Admitting Historical Mistakes
In conversations about how times have changed and the progress the world has made one inevitably hears the flat earth scenario. You know, the whole “once upon a time people were so deluded by faith that they actually believed the world was flat.” Whether that is a cultural myth or not doesn’t matter. What’s at stake here is the sociological ability to admit mistakes on the historical level.
It’s something that amuses me. For as hard some choose to believe that certain formulations of history are the gospel truth so to speak (i.e. that America was founded as a Christian nation, that the 1950’s were a more moral time…), alternative interpretations of the facts still exist. But it takes a lot for a culture to let go of one collective interpretation in favor of another. Granted, major shifts, like deciding slavery is wrong or that women are people too, are rare. But even the small stuff fascinates me.
I was reminded of these shifts a couple of times recently. The first was after hearing about a recent report on NPR. The report basically was about how science sometimes gets it wrong. It discussed how when around 1900 doctors began autopsies on SIDS victims (babies), they identified the thymus glands as being enlarged. Thinking a cure for SIDS simply involved shrinking the gland, tens of thousands of babies were given radiation treatments to shrink their thymus. Unfortunately this was a misdiagnosis based on faulty anatomy research. Early anatomical research was done on cadavers collected from poor houses. The thymus gland is interesting in that it shrinks when a person is under high levels of stress – such as experiencing abject poverty. So, when the anatomy books were first written they identified the thymus as much smaller than a healthy one should be. The babies in fact had healthy thymus glands. The sad outcome of the mistake is that some 30,000 of these babies later died from radiation induced throat cancer. A costly mistake, but at one point the facts and the research had seemed so sure…
Similarly I recently discovered that absinthe is now legal in the United States. This surprised me – I’ve seen Moulin Rouge and the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec. I’ve heard the stories that this liquor is more hallucinogenic drug than alcohol – perhaps laced with opium or something equally addictive and life destroying. Why else would it be banned in almost every country in the world? But as those bans have been overturned worldwide recently, it’s become known that absinthe’s bad reputation was based solely on cultural myth. Early tests linked the herbs in absinthe to the same chemicals as in LSD, but those were proven false. In fact there is no evidence that Absinthe is in truth anything more than a really strong drink. Sure it is addictive – back in the 19th century this herbal distilled liquor had a high alcohol content but mixed with sugar and tasting of licorice was extremely drinkable. It was the fruity girly drink of its day – making it a bit too easy to have a few too many. Sure dripping sugar slowly into it produced a chemical reaction that turned the liquid green (releasing the green fairy), but it was basically alcohol pure and simple. And for nearly a century the world believed that something this easy to drink had to contain sinister drugs and kept up the bans. It took some hard lobbying with the truth for the U.S. government to finally admit in 2007 that they were wrong and allow the green fairy across our borders.
There’s nothing extremely significant or deeply meaningful about either of these stories beyond the cultural ability to shift perspective and admit mistakes. They serve as a reminder to me to hold truth lightly. I can have faith and I can believe, but I need to take care not to cling so tightly with certainty to an idea that I am unable to admit I am wrong when need be. Our interpretations of the facts, the cultural myths we hold dear, the lenses though which we view the world all shift over time and if we truly do care about truth, we will be ready and willing when those shifts need to happen in our lives.