Evidence is not enough
WE ARE deeply social beings. Challenging ideas crawl through webs of like minded people, they are discussed and refined, and are finally accepted or denied, based on a build up of evidence. Or so we hope. But there is not a more sickening or pointless horror than that of arrogance.
In the hot spring and summer of 1847, Josef Semmelweis worked as assistant gynaecologist at the First Obstetrical Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital. “Your patients’ deaths are avoidable,” he declared, entering the rooms of his eminent superior, Professor Klein.
Semmelweis had toiled to identify why so many mothers had been dying in one of the clinics.
“It has made me so miserable that life has seemed worthless,” he explained. “It is illogical that mothers giving birth on the street should become ill less frequently than those who deliver in the clinic. Just what protects those who deliver outside from these destructive influences? The question has consumed me.”
He knew his ideas would challenge Klein’s work, but he counted on the strength of evidence he had been collecting.
“Now I have it,” he said, “It is not an imbalance of humours, blood letting serves no purpose, and I have ruled out miasmas.”
Yet Klein interrupted, “I hope you are not referring to your preparation of chlorinated lime solution, Doctor Semmelweis. There have been complaints. I, personally, find your ideas offensive.”
“The medical students are carrying cadaverous particles from the autopsy room to the clinic. The evidence is compelling, Professor.”
“You cannot accuse gentlemen doctors of uncleanliness. I urge you to stop this line of work.”
“Yet the simple act of washing the hands prior to touching the delivering mother is enough to prevent their deaths. I have reduced deaths in the clinic by ninety percent. By the grace of God, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that-”
“Avoid it I do, Sir. The diseases in each woman are not related, but result from personal imbalances. Apart from a notional idea of poisoning, your analysis lacks scientific rigour and you have failed in each case to identify the mother's unique situation.”
After this damning conversation, Semmelweis was clear he would not be supported by the Professor. He embarked on a European-wide letter-writing campaign, proclaiming his discovery to his peers and the wider medical community.
But his theories were ridiculed, and Klein's anger at the challenge to medical consensus condemned Semmelweis to a posting in Pes. From there, he was committed to an insane asylum where he died of septicaemia after a beating by guards.
It was only years later that Louis Pasteur & Joseph Lister verified the truth in Semmelweis's conclusions, and the doctor was posthumously vindicated. But in the meantime, many more mothers had died through the ignorance of the people there to help them.
Such irony is unfortunately common and not difficult to come by in the modern era. As I write, world leaders have gathered in Spain to discuss actions to avoid climate change. In debating these actions there is one thing they will almost certainly dismiss: the evidence.
In the words of others, the truth is “inconvenient”, just as it was for Klein and the medical establishment in the nineteenth century.
Climate delegates in Spain will probably act out of self interest and arrogance again and the globe will suffer at the hands of the very people we have sent to save us.