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How Science Spreads: Smallpox, Stomach Ulcers, And 'The Vegetable Lamb Of Tartary'

Cailin O'Connor says science rarely offers permanent truths — but scientists are sometimes slow to discard old ideas and embrace the new.
Leigh Wells
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Getty Images/Ikon Images

In 1847, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis tried to introduce a radical practice at his obstetrical ward in Vienna. He wanted physicians to wash their hands before treating patients.

It didn't go well. Other doctors resisted the idea that their hands were dirty. They shrugged off evidence that hand washing had reduced the death rate in the clinic.

Looking at their actions today, it can be hard to understand why these physicians would dismiss information that could have saved lives. But researchers who study the history of science say the spread of new innovations isn't always rational or linear. That's especially true when a new idea comes up against widely-held scientific beliefs.

"We don't like to have beliefs that are different from the people around us," says philosopher of science Cailin O'Connor. "We don't like our actions to not conform with the people who we know and love."

This week on Hidden Brain, we explore how information and misinformation spread in the world of science, and why evidence is often not enough to convince others of the truth.

Additional Resources:

1) More on Cailin O'Connor's research:

The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread by Cailin O'Connor and James Owen Weatherall

Do as I Say, Not as I Do, or, Conformity in Scientific Networks by James Owen Weatherall and Cailin O'Connor

2) More on Mary Wortley Montagu:

The Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Lady Mary Wortley Montague

3) More on Ignaz Semmelweis:

The Etiology, Concept, and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever by Ignaz Semmelweis

4) More on Barry Marshall:

Interview with Barry Marshall by Dr. Norman Swan

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Parth Shah, Rhaina Cohen, Laura Kwerel, Thomas Lu, and Camila Vargas Restrepo. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Camila Vargas-Restrepo
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.