Leading Blog






07.23.08

Seeing What No One Else Thought

Seeing What No One

PRESIDENT of Johns Hopkins University, William Brody, delivered a commencement address to Johns Hopkins University earlier this year, where he stresses the importance of examining our premises. He makes his point with this example:

People have a tendency to hold tight to wrong ideas, even when there is ample evidence to the contrary. Julius Caesar observed this two thousand years ago, when he wrote that men “willingly believe what they wish.” An example from my own schooling: when I was a medical student, we were taught that ulcers in the stomach were due to too much acid secretion. Ulcers were the result of acids—this was the established dogma. It was a concept that survived, even in the face of contrary evidence.

In 1960, a Japanese physician who had gastric ulcers published a biopsy of his stomach in a physiology textbook. If you look at the photograph in the text, there are some little funny spiral-shaped things around the site of the ulcer. My guess is that probably 10,000 people looked at that picture over a period of more than 20 years. No one, though, seemed to take much notice of the little spirals.

Then in the 1980s this crazy doctor in Australia, Dr. Barry Marshall, wondered if perhaps stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria. But even a first year medical students could tell him why that was a dumb idea. As everybody knows, bacteria can’t grow in a high acid environment.

That’s always a tip off. Whenever they say “as everybody knows” beware what follows.

Dr. Marshall had this theory—this crazy idea—and he kept trying to culture bacteria out of stomach ulcers. He tried and tried and tried, and he failed and failed and failed. Finally, through persistence and some good luck, he was one day able to culture these bacteria—little spiral-shaped bacteria.

He proved that garden variety stomach ulcers were due to bacteria, which today we treat—successfully—with antibiotics.

If you were to go back to that 1960 article of Dr. Ito from Japan, you will clearly see the spiral-shaped bacteria hiding in plain sight where everyone could see them. And yet, the belief that ulcers came from too much acid survived.

Keep an open mind. He adds, “It’s OK to question ideas and beliefs other people insist are true.”

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 08:40 AM
| Comments (0) | This post is about Thinking



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