Learned ignorance

It should not be too surprising that if a manager can avoid anxiety, inflate a fragile ego, gain additional power or dispel uncertainty simply by refusing new information, he or she will be inclined to do so. And in the process-learn to be ignorant. To compound the problem, managers become ignorant of the fact that they are ignorant.

On 13 August .1865, Dr Ignaz Semmelweis died .... a victim of learned ignorance. Official records of the time listed the cause of death as puerperal infection, a disease Semmelweis spent most of his life fighting. But the real culprits were medical colleagues, so entrenched in their resistance to his methods that, after 18 years of fighting conventional wisdom and professional ridicule, Semmelweis suffered a complete mental collapse. Dr Semmelweis suffered the fate of those who try to change things. Although he persevered longer than most and paid a bigger ultimate price, Semmelweis came to know the same hostility and rejection that have come to others, before and since, who challenge prevailing wisdom and dare to show that things might be done differently and better.

In those days throughout Europe, of every 100 women who came to an obstetric clinic to have their babies, 25 to 30 would not leave there alive. They could be expected to contract and die of puerperal infection.

Most authorities were convinced that the disease was unpreventable, induced by overcrowding, poor ventilation, or the onset of lactation. 'Semmelweis not only disagreed, he was blasphemous enough to suggest that the infection was transmitted by physicians themselves. In his earliest test of this idea, he had medical students wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime before examining patients. Mortality rates fell immediately in his division from 18 per 100 mothers to one per 100.

His message was simple: if doctor would but wash their hands before examining patients, infection could be minimized and lives could be saved. Semmelweis was dismissed from the clinic a year later.

What Semmelweis overlooked in his attempt to convince others of the simple expediency of clean hands was the symbolism of the time. Physicians did not want to use a chlorine handwash because it robbed them of an important sign of status.

An accepted practice among physicians in those days was simply to wipe one's hands on one's surgical smock after treating a patient. The oft-smeared surgical smock came to be a visible sign of one's professional importance.

Doctors were not about to give up so handy an index of personal worth just because some crackpot had data to show that they could save lives by washing their hands.

They consciously and clearly decided to ignore - indeed, reject factual information in order to protect and retain intact a personally cherished practice.

They chose to be ignorant.

What can we learn from Semmelweis' experience? First, we can learn that intentional ignorance can be a problem, even among the brightest people.

And, secondly, we can perhaps learn something about management for, like those 19th century physicians, many modern managers are responsible for the spread of problems in their organizations. Managers, too, practice learned ignorance.

We are faced with a paradox. We usually equate ignorance with a lack of knowledge, with too few opportunities to learn and broaden our repertoires. But, as we have seen, Ignorance itself may be learned when remaining ignorant suits our personal purposes.

We have all courted ignorance from time to time, especially in our adolescent years. 'But in many of our organizations today, among mature people at all levels and of every persuasion, ignorance is embraced and cherished.

Many managers are willing to work quite hard - fight if necessary to preserve their ignorance intact because, if successful, they can avoid the turmoil and personal costs of change.

But, if we are to continue to grow and prosper, we cannot afford the false comforts of intentional ignorance. We must become alert to its subtle dynamics and vigilant to its symptoms in our Organization.

The story of Ignaz Semmelweis and his fellow physicians illustrates the major characteristics of learned ignorance: learned ignorance occurs when there is a conscious and purposeful rejection of valid and useable information for primarily self-preserving reasons.

Learning theorists tell us that a response which is followed by a satisfying state of affairs will tend to be repeated. So long as some sort of satisfaction ensues, the response will continue until it becomes virtually habitual. That is essentially how learning occurs.

Semmelweis saw ignorance being learned at first hand. The medical establishment did not reject his findings because they questioned his research techniques or because they were evil men, but because of a need to preserve a personally satisfying state of affairs.

To readily accept Semmelweis' doctrine would have meant giving UP personal signs of status, procedures with which they were comfortable and even one's own claims to expertise. The pains of change could be avoided - and pain avoidance is a form of satisfaction - by simply rejecting the information. So they did, and with a vengeance.

It should not be too surprising that if a manager can avoid anxiety, inflate a fragile ego, gain additional power or dispel uncertainty - all satisfying outcomes - simply by refusing new information, he or she will be inclined to do so. And, in the process, learn to be ignorant.

To compound the problem, managers become ignorant of the fact that they are ignorant. The dynamics are so subtle and the personal satisfaction so comfortable that it acts like a narcotic, giving an illusion of competence and grace.

Woe be to those who would try to dispel ignorance when it is a source of comfort. In ancient Greece bearers of bad tidings were killed. Today they are simply ridiculed or mocked or libeled or forced out to pasture.

Only managers are in a position to break the habit in their organization. One of the most insidious features of learned ignorance is that it invariably harms other people.

This was true in Semmelweis' time and it is true in formal organizations today. Too many managers have learned to turn their backs to valid information and ideas which, if accepted and used, could help them do a more competent job. Too many organizations are structured and philosophically oriented in ways which encourage and reward managerial ignorance.

Careers and the quality of working lives are victimised because someone is willing to forfeit the future for the comforts of the status quo. If managers are to remedy accumulated ignorance and forestall its learning in the future, they must look to the following in their organizations:

Signs of Hubris. Most organizations encourage competition and reward aggressiveness. Strength and decisiveness are virtues.

Although there are reams of data and scores of volumes which attest the efficacy of participative management - working to involve people in the organization's work so that they can have a sense of ownership - fewer than 20 per cent of today's managers accept the idea.

