September 23, 1858: DON’T wash your hands!

September 23, 2015

Ignaz Semmelweiss

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis

This is one of the classic stories of public health, an issue that most U.S. history and world history texts tend to ignore, to the detriment of the students and the classroom outcomes.

This is the story as retold by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky in The Experts Speak:

In the 1850s a Hungarian doctor and professor of obstetrics named Ignaz Semmelweis [pictured at left] ordered his interns at the Viennese Lying-in Hospital to wash their hands after performing autopsies and before examining new mothers. The death rate plummeted from 22 out of 200 to 2 out of 200, prompting the following reception from one of Europe’s most respected medical practitioners:

“It may be that it [Semmelweis’ procedure] does contain a few good principles, but its scrupulous application has presented such difficulties that it would be necessary, in Paris for instance, to place in quarantine the personnel of a hospital during the great part of a year, and that, moreover, to obtain results that remain entirely problematical.”

Dr. Charles Dubois (Parisian obstetrician), memo to the French Academy
September 23, 1858

Semmelweiss’ superiors shared Dubois’ opinion; when the Hungarian physician insisted on defending his theories, they forced him to resign his post on the faculty.

Gotta wonder what Dr. Dubois would make of the suits and sanitation procedures required today for health professionals who treat Ebola victims.


Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Quote of the moment: Darwin, on confidence begotten by ignorance

February 12, 2014

Italian panel depicting Charles Darwin, created ca. 1890, on display at the Turin Museum of Human Anatomy. Wikimedia image

Italian panel depicting Charles Darwin, created ca. 1890, on display at the Turin Museum of Human Anatomy. Wikimedia image.  Darwin sits contemplating two of his works, title in Italian, Origin of Species (1859), and Descent of Man (Origin of Man), 1871

How could I have forgotten this wonderful passage from Darwin?

Maria Popova’s Literary Jukebox reminded me today.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

— Charles Darwin, Descent of Man; Introduction, p. 2.

Today was the 205th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

Faithful readers of this blog may recognize Darwin’s thought as very close to a description of the Dunning Kruger Effect, as indeed it is.  How many others, through the years, recognized the phenomenon, and commented on it, before Dunning and Kruger gave it scientific heft?

The quote attributed to Darwin is edited just a tiny bit from his actual statement, though without loss of effect.  Darwin, ever the hard science stickler, had limited his statement much more.  In the introduction to Descent of Man, Darwin wrote:

This work contains hardly any original facts in regard to man; but as the conclusions at which I arrived, after drawing up a rough draft, appeared to me interesting, I thought that they might interest others. It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. The conclusion that man is the co-descendant with other species of some ancient, lower, and extinct form, is not in any degree new.

Any way the knowledge is sliced, creationists are cock-sure they’re right, when they are most solidly in the wrong.


Just stay quiet: Poster hoax about the Pledge of Allegiance

September 15, 2013

Anybody send this to you on Facebook (100 times, maybe?)

Hoax claims about the Pledge of Allegiance, found on Facebook and innumerable e-mails

Hoax claims about the Pledge of Allegiance, found on Facebook and innumerable e-mails

Clever, eh?  It repeats the McCarthy-era editing of the Pledge of Allegiance, and then comes up with this whopper:

. . . My generation grew up reciting this every morning in school, with my hand on my heart.  They no longer do that for fear of offending someone!

Let’s see how many Americans will re-post and not care about offending someone!

Not quite so long-lived as the Millard Fillmore Bathtub Hoax — which started in 1917 — but a lot more common these days.

Just as false.  Maybe more perniciously so.


  1. Actually, 45 of our 50 states require the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.  The five exceptions:  Iowa, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Vermont and Wyoming.  See any pattern there?
  2. None of the five states previously required the Pledge, and then stopped.
  3. None of the five states claim to not require the pledge in order to avoid offending anyone.  Oklahoma would be happy to offend people on such issues, most of the time.
  4. Reposting historically inaccurate claims, without fear of offending anyone, is no virtue.  It’s just silly.

The creator of that poster is probably well under the age of 50, and may have grown up with the hand-over-heart salute used after World War II.  That was not the original salute, and I’d imagine the author is wholly ignorant of the original and why it was changed.

