Monday, 2 January 2017

Reviving Intellectual Honesty

Intellectual Honesty

There has probably never been a golden age for honesty. Nevertheless in those instances when it has prevailed the West made scientific advances which have brought immeasurable benefit to the world and made the West great.

One tragic example where, although the truth ultimately triumphed, many lives would have been saved and a brilliant man honoured in his lifetime had there been widespread intellectual honesty in the medical profession of the day is the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, also described as the “saviour of mothers”.

As a senior doctor in the maternity hospital in Vienna in the mid 1800's he noticed that many more women died of blood poisoning in the clinic staffed by medical students that the one staffed by trainee midwives. He refused to sweep this observation under the carpet but worked out that midwives washed their hands whereas medical students did not – even when going straight from an autopsy to the delivery room. He instituted hand washing in a disinfectant and the mortality rates immediately dropped.

Semmelweis tried to promote the practice of surgeons disinfecting their hands, but was met with opposition, scorn and ridicule by the medical profession. He was dismissed (for political reasons), and when he continued a virulent campaign for hand washing he was committed to a mental asylum where he died two weeks later after being beaten by the guards.

After he was replaced at the hospital the practice of hand washing was abandoned and mortality rates among mothers returned to previous levels in the clinic training doctors. This statistic was suppressed and ignored by the authorities. However many of Semmelweis's former students spread his discovery around Europe. However he was only vindicated later when Pasteur's work showed how disinfecting hands prevented the transmission of the bacteria that caused blood poisoning. Belatedly he was recognised in his home town as a hero.

Lack of intellectual honesty and rejection of that love of the truth that allows debate so that all the facts can come out has caused harm many times in recent years. A couple of times just in the past few months my wife. Reading the latest medical journal has pointed out that another medical issue long held as incontrovertible has been disproved.

Generally the history of the issue has gone something like this: A paper has been published saying that XYZ is good (or bad) for people's health. The story has been taken up by both medical and allied health professionals, been popularised in the press, and manufacturers have got onto the bandwagon advertising that their product is extra high or low as the need may be in XYZ.

Now that this is the accepted wisdom, research papers claiming the contrary are either ridiculed, or simply refused publication. After 20 years or so some researcher finally breaks through the silence barrier, proves that the original research was faulty and sets things straight. Of course it takes a long time for the trickle down effect to change professionals' and the public's minds and all this time they have been carefully following bad advice!

These examples probably cause little harm, but illustrate the problem when intellectual honesty is made second to other things and free debate is gagged on scientific matters.

Take the DDT case. Malaria kills millions of people a year. There was a campaign to eradicate its animal vector the Anopheles mosquito using the powerful insecticide DDT . The Anopheles was on the verge of being made extinct – which would have made malaria “extinct” too when environmental activists, aided by the film “A Silent Spring” campaigned successfully to have DDT banned. Ten years later the UN reversed the ban having decided on the evidence that DDT was in fact safe to use. But that was ten years too late. The Anopheles mosquito had got the reprieve it needed, and millions of people continue to die each year from malaria.

Take the “Anti-Vacc” movement. True most people do see them as cranks, but to ignore the benefits to humankind of vaccination requires a complete denial of intellectual honesty. Just take Smallpox as one example.

I still have the tell-tale scar of the inoculation I got when I first planned to travel overseas – it was too dangerous to travel to countries where smallpox existed without inoculation. During the 20th century it is estimated that smallpox caused 300 million to 500 million deaths. But an eradication program largely featuring inoculation was successful and in 1980 the WHO declared the disease to have been eradicated.

In a totally different field of endeavour I read a columnist in the financial section of the paper today emphasising the need for intellectual honesty in order to be successful as an investor. He pointed out that the investment guru Warren Buffet when he formulated an investing strategy spent considerable time trying to dis-prove it! Only when the strategy has survived this process does he put his money on it. The columnist went on to quote a book on rational behaviour: “rational beliefs must correspond to the way the world is, not to the way you think the world ought to be. … If you can't be honest with yourself about the difference between the truth and what and what you think ought to be true, you may be intelligent but you aren't rational.”

Intellectual honesty and love of the truth are essential for successful living in the real world. For the West to pull out of decline one of the many things necessary is to recover the intellectual honesty that gave us the great leaps forward in science and technology and the knowledge that a real world has real truth.

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