in hospitals, could largely be avoided if doctors simply washed their hands before assisting with childbirth. After observing that a particular obstetrical ward suffered unusually high instances of the disease and that doctors there often worked in the morgue right before aiding in childbirth without washing their hands in between, Semmelweis speculated that “cadaverous material” could be passed from doctors’ hands to patients, causing the disease. He thereupon initiated a strict regimen at his hospital whereby all who would assist in a birthing must first wash their hands with a chlorinated solution. Death rates plummeted.
Semmelweis expected a revolution in hospital hygiene as a consequence of his findings. But the revolution didn’t come.
His hypothesis, that there was only one cause of the disease and that it could be prevented simply through cleanliness was extreme at the time and ran counter to the prevailing medical ideology, which insisted that diseases had multiple causes. Despite the practical demonstration of its effectiveness, his approach was largely ignored, rejected, or even ridiculed. In other words, ideology trumped facts. Things got so bad that Semmelweis was ultimately dismissed from his hospital post and harassed by the medical community in Vienna, forcing him to move to Budapest.
The story gets even stranger from there. In Budapest, Semmelweis grew increasingly outspoken and hostile towards physicians who refused to acknowledge his discovery and implement his protocols. Vitriolic exchanges ensued, in medical literature and in letters, and Semmelweis was eventually lured to an asylum where his opponents had arranged for his incarceration. He was beaten severely and put in a straitjacket. He died within two weeks. He died of *sepsis* after a doctor treating him with dirty hands palpated a compound fracture.
The Semmelweis regimen only earned widespread acceptance many years after his death, when Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease – which offered a theoretical explanation for the Semmelweis findings – and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist’s research, practiced and operated using hygienic methods to great success. As a consequence, Semmelweis is now considered a pioneer of antiseptic procedures and a martyr.
“[I]t can be dangerous to be wrong, but, to be right, when society regards the majority’s falsehood as truth, could be fatal. This principle is especially true with respect to false truths that form an important part of an entire society’s belief system. In the past, such basic false truths were religious in nature. In the modern world, they are medical and political in nature.”
Ring a bell?
In America today, with real religion on the decline, politics and science are elevated to cult-like status.
Each side in today’s heated political war is desperate to accuse its political opponents of terminal insanity in need of lobotomization.
And it isn’t altogether new and doesn’t all come from the political right. Not be a long shot.
During the 1964 presidential campaign, Fact magazine published ‘The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater,” which included the results of a survey of psychiatrists on the mental competence of the Republican candidate. He was deemed “psychologically unfit to be president of the United States,” according to more than 1,000 respondents.
“On the free-for-all stage of American politics all his aggressions, hostility, all his fears and delusions of persecutions, all his infantile fantasies of revenge and dreams of total annihilation of his adversaries found a perfect platform.”
As Szasz argued in 1963: “The socioeconomic, political, and ethical implications of deviant behavior were obscured in favor of its so-called medical causes.” It’s the ideology, stupid. And we all have our ideologies.
For the ideologically committed, any opposition is necessarily seen as madness, stupidity, or evil. Opponents are less than fully human They are inferior.
That’s what the politicians and the media want you to think. It keeps you revved up and coming back.
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As regular readers know, my darling bride teaches fifth grade. She begins most school days with a Mr. Rogers quote for the kids to write a reaction to, followed by that day’s episode of KidNuz, a five-minute news broadcast designed for kids. Her students are learning to write news articles and are creating a newspaper.
Since Christmas, school has again been virtual. Last Thursday, the news of the day included the following.
“The U.S. Congress picking up where it left off. Overnight, just hours after unprecedented chaos in the hallowed halls of the Capitol, lawmakers returned to finish their constitutional responsibility of certifying the 2020 presidential election. Earlier in the day, extremists from a huge crowd of President Trump’s supporters overpowered understaffed police, stormed the building, made it as far as the floor of the Senate— and even into the personal office of Speaker Pelosi. Senators and Representatives were rushed into lockdown for their safety but defiantly returned last night to continue the count. An unbowed Vice President Pence opened the second session with a message to those who looted and vandalized: ‘You did not win. Violence never wins. Freedom wins.’ And to his colleagues: ‘Now, let’s get back to work.’ And for hours, they did. But instead of arguing, Republicans and Democrats celebrated their differences, praised democracy, and as mandated by the Constitution, went about verifying the win of Joe Biden.”
During this section, the class was Zoom-bombed. A booming voice interrupted the newscast to berate my bride for “indoctrinating” the children. She couldn’t figure out where the voice was coming from immediately, but muted him when she did. He unmuted to continue the tirade. She had to remove the embarrassed student from class to return to teaching.
Those poor kids.
