Semmelweis reflex: The tendency to reject new evidence because it contradicts established norms or practices. Named for the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), now considered a pioneer of antiseptic procedures. His observation that hand-washing greatly reduced childbirth mortality was dismissed by most of his fellow physicians, who took offense at being told to wash their hands.
In a paradoxical twist, the Semmelweis reflex has been invoked in recent years by people who oppose a medical advance—namely, childhood vaccination. “Today’s vaccine injury denialism is a modern-day Semmelweis reflex,” wrote Ginger Taylor in “The Role of Government and Media,” a chapter in the anti-vaccine book Vaccine Epidemic (2011). (Taylor is not a physician.) The Semmelweis Society International, whose stated mission is “to expose the ‘sham peer review’ of medical professionals, nurses, and physicians when they are wrongfully accused of acts that can result in the loss of their clinical privileges,” has defended Andrew Wakefield, the British gastroenterologist whose study connecting childhood vaccines with a variety of ailments, including autism, has been definitively debunked. (For a thorough recap of the Wakefield story, read the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry.)
In The Panic Virus: A True Story of Science, Medicine, and Fear (2011), his excellent account of the history of vaccination and anti-vaccination, science reporter Seth Mnookin writes:
Semmelweis is frequently invoked by anti-vaccinationists. While explaining to me why the “mainstream” ignored Andrew Wakefield, one of his supporters and financial backers said, “We know there’s never been a time in history when people, in a short period of time, have looked at the data and thought, ‘Oh, we have a problem here,’ or even, ‘We might have a problem here—maybe you should wash your hands after you dissect bodies and before you go deliver babies.’ God forbid you should wash your hands!”
The Semmelweis reflex, Mnookin writes, is “a variation on the Galileo Gambit, whereby someone whose work is debunked argues that the fact that Galileo’s work was also debunked proves he is actually correct.”
In a Republican presidential-primary debate held in early September, candidate Rick Perry strode (or swaggered) into the Galileo controversy when he asserted that the issue of climate change remains “unsettled.” “Galileo got outvoted for a spell,” Perry said.
The Texas governor got it exactly wrong, explains The Atlantic Wire:
[W]hat Perry fails to realize is the fact that the scientific community actually agreed with Galileo. It was the clergy who outvoted him, accusing him of being a heretic. “By the time Galileo was publishing on heliocentrism, the idea was already circulating and widely accepted in scientific circles, including Jesuits,” explains Joshua Rosneau from the National Center for Science Education. “He wasn’t outvoted by scientists, he was outvoted by the political and religious leadership of his country.” [Emphasis in original.]
Above: Portrait of Ignaz Semmelweis at age 42, from Wikipedia.