The Semmelweis reflex

Imagine that you are a physician on a hospital staff and another doctor at the hospital discovers a procedure that dramatically reduces the death rate of its patients.  Wouldn’t you and the other doctors at the hospital eagerly adopt the procedure and practice it  yourselves?  The answer is so obvious to most people that it seems stupid to even ask such a question.  But a doctor name Ignaz Semmelweis did discover such a process and the other doctors rejected it.  Here is Wikipedia’s description of what happened.

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician of German extraction now known as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures. Described as the “savior of mothers”, Semmelweis discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics. Puerperal fever was common in mid-19th-century hospitals and often fatal, with mortality at 10%–35%. Semmelweis proposed the practice of washing with chlorinated lime solutions in 1847 while working in Vienna General Hospital’s First Obstetrical Clinic, where doctors’ wards had three times the mortality of midwives’ wards. He published a book of his findings in Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever.

Despite various publications of results where hand-washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands and Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings. Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist’s research, practiced and operated, using hygienic methods, with great success. In 1865, Semmelweis was committed to an asylum, where he died at age 47 after being beaten by the guards, only 14 days after he was committed.

It seems unbelievable that doctors would ignore this clear evidence that hand washing could reduce the death rate among patients.  The reason for their reaction what that this practice contradicted generally held beliefs regarding the cause of disease.

Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time. The theory of diseases was highly influenced by ideas of an imbalance of the basic “four humours” in the body, a theory known as dyscrasia, for which the main treatment was bloodlettings. Medical texts at the time emphasized that each case of disease was unique, the result of a personal imbalance, and the main difficulty of the medical profession was to establish precisely each patient’s unique situation, case by case.

The findings from autopsies of deceased women also showed a confusing multitude of physical signs, which emphasized the belief that puerperal fever was not one, but many different, yet unidentified, diseases. Semmelweis’s main finding — that all instances of puerperal fever could be traced back to only one single cause: lack of cleanliness — was simply unacceptable. His findings also ran against the conventional wisdom that diseases spread in the form of “bad air”, also known as miasmas or vaguely as “unfavourable atmospheric-cosmic-terrestrial influences”. Semmelweis’s groundbreaking idea was contrary to all established medical understanding.

Eventually Dr. Semmelweis’s ideas were vindicated and the treatment he received led to the coining of a new term, the Semmelweis reflex.

The so-called Semmelweis reflex — a metaphor for a certain type of human behaviour characterized by reflex-like rejection of new knowledge because it contradicts entrenched norms, beliefs or paradigms — is named after Semmelweis, whose perfectly reasonable hand-washing suggestions were ridiculed and rejected by his contemporaries.

We can see the Semmelweis reflex in operation today in one area of scientific study, the origin and age of the earth.

The established scientific belief is that the earth is billions of years old and life evolved gradually over this long period of time.  The fossils that are found all over the earth are supposedly evidence of this evolutionary process.

Some people have a different belief regarding the origin of the earth. We believe the Bible is true and God created the earth in six days. We believe there was a worldwide flood and the fossils are evidence that this flood actually occurred.

There is scientific evidence that supports the Bible.  For example, the October, 2012, issue of Answers magazine, which is published by Answers in Genesis, contains a report on some evidence that shows the earth can’t be as old as is generally believed.  You can read this report here:

Of course the Semmelweiss reflex will cause many to either ignore this evidence or try to explain it away.  If you are willing to consider the possibility that the popular beliefs might be wrong here are some other sites you might be interested in:

Posted on January 10, 2015, in Bible study, creation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Excellent article. I’ve never heard of Semmelweis before, so this was a good read, and I like your connection to modern day scientific beliefs. Very true. I see a similar reaction from those who believe in evolution and billions of years all the time. It’s more of a knee-jerk reaction without reason. Those who believe in evolution rely on bias to support their belief, and they find it unbelievable that they could be wrong.


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