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Davidson Loehr



OK, more on this. One object of this kind of education should be to help students back off from their certainties to test other assertions. Very few people of any age can do this. It’s important to keep from worshiping science — or capitalizing it! There are some excellent examples of scientists being dead certain and dead wrong, in spite of overwhelming empirical data showing their certainty is misplaced. My single favorite is still the story of Ignatz Semmelweiss — a tragic story. In the mid-19th century, he decided that doctors who came from doing autopsies to delivering babies were carrying something that was killing a lot of young mothers on maternity wards. So he made all the doctors in his charge wash their hands in … I think it was bleach, I forget now. As a result, the mortality rate on his wards dropped to around 1/10th of what it was in other hospitals (again, check the story: I think this fraction is about right). He also wrote on it, and lambasted other doctors for killing mothers, etc. (So, no great social or political skills.) But the difference in mortality rates of young mothers screamed that the medical certainties of the time were dead wrong. The response that gets me every time came from one of the most respected obstetricians of the day, who said, huffily, “Doctors are gentlemen. And a gentleman’s hands are always clean.”


Yes, this was before germ theory was developed, so it sounded like Semmelweiss was saying that “unseen forces” were killing young mothers — which sounds pretty silly. At least until powerful microscopes were developed, and Pasteur had done his experiments.


I think the only way to teach what you want to teach is to draw a distinction between literal facts, and metaphors. Stories are metaphors. And to outgrow them means becoming able to say things that would have had you burned alive at the stake not all that long ago: like “You know, ‘God’ isn’t a useful symbol any more.” (One on the other side would be having students realize that science can’t tell us how we should live, so that when we look back in ten or fifty years, we can be glad we lived that way. Of course, many religions can’t, either.)