Just Like Familiarity, Invention Breeds Contempt
Humans overestimate what they know and underestimate what they don’t know.
When you present an unfamiliar idea (unfamiliar to them, not you) or piece of information to people, it must be met with vehement distrust and utmost contempt.
If you told the people in the Black Death era that their hands and body fluids had invisible pathogens that were responsible for killing their colleagues, you’d be killed for not respecting the punishment of the gods.
If during the mid-19th century, one was asked to guess what people’s lives in the world would need most in 2020, one would definitely not have said hand washing.
All inventions and discoveries from the wheel to the internet have their beginnings founded in ridicule, contempt and drama.
This is the challenge a Hungarian Doctor, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis faced when he revealed his heartfelt suspicion of the existence of invisible pathogens on our hands from our environment.
In 1847, when no one had a firm grip on the reason for high numbers of death during child births, Dr. Ignaz boldly revealed his observations that there were some invisible creatures on the doctors’ bare hands which caused the childbed fever among the newborn babies as they handled expectant mothers during childbirth.
He recommended that the doctors ought to wash and disinfect their hands before embarking on surgical procedures.
Like we’ve already seen that humans underestimate what they don’t know, Ignaz’s colleagues rubbished his ideas and even expelled him from the hospital for promoting a trivial idea like hand washing as a life saver.
Even when the deaths among children significantly reduced after trying out his idea, the idea was not only ridiculed but was also continuously treated contemptuously.
Dr. Ignaz was later vindicated after his death and was recognized as the father of antiseptics and disinfectants when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory.
Psychologists attribute the colleagues’ unwillingness to accept Ignaz’s idea to a phenomenon called belief perseverance.
It is the psychological tendency of clinging to discredited beliefs. After the lack of monetary resources and absence of political will to steer scientific progress, belief perseverance is the greatest single formidable hindrance to scientific advances.
There are three important lessons for inventors and entrepreneurs from Dr. Ignaz’s invention story:
1) Peer to peer review of products and ideas can be detrimental to the success of your products and ideas alike. With precaution, choose who share your ideas with.
2) Evidence of absence should not be mistaken for absence of evidence.
3) Teamwork can be as a stiff bottleneck to creativity as it can be a flexible strategic stepping stone. Know you team.
Let us nurture the humility to respect what we don’t know but not underestimate it.
Head Image Credit: US National Library of Science via zmescience.com
Excerpts in main body from the book: The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.