Semmelweis Reflex

What is the Semmelweis reflex?

The Semmelweis reflex refers to the tendency for new scientific evidence or innovative knowledge to be rejected or met with scepticism because it contradicts established norms, beliefs, or paradigms.

Named after Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician who faced ridicule and ostracism for suggesting that handwashing could drastically reduce the spread of disease in hospitals. Semmelweis' initial findings about handwashing reducing mortality rates in childbirth were widely rejected.

Despite clear evidence from his studies, his peers ridiculed his ideas. Some suggest that part of the resistance was due to Semmelweis's inability to provide a scientifically plausible explanation (germ theory hadn't been established yet), but it's also evident that personal and professional rivalries played a role. This underscores the challenges that pioneers and innovators often face when introducing groundbreaking ideas to a sceptical audience or entrenched system.


What can I do about Semmelweis Reflex?

Critical Consumption of Information:

  • Evaluate Novelty vs. Tradition: Just because an idea or practice has been prevalent for a long time doesn't mean it's accurate. Evaluate information based on its merit and evidence, not just on tradition or popularity.
  • Peer Review and Expert Consultation: Before dismissing new data or theories, consider checking them with experts or looking for peer-reviewed studies. Often, professionals in the field might have insights that can provide context or validation.
  • Be Open to New Information: Even if new knowledge contradicts long-held beliefs, it's essential to approach it with an open mind. Recognize that progress often involves updating or revising previously accepted notions.

Awareness and Reflection:

  • Recognize the Semmelweis Effect: Being aware of this cognitive bias is half the battle. Understand that there's a natural resistance to new information, especially if it disrupts established norms or beliefs.
  • Question the Consensus: Just because the majority believes in something doesn't make it accurate. History has multiple instances where popular opinion or established knowledge was eventually proven wrong. Challenge the status quo by asking why things are the way they are.
  • Engage in Constructive Debate: Create an environment where new ideas can be discussed and debated without fear of ridicule or punishment. Engaging with a diverse group of thinkers can also help in seeing an issue from various perspectives.

Continuous Learning and Adaptation:

  • Stay Updated with Developments: Regularly update yourself with new developments in your field of interest. This ensures you're not holding onto outdated beliefs or practices.
  • Adopt a Growth Mindset: Believe in the capacity to grow, learn, and adapt. A growth mindset can reduce defensiveness when presented with new or challenging information.
  • Encourage Others: Share your learning and encourage others in your community or circle to stay open to new knowledge. Foster environments that reward curiosity and critical thinking over blind adherence to tradition.

Modern implications

A few examples that touch on the modern implications of the Semmelweis effect:

Medical Innovations: In the health sector, new treatments or radical shifts in understanding often meet initial scepticism.

Environmental Advocacy: Environmental activists often face backlash when presenting data on climate change, especially in the early days of the movement. Despite mounting evidence on human-induced climate change, many industries, groups, and individuals initially resisted the idea due to the economic implications of accepting and addressing it.

Digital Transformation: The rise of e-commerce and digital business models initially faced resistance from traditional brick-and-mortar establishments. Many traditional retailers were slow to adapt to the online shopping trend, viewing it as a passing phase or not as impactful as physical stores. This resistance has had consequences, with many previously dominant retail chains facing bankruptcy due to their slow adaptation to the digital marketplace.

Cultural Shifts: Changing cultural norms, especially around topics like LGBTQ+ rights, often face resistance before wider acceptance. For example, the idea of same-sex marriage faced significant backlash in many societies before gaining legal and cultural acceptance. Similarly, the acceptance and understanding of non-binary and transgender identities have seen resistance, though there's a growing acceptance and understanding in many parts of the world.

Artificial Intelligence: The adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies is met with hesitancy and scepticism. Despite AI's transformative potential across various sectors, from healthcare to finance, its introduction has been met with significant resistance. Concerns about job displacement, ethical dilemmas, and potential misuse have led many to view AI with caution. However, just as with past technological breakthroughs, as understanding and familiarity with AI grow, its wider acceptance and integration into mainstream practices are likely to follow.

How it relates to disinformation?