Students pledging to the flag, 1899, 8th Division, Washington, D.C. Part of the Frances Benjamin Johnston 1890 - 1900 Washington, D.C., school survey.

Wikipedia image and caption: Students pledging to the flag, 1899, 8th Division, Washington, D.C. Part of the Frances Benjamin Johnston 1890 – 1900 Washington, D.C., school survey.

Wikipedia gives a concise history of the salute:

Swearing of the Pledge is accompanied by a salute. An early version of the salute, adopted in 1892, was known as the Bellamy salute. It started with the hand outstretched toward the flag, palm down, and ended with the palm up. Because of the similarity between the Bellamy salute and the Nazi salute, developed later, the United States Congress instituted the hand-over-the-heart gesture as the salute to be rendered by civilians during the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem in the United States, instead of the Bellamy salute. Removal of the Bellamy salute occurred on December 22, 1942, when Congress amended the Flag Code language first passed into law on June 22, 1942.

Students in an unnamed school in 1941, offering the Bellamy Salute for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Students in an unnamed school in 1941, offering the Bellamy Salute for the Pledge of Allegiance. Wikipedia image.

One might understand why the Bellamy Salute was changed, during war with Nazi Germany.

Arrogance and ignorance combine to form many different kinds of prejudices, all of them ugly.  The arrogant assumption that only “our generation” learned patriotism and that whatever goes on in schools today is not as good as it was “in our day,” regardless how many decades it’s been since the speaker was in a public school, compounds the ignorance of the fact that since 1980, forced patriotic exercises in schools have increased, not decreased.

Like much about our nation’s troubles, assumptions based on ignorance often are incorrect assumptions.  Consequently, they give rise to what is today clinically known as the Dunning Kruger Effect (or syndrome), so elegantly summed by by Bertrand Russell in the 1930s:

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.

Humorously summed up by “Kin” Hubbard:

It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.

Ignorance is a terrible disease, but one easily cured, by reading.  We can hope.


Still, it’s what we know — that ain’t so — that gets us into trouble

September 10, 2013

Yes, yes, it’s the Dunning Kruger Effect.

It’s being gullible to hoaxes.

Gullible’s travels, etc. (illustration 1)

Gullible’s travels, etc. (illustration 1) (Photo credit: UIC Digital Collections)

And it’s not really understanding politics, or economics, but assuming that we do, that gets us moving in the wrong direction.

Is it dangerous?  The entire Tea Party is misled by their own wrong assumptions.  Mistaken belief in what intelligence sources found in Iraq helped get us into the second longest war in U.S. history (and perhaps the costliest ever). Erroneous beliefs about the economy contributed to the great Crash of 2008.  False beliefs about the economy short-circuited our recovery, after Obama got action to prevent our bottoming out.

They’re still at it.

Today I had a guy tell me that Paul Krugman, the Nobel winning economist from Princeton and the New York Times, was wrong when he advocated creating a housing bubble, back in 2002.

Krugman did that?  Really?

Maybe in the land of Gullible’s Travels.

Turns out the claim is based on a carefully edited-out-of-context quote from a 2002 column Krugman wrote.  It’s a hoax quote, as it appears, and as it appears to make Krugman call for a housing bubble — which he didn’t do.

This guy afraid to put his name to his claims, “Obomination1” hadn’t bothered to check the source.  Any journalist worth the newspaper ink on his hands would have had a clattering Hemingway Brand® Sh** Detector at that point. Krugman advocating a housing bubble?

Not tough to find that quote, and track it back to an opposite-editorial page piece Krugman wrote for the New York Times on August 2, 2002, “Dubya’s Double Dip?”  In it, the usual-critic of Greenspan, Krugman, worried about the failure of the economy to recover except by excessive consumer spending — which both had a finite amount of capability, Krugman argued, and did not mend the organic problems of production that caused the recession whose pain was eased by the NASDAQ bubble but not cured in any way.  Put Krugman’s quote from the photo poster into real context (I’ve highlighted the quoted part below):

A few months ago the vast majority of business economists mocked concerns about a ”double dip,” a second leg to the downturn. But there were a few dogged iconoclasts out there, most notably Stephen Roach at Morgan Stanley. As I’ve repeatedly said in this column, the arguments of the double-dippers made a lot of sense. And their story now looks more plausible than ever.

