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Admitting Historical Mistakes

2009 March 2
by Julie Clawson

absinthe_posterIn 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.

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. kara permalink
    March 2, 2009

    Great thoughts, Julie! I heard the same story on NPR and found it fascinating. It was actually a bit encouraging to know that theological and ecclesiological shifts are not the only changes which seem to take generations to fully complete.

    • bilal permalink
      November 13, 2010

      People live in the present. They plan for and worry about the future. History, however, is the study of the past. Given all the demands that press in from living in the present and anticipating what is yet to come, why bother with what has been? But yet we learn history so we don’t repeat our mistakes. In the first place, history offers a storehouse of information about how people and societies behave. How can we evaluate war if the nation is at peace, unless we use historical materials?

  2. March 2, 2009

    Julie, curious if you (or other readers here) had an opinion on the legalization of marijuana, which has gotten a lot of press lately. it’s an idea that doesn’t sit well with me, but wondering whether i am applying outdated, faulty reasoning. guess i am open to hearing more.

  3. March 2, 2009

    Ed – I honestly don’t know what I think. From what I’ve heard, marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco – but most of what one hears these days (from all sides) is more rhetoric than anything else. I think making a cultural decision about that right now would be too charged and risky. But I do have a feeling that yes, eventually, it will be legal.

  4. Karl permalink
    March 3, 2009

    William Happer, Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics at Princeton University, thinks he has identified one such mistake being currently made:

    http://scienceandpublicpolicy.org/reprint/happer_senate_testimony.html

  5. March 3, 2009

    Karl – I think we are a long way from cultural consensus on that issue. Although anyone who says that one day we’ll look back and see the call to care for creation as being as stupid as prohibition and that one day we will celebrate the release of fossil fuels into the air is a tad suspect in my book.

  6. Karl permalink
    March 3, 2009

    I agree with you about the oddness of celebrating the release of fossil fuels into the air. If closing my garage door and sitting in my running car would kill me, how is it a neutral or good thing that hundreds of millions of cars and jets and factories and whatnot, are putting tons of the same or worse stuff into the atmosphere every day? So yeah, I think more needs to be said about that in any such testimony.

    But in terms of whether we have consensus on the climate change stuff, if you listen to mainstream news or look at the curriculum of just about any public school, some modified version of Al Gore’s take on of the climate change issue is pretty much taken as a given – I’d say we’re pretty close to a cultural consensus. There will always be that minority who disagree with any consensus and loudly object – just like there were people who disagreed with the consensus that prohibition was a good idea or who thought absinthe was no more harmful or addictive than any other strong liquor. Consensus doesn’t = unanimity.

    You wrote: “Although anyone who says that one day we’ll look back and see the call to care for creation as being as stupid as prohibition and that one day we will celebrate the release of fossil fuels into the air is a tad suspect in my book.”

    I don’t him equating “the call to care for creation” with prohibition. For him the analogue to “the call to care for creation” would be not prohibiton, but “the call to reduce alcohol abuse and the associated personal and societal ills that accompany it.” Most people would like to care for creation. Most people would like to reduce alcoholism and the harm it does. The disagreement is over HOW to best accomplish the desired end, and what exactly the nature and source of the problem is. Sometimes good-hearted efforts toward those desired ends turn out to have been wrong-headed.

    I’m not personally convinced the Princeton scientist who wrote that piece is right. He’s in the minority among the scientific community as far as I can tell. On this issue if there’s uncertainty it’s probably better to err (reasonably) on the side of caution rather than license IMO. But even though polluting less is a good thing, even as I go along with efforts to reduce carbon footprints and etc., I’m not wholly convinced that the current take on humanity’s role in creating climate change isn’t engaging in some of that historical groupthink you’ve pointed out here, either. I’m not sure and don’t know what to think, honestly. But some of the doomsday stuff out there feels overboard and hype-driven to me.

    I thought the Princeton guy made some interesting points about significant climate variability throughout history and the apparent manipulation of the historical temperature data in modern texbooks to show a hockey stick-like curve ignoring the “little ice age” and the “medieval warming period” in order to “prove” that climate change is caused by modern CO2 releases. If he’s right, that’s troubling to me and indicative of agenda driven groupthink, even if I’d still like to see us pollute less.

  7. Scott permalink
    July 27, 2009

    I appreciate your comments, but would like to suggest an opposing theory. The examples you provide aren’t examples of the need to cling to- or let go of- truth. Truth is truth, and truth will never change. Truth is absolute and irrefutable. The examples you provide are individual’s or society’s perspectives on an issue, they are not truth. Perspectives can and will change as information is learned. A red balloon is a red balloon and regardless of other’s perception of it, these perceptions don’t change the fact that the balloon is red. If a colorblind person sees the balloon as grey, this perception does not change the absolute truth that the balloon is still red. It only skews the individual’s perception of the color of the balloon until more information is provided to reveal that the balloon is red. The point about shrinking the thymus in SIDS babies is a perception, not the truth. Perception and truth do not always align with one another, but this does not change the fact that truth is always accurate and it is the perception that is not always accurate.

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