When consensus collides with the facts

June 24, 2012

You can remember a time at some point, when you were told to be quiet, even though you were sitting on the kind of earth-shattering insight that everyone else should have wanted to know. They were afraid to put stock in innovation, and life trundled on without your contribution to a better future.

A fan of this theory famously proved that the Lord of the Rings could have been shorter if Boromir hadn’t been cut off during the Council of Elrond.

It’s easy to chalk those disappointments up to inertia in social behavior and the formation of accepted knowledge, but what about the destiny of truth itself when it is apparently exclusive?

If you have to bite your tongue, don’t let anyone convince you majority opinion rules the facts themselves, when you’re the one with direct knowledge and the people shouting you down are operating on assumptions.

Majority opinion is a way of arriving at agreement among decision makers who have the power to implement the decision only if they work together. It doesn’t govern the truth itself, only the decision concerning what should be done about it. Sometimes step one is an attempt at a cover up.

Though not all strokes of brilliance were bound to succeed if only things had gone the inventor’s way. Sometimes you learn to take no for an answer, rather than risk success a second time.

A climb down can be embarrassing, but there could be another opening for your genius to prove itself someday if you live to tell the tale. Even telling the leaders in your field something they don’t want to hear and aren’t prepared to try sometimes proves more dangerous.

One of the would-be inventors of hand washing was beaten to death trying to escape a mental hospital for defying the medical establishment in Vienna and trying to get them to scrub their hands between procedures.

So goes the pump handle sometimes, whatever the doctor learned in hospital at the end. From The State of the Prisons: A History of John Howard, Prison Reformer, 1726-1790, the same sort of scene:

I burn my letters, [..] I have ridden the devil’s coach-road, I have discovered it leads, in every city in Europe, to the mansions of governors …

Fame saddens heaven. [..] To posterity, I leave a syphilitic son, and a vision of prisons.

Instead of having his name linked to his intended legacy (Lister’s name ended up on the soaps we use today), they named a form of intellectual inertia the Semmelweis effect.

Some progress obtains. Now the staff keep handwashing signage posted near all sinks with running water at hospitals, and dodge whenever asked how recently they’ve followed directions.

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