No that’s not the title of a long lost Bond flick (#TeamBrosnan). It’s the main takeaway of a recent episode of one of my podcast obsessions: Only Human, from long time War on Stupid Idol WNYC. The episode provides a few of the starkest cautionary tales about what’s at stake in this battle against the forces of dumb. In the cases featured in the June 28th episode, it was literally a matter of life and death.
Form matters as much as content
The show looks into the stories of medical crusaders Marc Edwards, Ignaz Semmelweis and their attempts at getting widespread acceptance of their public health warnings. For Edwards it was about the lead in Flint Michigan’s water, for Semmelweis it was about doctors washing their hands before delivering babies. In both situations they had the evidence and scientific data on their side. And in both situations that wasn’t enough.
What we’re up against
The prevailing winds these heroes were up against should come as no surprise, but it’s still worth noting for any budding crusader or message-deliverer:
The Personality of the Messenger
– Semmelweis evidently wasn’t known for his charming demeanor. And when it comes to saving the lives of children and mothers you wouldn’t think that would be important would you. But according to Constance Putnam on the show,
“It’s not inconceivable that if he had been a slightly different kind of person and had been more circumspect in the way he presented his findings to the guys on top, maybe he could have persuaded more people.”
Many new mothers in the 1840s paid the ultimate price for these hospital officials’ inability to see through the personality irks. Unfortunately it was only after his death and the discovery of germs that Semmelweis was ultimately vindicated.
The politics of the status quo
– Edward’s first taste of this came when he discovered hazardous waste levels of lead in DC’s water supply, long before Flint made national news. The Water Authority essentially offered him a $150k bribe to “play along” and act as if nothing was wrong. Of course he didn’t take the bait and unfortunately paid the professional price for that moment of courage. Thankfully Edwards persevered and finally got the government to listen when the same issue happened in Michigan, but not until he learned from his 1st rodeo and employed some clever perception management jujitsu of his own.
The Struggle is Real
It is an eye-opening, if not somewhat depressing, episode and underscores what we’re up against in this war, so I definitely recommend you take it all in. It’s sad that Semmelweiss didn’t live long enough to see his idea save lives. Or that children in Flint had to rely on public pressure and Edwards’ dogged perseverance rather than the government agencies set up to protect them, but this is why the struggle against dumb continues.