24 March 2012

Joseph Lister, climate change and the arrogance of ignorance

Reading about the assassination of U.S President James Garfield recently, I encountered yet another example of the power and persistence of ignorance in the face of facts. Garfield was infamously killed not by his assailant's bullets but by his doctors. He died not from his wounds but from the massive infection of those wounds caused by his doctors appalling lack of hygienic practices. Even as the president lay on the floor of the railway station where he was shot, the doctor who presumptuously took over his care was probing his wound with unwashed fingers and unsterilized probes. After 80 days of this benighted treatment, Garfield died horribly of massive infection.

The ignorance displayed by his doctors was of their choosing. The great British surgeon Joseph Lister, picking up on the discovery of germs by Louis Pasteur, had been preaching the process of antiseptic surgery for years. The results were dramatic. His methods reduced the incidence of death from gangrene in surgeries from the 50 to 80 per cent common in hospitals at that time to zero. The facts were overwhelming.

Lister's methods were well-known and had spread throughout Britain and the Continent. He had made a presentation to American doctors and surgeons at the Philadelphia World's fair in 1876, five years before Garfield's assassination. He was not well received. Most of those present dismissed his claims, some angrily, ridiculing the notion of "invisible germs." They refused to abandon their filthy practices and spoke fondly of the "good old surgical stink" that pervaded operating rooms and hospitals of the day. Lister's methods were methodical and time-consuming—simply too inconvenient for busy surgeons who could do many surgeries per day unencumbered by hygienic procedures.

This kind of arrogant ignorance in the face of scientific knowledge, even among intelligent and well-educated men when their cozy little world is threatened, led me to think of climate change. Here, too, science is threatening people's comfortable ideas about how the world works, just as heliocentricity did in the time of Galileo and evolution in the time of Darwin. And now as then, many people are reacting adversely, some angrily, to the news—the facts be damned.

Unfortunately, this time the stakes are much higher. U.S. surgeons tenacious ignorance killed many thousands of Americans. An equally tenacious ignorance of climate change may kill many thousands of entire species and bring down Homo sapiens' civilization as well.

And as the stakes are much higher, so is the resistance. Vested interests of great influence and wealth conspire with the ignorant to undermine the science. Lister's truth eventually won out, as did Galileo's and Darwin's—at least among the educated. Whether the truth of climate change will win out in time to avoid catastrophe is still very much in doubt.

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