Perhaps the saddest thing is that there was nothing surprising about it. We are a wildly divided society and each side is willing – eager! – to express disdain for the other at every opportunity.
This disdain is expressed in the most personal of terms. People are angry, outraged, and offended. The facts may not care about their feelings, but they feel attacked, belittled, and minimized.
“Audrey Ann Southard spent years helping kids find their creative voices and strengthening her own.
“The Spring Hill vocal coach and piano teacher sang like an angel when she posted videos of herself crooning Norah Jones’ Don’t Know Why or belting out Memory from Cats, and when she went to Sicily in 2012 for an international music competition, she won.
“That led to a showcase on a stage inside New York’s Carnegie Hall.
“More recently, Southard used her powerful soprano to scream at police officers that they should ‘tell f--king Pelosi we’re coming for her! F--king traitorous c--ts, we’re coming! We’re coming for all of you!’ She was part of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6.” (Tampa Bay Times).
I’ve watched a lot of news over the past ten days. Too much. The “hard news” shows are chock full of opinions and the “news” opinion shows are all confirmation bias all the time. Typical “question”: “Blah blah blah statement that affirms all the obvious priors. Reaction?” These media outlets are echo chambers that leave us less informed and yet more certain of our positions. It doesn't matter which team you are rooting for, red or blue, it's all the same confirmation bias, to paraphrase Jim O’Shaugnessy, all the time.
Matt Taibbi made this exact point recently.
“Media firms work backward. They first ask, ‘How does our target demographic want to understand what’s just unfolded?’ Then they pick both the words and the facts they want to emphasize.
“It’s why Fox News uses the term, ‘Pro-Trump protesters,’ while New York and The Atlantic use ‘Insurrectionists.’ It’s why conservative media today is stressing how Apple, Google, and Amazon shut down the ‘Free Speech’ platform Parler over the weekend, while mainstream outlets are emphasizing a new round of potentially armed protests reportedly planned for January 19th or 20th.”
The actors in this drama, politicians and media alike, want us to believe that it is all decidedly personal. Each side works the other up with claims that the other mocks them, devalues them, and hates them.
Here’s the key, though. It’s isn’t really personal. It’s business.
It isn’t revenge or an attack on opposing views. When Bill O’Reilly told you that you were entering a “no spin zone,” you were being spun. It is an economic calculation. As usual, we’re well served to follow the money.
The incentives oppose civility and compromise. Extremism sells and, by and large, politicians say what they need to say to win elections, irrespective of what they may have said before.
Maybe they even come to believe it. As Upton Sinclair famously said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” However, the public at large sure believes it.
Note how one outlet put the problem.
“This is a consistent theme among Trump supporters. You can dismiss it as nonsense. You can call them crank conspiracy theorists or the tinfoil hat crowd. But you cannot dismiss their genuine moral conviction that their country is being stolen from them and that they, like their forebears, must fight to prevent it from becoming yet another banana republic.”
If the pump is properly primed, lies can be told…
…and they will be believed. We shouldn’t be surprised that selling culture wars all day results in sales.
It is a matter of both supply *and* demand. The recent advent of Newsmax and OANN demonstrates the desire of news consumers to seek out only what they want to hear. When the news side at Fox (to the consternation of the primetime hosts) refused to tell that story and declared Joe Biden president-elect, disgruntled viewers migrated to alternative sources by the thousands.
I don’t have a ready solution to this immense problem. Tucker, Rachel, Sean, Lawrence, and Laura, not to mention Nancy, Mitch, Chuck, Kevin, Steny, Mike, and the Donald don’t want it to end. It’s how they get paid (in the currencies they most care about).
And it’s all about getting paid.
Totally Worth It
This past week Christians celebrated Epiphany and the visit of the Magi. Epiphany reminds us that faith is not a prop for political power. The Wise Men refused to do Herod’s bidding and ducked out of Bethlehem and avoided him.
“Do not expect | to return | by the same road. | Home is always | by another way, | and you will know it | not by the light | that waits for you | but by the star | that blazes inside you, | telling you | where you are | is holy”
For those of you who are believers, are you enjoying your last week of legal Christianity?
This was the saddest thing I read this week. The most important. The strongest. The most terrifying. The most horrific. The stupidest, unless it was this, or this. The craziest. The sweetest, unless it was this. The funniest, unless it was this. The biggest mystery. The most bizarre. I liked this. What seems too good to be true usually is. What could go wrong?
This week’s benediction is “Light of the World,” sung by Sara Niemietz.
“Glory, Glory, The Light of the World … The world waits for a miracle | The heart longs for a little bit of hope | O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.
Thanks for reading.
Issue 47 (January 15, 2021)