Initial Exposure: When a credible piece of information or correction is introduced, it can disrupt a prevailing false narrative or deeply held belief. This accurate insight might come from a reliable news source, an expert's statement, or validated data. Initially, it may be viewed with suspicion or disbelief because it challenges the dominant, albeit incorrect, narrative.

Repeated Rejections: In the face of a pervasive disinformation campaign, the truth often gets sidelined or actively dismissed. As it's presented multiple times and continuously rejected or ignored, the Semmelweis effect strengthens. Each dismissal emboldens those propagating the disinformation, reinforcing the false belief in the wider community.

Institutionalised Disbelief: If influential figures or platforms rally against the correct information, they might marginalise or mock those presenting it. Statements like, "This contradicts what everyone says," or "It's a fringe theory," can become commonplace, further embedding the falsehood in public consciousness. This is exacerbated when algorithms or media platforms prioritise sensational or false information over verified content.

Echo Chambers Amplify Falsehoods: Inside echo chambers, where only one side of a story is repeatedly reinforced, resistance to the truth becomes more pronounced. Even as the correct information is presented, it's drowned out by the louder, often more sensational, false narrative. Those within the chamber might believe, "If this were true, I would have heard it elsewhere," not realising their sources are biased.

Long-term Consequences of Disinformation: Over time, the effects of the Semmelweis effect in a disinformation context can be profound. Misinformed public opinions can influence policy decisions, elections, and social behaviour. Later, when the truth emerges more broadly, society might look back with regret, questioning how they were misled. This retrospective view underscores the importance of critical thinking and open-mindedness in the face of information consumption.

A handful of historical episodes underscore the cautionary tale of the Semmelweis effect and the resistance to new ideas that challenge established paradigms:

Galileo Galilei and Heliocentrism: While not the first to propose it, Galileo was a staunch defender of the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun, rather than the other way around. His observations with a telescope provided evidence to support this theory. However, the Catholic Church, in support of geocentrism, condemned his teachings, leading to his trial and house arrest.

Giordano Bruno and Multiple Worlds: Bruno, a 16th-century Italian philosopher, was among the first to propose that stars might be distant suns surrounded by their own planets, potentially holding life. He also suggested the universe was infinite and contained an infinite number of worlds. His radical views on the universe, as well as other theological stances, led to his trial by the Roman Catholic Inquisition, and he was eventually burned at the stake for heresy.

Alfred Wegener and Continental Drift: Wegener proposed that continents had once been connected and had drifted apart over time. His ideas, lacking a mechanism for the drift at the time, were ridiculed until plate tectonics provided the necessary context.

British Parliament and Weather Forecasting: In the 19th century, Vice Admiral Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin's famous voyage, developed some of the first systematic weather forecasts. When he introduced his findings to the British Parliament, they were met with ridicule. MPs laughed at the idea of predicting the weather, deeming it as implausible as "predicting the actions of a woman."


Suggested use in training

Here are a couple of learning activities related to the Semmelweis Effect:

Semmelweis Effect Examples:

  • Objective: Recognise the Semmelweis effect in contemporary contexts.
  • Activity: Ask students to research and present recent examples where significant findings or theories were initially rejected because they went against the grain of current understanding.
  • Examples could include the initial reluctance to accept the health risks of smoking, the Theory of Evolution by Charles Darwin (still controversial, especially among religious groups that believe in a literal interpretation of creationist texts), the Germ Theory of Disease put forward by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch provided evidence that diseases were caused by microorganisms and were not due to "bad air" (the medical community and the public failed to conceptualise the idea of microbes). Do accept other examples as suggested by your students!
  • Debrief: Discuss the reasons behind the resistance and the eventual acceptance (or continued denial) of the new findings.

Self-reflection and Discussion:

  • Objective: Recognise personal biases and resistance to new information.
  • Activity: Ask students to think of a time they resisted a new idea, whether in their personal lives or an academic setting. Share and discuss these instances in small groups or as a class. Attempt to draw an imaginary timeline between the first appearance of an idea and its eventual acceptance. Discuss the impact.
  • Debrief: Reflect on personal biases and discuss strategies for maintaining an open mind in the face of new evidence.