Historians tell us that the downfall of ancient Greece was due more than anything else to Hubris, a debilitating arrogance and competitive pride of accomplishment that rendered people so inflexible that they could not deal effectively with changing events.

Arrogance and pride of position encourage learned ignorance.
In formal organizations people learn to be ignorant when, in order to protect title and turf, they are allowed to dismiss ideas and contributions as unworthy simply because the people submitting them don't occupy the 'right' organizational slot; when they are made to feel that to allow influence is a sign of weakness; that to grant parity is to diminish one's own right to higher position.

Commitment and a sense of ownership are the earliest victims of learned ignorance.

The NIH code. - Akin to pride, but more the organizational equivalent of provincialism is the NIH, the 'not invented here' syndrome. Although research and practical experience have revealed that there are general principles of competent management, applicable in virtually any kind of Organization regardless of size or product, such ideas are rejected outright because they have come from other than homegrown resources.
Any foreign notions that are accepted are so modified and 'tailored' to reflect organizational ownership that they bear scant resemblance to the original. The rationale employed -'only people who know our special problems can give the special solutions we need' - retains the feeling of uniqueness which some people find so important; an illusion of uniqueness insures a continuance of ignorance.

The result is a kind of comfortable insulation from reality, like that achieved by the chauvinistic engineer who dismissed his doctor's diagnosis on the grounds that he didn't fill out the kind of report any well trained engineer would have submitted.

As with most inbreeding, too much inbreeding of ideas serves to magnify organizational weaknesses rather than strengths. Creativity and adaptive capabilities are the most obvious victims of ignorance based in the NIH mentality.

Vested interests. - Although research data is clear on the benefits of collaboration, many organizations are still run like sports arenas. Competitive work ethics, especially as a matter of policy, encourage a bonding together of some groups of people in order to oppose some other groups of people.
Labour versus management, blue versus white collar, haves versus havenots, salaried versus hourly workers .... adversarial relations are commonplace. People become isolated from one another and lose their sense of community. They become emotionally prepared for prejudice, discrimination and other forms of learned ignorance.

To the extent that any organization's policy makers preach that winning is everything, more energy will be put into serving people's own vested interests than into the accomplishment of objectives. Clarity of purpose and personal sense of responsibility are the victims of adversarial ignorance.

Technocracy. -  Management is a process which occurs between people; the evidence that human skills are key to managerial competence is overwhelming. This fact doesn't seem to stop organizations from selecting their managers on the basis of technical proficiency.

Engineers, attorneys, accountants and the like - few of whom have had the time or inclination to acquaint themselves with the social dynamics of the workplace - occupy a major portion of the top level positions in today's organizations.

Too often, simplistic and insensitive management, a result of mechanistic thinking, pervade the organization. The overall sense of humanity in the workplace - and all this implies for quality of work-life and productive enterprise - will fall victim to technocratic ignorance.

Management predicated on ignorance yields ignorant management. So long as there is arrogance and rugged individualism in organization, we can expect game playing and political maneuvering instead of problem solving and productivity.

So long as there is provincialism, we can expect miscalculation and inadequate planning rather than the healthy engagement of the organization's realities. So long as there is partisanship and vested interests we will have adversarial rather than collaborative working relationships.

And until managers are clear on their own role, we can expect technological emphases rather than management geared to the healthy use of human competence, the most valuable asset in any organization.


For those of you asking what this might have to do with you, today :

Look around you, read the papers and business press and you will find exactly the same mindsets prevailing in our businesses, corporations and governments today.

We would go as far as to say that this malaise is the biggest deterrent to innovation and progress globally.

We would be happy to debate this assertion with anybody at any time and our challenge to you is to explore your own environment for the hiden "Semmelweis".

Some reference information

To provide a perspective not based in the 1800's lets step forward a bit closer to explore issues more recent, by way of example.

A play written close to Semmelweis's time  "An enemy of the people"  - Ibsen 1882,  shows the "Semmelweis effect " in action, a bit like reading 1984.

To show this at work in the modern world ( NASA ) you should enjoy "The Challenger launch decision" by Diane Vaughen. ( 1996 )

Still closer in time ( 2014 ) read Science for sale David Lewis ( PHD ). He shows how Governments and government agencies manipulate grants and other forms of funding to academia and the private sector to "encourage" support for their position and punish any person not supporting their ideas, no matter how many people might die as a result of it. Anybody who dare speak out will be smeared, denigrated and dismissed, to protect the positions of those in power or their agendas. 

Or how about this year  ( 2019 ) in Australia ?

One would assume that science is based on fact and unfortunately one would be wrong. Here is a case where a local academic was instructed by his university to not speak out against incorrect information.  Later they dismissed him.

Here is a small example of one such instance

Prof Ridd eventually took this university to court and the court agreed with Prof Ridd.

No matter where one stands on any subject, science is not by consensus, science has to be based on the truth and verifiable facts, otherwise we have opinions and voodoo.

Here is another report on this matter but notice how it is reported, the words and terminology used, and you might see the ghost of Semmelweis on the page.    

To provide an even broader perspective and a good reason for all of us to worry about any actions taken, based on "Science".  ( 2016 )  Science is broken and The Crisis of Science

Attribute : I have had the Semmelweis article for about 25 years and have no idea as to it's origin. Should any reader be able to cast some light on this, we would be delighted to acknowledge whoever created this document.