The basic point is that the recession of 2001 wasn’t a typical postwar slump, brought on when an inflation-fighting Fed raises interest rates and easily ended by a snapback in housing and consumer spending when the Fed brings rates back down again. This was a prewar-style recession, a morning after brought on by irrational exuberance. To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.

Judging by Mr. Greenspan’s remarkably cheerful recent testimony, he still thinks he can pull that off. But the Fed chairman’s crystal ball has been cloudy lately; remember how he urged Congress to cut taxes to head off the risk of excessive budget surpluses? And a sober look at recent data is not encouraging.

Krugman wasn’t calling for the creation of a housing bubble at all.  He was warning there were other problems that needed to be solved then.  They weren’t solved, the housing bubble collapsed and took down a great deal of the world’s financial markets with it.

So, was Krugman “a loser” as my correspondent claims?  Or is my correspondent looking the wrong way through the telescope, and being suckered by a hoaxed-context quote?

Krugman continued:

On the surface, the sharp drop in the economy’s growth, from 5 percent in the first quarter to 1 percent in the second, is disheartening. Under the surface, it’s quite a lot worse. Even in the first quarter, investment and consumer spending were sluggish; most of the growth came as businesses stopped running down their inventories. In the second quarter, inventories were the whole story: final demand actually fell. And lately straws in the wind that often give advance warning of changes in official statistics, like mall traffic, have been blowing the wrong way.

Despite the bad news, most commentators, like Mr. Greenspan, remain optimistic. Should you be reassured?

Bear in mind that business forecasters are under enormous pressure to be cheerleaders: ”I must confess to being amazed at the venom my double dip call still elicits,” Mr. Roach wrote yesterday at We should never forget that Wall Street basically represents the sell side.

Bear in mind also that government officials have a stake in accentuating the positive. The administration needs a recovery because, with deficits exploding, the only way it can justify that tax cut is by pretending that it was just what the economy needed. Mr. Greenspan needs one to avoid awkward questions about his own role in creating the stock market bubble.

But wishful thinking aside, I just don’t understand the grounds for optimism. Who, exactly, is about to start spending a lot more? At this point it’s a lot easier to tell a story about how the recovery will stall than about how it will speed up. And while I like movies with happy endings as much as the next guy, a movie isn’t realistic unless the story line makes sense.

Had only Greenspan, Bush, and a few million more people only listened to Krugman, then, we might have been spared two decades of lousy economy growth.

But they didn’t.  It wasn’t Krugman who was “the loser,” on this — though he certainly is pained by America’s failure to follow his advice.

Bertrand Russell warned us of the Obomination1/Thiessens and others.  So did Will Rogers, and Kin Hubbard, and Daniel Boorstin, as well as Drs. Dunning and Kruger.

Those who don’t listen to Russell, Rogers, Hubbard, Boorstin, the repentant Mencken, and Krugman, are the losers, and they drag the rest of us with them.

By the way, Krugman’s Nobel was awarded in 2008, after the great shock of the housing bubble’s bursting, but before all the predictions he had made were played out.  He was right.

Santayana’s Ghost dines with von Hayek’s Ghost tonight, and they both smile pityingly at those who ignore Krugman and claim to ridicule him while failing to even check out the accuracy of what they thought Krugman said.


Graphic version of the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

April 13, 2011

Mark at Sting of Reason may have the graph to illustrate the Dunning-Kruger Effect perfectly:

Saturday Morning Breakfast Comics for March 8, 2011

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for March 8, 2011, via Sting of Reason

Original here, at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Does that pretty well nail Dunning-Kruger, or what?

Dunning-Kruger effect — in a cartoon?

February 18, 2011

A cartoon from Jon Wilkins at the Santa Fe Institute, no less.

Dunning Kruger Effect, cartoon by Jon F. Wilkins

Dunning-Kruger Effect by jonfwilkins

(Yeah, I know — it’s not big.  Click the image, go see a bigger version at Wilkins’s site.)

