Do you suffer from the Semmelweis Reflex?

Subtitled: An uncertain mind sometimes deals with Reality better than a mind that is certain

“It ain’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so” ~Will Rogers

I love that Will Rogers quote. It captures, in a humorous way, the essence of the human predicament. We have minds that presume they know what is going on. The presumptions of the mind are often wrong, but when we truly believe we are right, we will not question our mind.

Naturally, if we act according to a mind’s wrong thinking, there is a probability that we will make errors or create suffering for ourselves and for others. And, since none of us had perfect parents or perfect schools, we have all learned some things during our lives that “we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

That means we blindly live and blindly decide things based on erroneous presumptions.

Here’s a simple historical example that had major impact on many, many lives. Ignaz Semmelweis, a physician in Austria around 1847, had come to believe that hand washing and sterilization of surgical instruments would cut down on deaths after surgery, childbirth, and other invasive medical procedures. In those days the role of germs and infections were not understood.

As we know now, Semmelweis was basically right. However, his ideas went totally against the medical knowledge of his time. It wasn’t until the research of Joseph Lister in 1867 that the practice of antiseptic surgery became the norm.

Thus, for over 20 years the vast majority of Austrian doctors ignored Semmelweis, writing him off as some sort of obsessed kook who, in their learned opinion, was clearly wrong.

Because the Austrian physicians were certain that Semmelweis was wrong, they continued to practice inadequate hygiene during surgery. As a result, countless more persons suffered and perished needlessly due to easily avoidable infection. In retrospect, we can say that the Austrian physicians continued to make the same mistake over and over for years while thinking they were practicing medicine in the very best way.

The Semmelweis story became famous over the years and it is often taught in medical schools and in medical philosophy studies. The Semmelweis reflex, which is, of course, named after this story, is defined as automatic dismissal or rejection of scientific information without thought, inspection or experiment.

We don’t just make this sort of error about scientific information. We do it about everything, even our self concept.

Do you assume that you know for sure what’s right and true about who you are? Have you perhaps been blindly making the same mistake over and over for years without questioning what you are doing? Are you possibly making errors while thinking you are right?

What conclusions have you come to about yourself or other people that ‘just ain’t so’?

How can you tell?

Are you sure?

When we are blindly stuck to what we ‘know’, there is little room for observing anything different. That means we live and decide the course of our lives based on possibly erroneous presumptions.

Stop, breathe, relax, and just observe for a moment, without mental interpretations or evaluations. Just let your experience be what it is without having to name it or think about it.

Notice what is. Let go of the thoughts that arise.  Observe.

What you actually experience (see, hear, sense, feel, notice, remember) is different than the thoughts that you have (imagine, interpret, believe, assume, conclude) about your experience.

Can you notice?

Who you actually are is different than your ideas about who you are.

You are much freer than you think.

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One Response to “Do you suffer from the Semmelweis Reflex?”

  1. Eric Pritchard 06. Mar, 2010 at 12:16 am

    The masters of endocrinology definitely have the Semmelweis reflex when they encounter the concepts of mimics of hypothyroidism. These masters, experts in their field, believe that one post thyroid function never fails and the other, if they acknowledge its existence, can not be treated. Consequently, they do not attempt to do anything for the patients who have continuing symptoms of hypothyroidism. Instead of acknowledging real science, they have produced scapegoats of “nonspecific symptoms” and “functional somatoform disorders.” So either medicine is not suffiently advanced to treat the patient or the suffering is all in the patients mind. Neither is correct, but that is their story and they are sticking to it. We are shocked that Semmelweis had to fight against “bad humors in the air” with only empirical data. Now we should be doubly shocked as the masters of endocrinology reiterate junk science in the face of their counterexamples – patients who have suffered under their prescriptions but have regained active healthy lives under their proscriptions.