Changing the World Isn’t Easy—Egos Get in the Way

According to Yancey Strickler, cofounder of Kickstarter, it takes thirty years to change any major paradigm. Strickler is talking about major shifts in values, beliefs and behaviour. A paradigm shift in which a new upstart idea becomes accepted default.

Strickler gives the example of the antiseptic method proposed by Glasgow doctor Joseph Lister in 1865:

Lister proposed the idea of sterilizing doctor’s hands and equipment and the patient’s wounds as a way of preventing infection. This idea was based on a recent discovery by a French scientist named Louis Pasteur called Germ Theory, which posited and proved the existence of microscopic particles called germs. Lister theorized that these same germs were the cause of death from post-surgical infections, which caused 80% of patients to die after surgery at the time. Lister’s sterilization technique greatly improved the practice of surgery, making it a healing rather than deadly tool for the first time.

Lister introducing antiseptic

Lister introduces antiseptic procedure

You’d think such a change would be met with great celebration. It wasn’t. Lister was met with much hostility. If what Lister proposed was right, this meant existing doctors were responsible for the deaths of an untold number of their patients. For an established surgeon to accept Lister’s ideas meant a kind of self-negation that many doctors found hard to do…

For doctors and scientists in training at the time of Lister’s proposal, on the other hand, the antiseptic method was much easier to accept. They could see that the results justified the treatment, rather than feeling personally judged by them. Buying into the antiseptic method didn’t require a deep rewiring of their beliefs. Their reputations weren’t on the line.

Thirty years later enough of the older generation of surgeons had died, stopped practicing, or been marginalized for their outdated thinking that their influence had waned. A younger generation who accepted the science of the antiseptic method was practicing in their place. The changing of the guard created a tipping point. In 1903 when the King of England needed an emergency appendectomy, his doctors called Lister. They followed Lister’s method and the King survived. King Edward later told him, “I know that if it had not been for you and your work, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.” The Antiseptic Method had become accepted science and the majority point of view.

Water Is-COVER-webIn my 2016 book Water Is…, I discuss the work of Kathleen Taylor, research scientist at Oxford University, who explored the introduction and eventual acceptance of a new idea within an established hegemony or dogma.  According to Taylor, shared knowledge is valuable in forming a stable culture or tradition; even as imagination through creativity and art eventually threatens an established hegemony, it creates opportunity and needed change.

“In some cases, a new branch of the sciences … can begin with a few mavericks (with a high Intelligence/Knowledge [I/K] ratio) whose research is initially dismissed as speculative,” writes Taylor. “As their way of thinking gradually wins acceptance, it attracts recruits at an increasing rate until a paradigm shift occurs and allegiances transfer wholesale from the old establishment to the new. A period of growing stability follows in which knowledge is assembled (with a decrease in I/K ratio) which supports the new ideas. Creative output falls, stagnation gradually sets in. Problems begin to emerge, which are ignored by all but a few … and so the cycle begins again.”

Despite the mandate of exploration and discovery in science, the scientific community can be rather harsh with those who threaten its established hegemony. Many scientists have been ridiculed and marginalized by their peers only to have their findings and conclusions vindicated much later. Sometimes, after they themselves have perished.

To return to Lister’s case with the practicing doctors of his time, Strickler’s conclusion is as brilliant as it is simple: the reaction of the doctors—themselves part of a scientific community—did not originate from science or rational common sense, but from the emotional and irrational senses. The doctors rejected Lister’s solution because to accept it was to also accept their personal culpability in the problem—to accept the terrible irony that they were responsible for so many deaths.

Industry-America

Industry near Detroit, MI (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

This brings to mind the obviously unintelligent and illogical nature of climate change denial.

When we consider who the key deniers of global warming are—key players in the fossil fuel industry—we see a parallel with Lister’s doctors who showed no humility in refusing to accept responsibility at the expense of making the world a better place. Doctors denied the efficacy of the Antiseptic Method even though it meant denying a patient’s increased chance at survival. Climate change deniers are doing the same to protect the same thing: their fragile egos.

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

 

 

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