Wilkins added:

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77 (6), 1121-1134 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121

Earlier and other flotsam in Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub:

  1. “Quote of the moment:  Bertrand Russell on the Dunning-Kruger Effect, 64 years prescient”
  2. Dunning Kruger Effect explained, with links

Tip of the old scrub brush to Jason G. Goldman at The Thoughtful Animal.

60-second climate skeptic: A 20-second refutation (in about a minute)

December 22, 2010

Back in the life as a corporate consultant and occasional (too-seldom) lecturer, Perry W. Buffington and I got some good mileage out of our observation that, were you in need of delicate brain surgery, you’d probably cross off your list of potential surgeons the guy who had a copy of The One-Minute Brain Surgeon on his desk.  You wouldn’t trust your future to anyone who displayed The One-Minute Financial Planner.

Why in the world would you be ecstatic when your boss read a copy of The One-Minute Manager?

My recollection is that the first time I actually heard Buff use the line, he got an immediate standing ovation from the very large assembly of workers and middle managers (hey, he’s good — audiences really like his stuff). Someone whose study of their profession is limited to one-minute bon mots, should be regarded with great skepticism, or perhaps be ignored completely,  no matter how bon the motsOne-Minute [insert your profession here] makes a catchy title, and may even carry some good value in new ideas and good ideas reduced to readable length.  Ken Blanchard, the lead author of the One-Minute Manager series, did not intend his book to be the only text anyone used on a path to an MBA.  It’s frosting, it’s not the cake.  It’s quip, not quote, not prose.  Remember that.

One-minute experts do not exist.  (Some experts may refresh themselves with one-minute reviews of material — but you won’t take pharmaceuticals from the “One-Minute Pharmacist,” if you’re wise.)

Now comes Coyote Blog with a post, “The 60-second Climate Skeptic.”

One minute climate expert?  No.  That dog won’t hunt.

And here’s why, in 20 seconds:  Our concern for global warming is not produced by charts that show rising temperatures, but by two centuries of observations that natural plants and animals, and ice and weather, show effects from climate warming, and the thermometer measurements confirm that the planet is warming.  The Earth still warms, regardless what any chart says.

Here’s the 60 second explanation for the 20-second rebuttal.  Coyote blog makes eight statements or observations, all of them based on the science of carbon dioxide, a science which the author himself appears not to have mastered (he argues that additional carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere are immune from absorbing energy, if there are a lot of carbon dioxide molecules already present, apparently due to some magic mechanism he never mentions)

For 200 years scientists have measured carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — since at least 1960, with special concern for getting the measurements done accurately and right, because our industrial cultures dump a lot of CO2 waste into the air and any scientist understands that wastes cannot be absorbed without effect forever.  (Newton, Coyote.  You’ve heard of Newton?)  These measurements show increasing CO2.

Separately, botanists, zoologists, other biologists and especially those practicing ecology observed that plants and animals migrate north in the Northern Hemisphere, and south in the Southern Hemisphere, plus up mountain slopes where mountains exist, as if climate were warming, and it this warming were changing their climates, and hence, their habitat.

Beginning about 1965, atmospheric scientists have discussed what might be causing this warming.  At great length, after having eliminated every other known explanation (in true science and Sherlock Holmes fashion), CO2 is left as the likely culprit, the one changing thing that best explains the rise in global temperatures well past the time that paleoclimatologists rather expected a turn toward the cooler.

In short, the charts are used to try to explain the actual observations and measurements, and no matter how badly those charts may have been botched, the plants and animals have really moved, and the measured temperatures have really risen.

Coyote Blog tries to explain away reality as a figment of a scientist’s imagination.  But the Earth is still here.  As Galileo is reputed to have observed, regardless your religious views on heliocentricity, the Earth, she still moves.  Similarly, regardless one’s views on the dastardliness of scientists who carp in e-mails about unfair attacks on them, regardless how  badly one misunderstands CO2 chemistry, regardless any errors in creating charts for a UN agency, the Earth, she still warms.

Coyote Blog fails to discuss any of the effects or observations which lead to the charts on CO2.

“One-minute climate skeptics” can make a great contribution to science:  They are models of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and may be studied to understand that science.


Christopher Monckton out of focus

A dictionary could save space, using the same photo for definitions of "climate warming skeptic" and "Dunning-Kruger Effect." In the photo, Monckton is not quite so out-of-focus as usual.


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