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Unlearning Lesson #1

Posted in Stories, Unlearning Lesson

Unlearning Lesson #1: Knowledge Can Kill, Unlearn or Die

The most necessary part of learning is unlearning our errors.” — Zeno

Question #1: Estimate the number of people you expect to die in the United States from the following causes over the course of the following year:

 1. Homicides   ___________           or            Suicides           _____________

2. Floods         ___________          or            Tuberculosis   _____________

3. Tornadoes   ___________           or            Asthma           _____________

If you’re like most people you will rate the number of deaths from homicides, floods and tornadoes as being higher than suicides, tuberculosis and asthma, but this is wrong. In fact, the numbers for the latter have been consistently higher than each of the former since records have been kept.

The reason so many people get the answer wrong is because homicides, floods and tornadoes are more vivid and easier to recall. Unfortunately, what people recall often bears little or no correlation to reality. The result is that people commonly expose themselves to greater risks for longer periods of time; or, alternatively, they worry about the wrongs things—such as being whisked away by a flood or a tornado.

If you wish to bolster your odds of surviving in the future, unlearning could be critical as the following story highlights.

In 1601, James Lancaster, an English sea captain, set sail from England to India. Overseeing a crew of 278 sailors on four separate ships, Lancaster conducted an experiment to evaluate the effectiveness of a treatment to prevent scurvy. He administered three tablespoons of lemon juice to the members of his ship and left the crews of the other three ships untreated—effectively creating a control group. Half-way through his journey, Lancaster’s experiment yielded startling evidence: none of the sailors on his ship had died of the disease but 110 of the sailors on the other ships—or 40 percent— had succumbed to the dreaded malady.With such clear and compelling evidence, one might have expected the British Navy to begin immediately administering lemon juice to sailors. It did not.

Nearly a century and a half later, in 1747, James Lind, a British Navy physician who was familiar with Lancaster’s work, carried out the first example of a truly controlled clinical nutrition study of the disease. He prescribed oranges and lemons to patients suffering from scurvy and found they were cured in a matter of days. Six years later, in 1753, Lind published his seminal work, “A Treatise of the Scurvy.”

Armed with this well-documented and scientifically-controlled information, one might again have expected the British Navy to make haste in prescribing regular doses of citrus fruits to all of its sailors. It did not. In fact, it took an additional 48 years for the disease to be eradicated.

Why did it take the British Navy almost two centuries to adopt a new, albeit simple, method for a treating a disease which could have spared the lives of untold numbers of its sailors? A variety of factors were at work but prominent officials and the sailors alike had different ideas for the best way to prevent scurvy and these erroneous ideas prevented them from being receptive to new knowledge. In short, before they could fully assimilate the new information they first had to unlearn their old knowledge.

It is easy to dismiss the scurvy case as an isolated example from history and chalked it up to poor scientific knowledge, the slow diffusion of new information, bureaucratic inertia or just plain stupidity. Unfortunately, the British Navy isn’t alone in its slowness to unlearn.

Consider the case of Australian physician Barry Marshall. In 1984, Marshall traveled to Brussels, Belgium to a prestigious conference of ulcer specialists to present his research suggesting ulcers were caused by bacteria. His presentation was greeted with laughter because the audience of ulcer experts judged the idea so preposterous.

A year later, Marshall (after drinking a vial of bacteria) returned with even more compelling evidence and this time was shouted down with a chorus of boos by the group. It took the American Medical Association a full decade before it accepted Marshall’s research and announced the vast majority ulcers were caused by bacteria and not by stomach acids, stress or spicy foods as leading ulcer experts had erroneously believed. In 2005, Marshall and his researcher partner, Dr. Robin Warren, were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine.

This begs the obvious question: Why were hundreds of thousands of ulcer patients treated with unnecessary, costly and often ineffective treatment for more than 20 years? The answer is because many people, including highly educated medical specialists, have a difficult time unlearning old knowledge.

It would be reassuring to think that society has progressed much since 1984 and that it won’t repeat similar errors in the future but it would be wise to remain humble. To demonstrate, I’d like to share a mildly shocking insight with you: six times as many people died in their cars as a result of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 as did in the planes that crashed into the World Trade Towers, the Pentagon and in the rural farm field in Pennsylvania—combined!

Impossible, you say? Not if you change your frame of reference and consider that since September 11, 2001 millions of Americans have decided to forego flying and instead chosen to drive to their destination. In this light, the numbers become more plausible because, statistically-speaking, driving is far more risky than flying. In fact, an estimated 1,710 (and counting) more Americans have died in automobile accidents than otherwise would have if only those travelers had chosen the safer method of travel—flying.

Alas, before people can accept that airplanes are more likely to get them safely to their destination, they first need to unlearn that driving is safer than flying. This isn’t an easy or even natural thing to do but, just as sucking on a lemon has saved and prolonged the lives of numerous sailors roaming the high seas, so too can unlearning prolong and, maybe even, save your life.

Homework Assignment #1: Research the following question: Which is the greater threat to a child’s safety: your neighbor’s swimming pool or the unlocked gun in his closet?

(If you would like to read 38 additional “unlearning lessons,” consider picking up a copy of my new book, Higher Unlearning: 39 Post-Requisite Lessons for Achieving a Successful Future.)

One thought on “Unlearning Lesson #1”

  1. Kathy Dunn says:

    You are so right Jack about the UNlearning that must proceed in the medical field, the educational field, and transportation industry, and even gardening.

    I marvel at the medical field’s reluctance, no–it is outright refusal, to acknowledge that the pharmaceutical chemicals they prescribe to cure illnesses and pain are helpful. Listening to TV ads should convince all of us that the side-effects of drugs outweigh the benefits. Since I am allergic to peanuts I therefore am allergic to aspirin and ibuprofen. However, now the FDA is considering by October 1, 2011 to eliminate easy access to herbal and vitamin therapies unless they reach the so-called standard of the pharmaceuticals. To kill the pain I do occasionally suffer from I use herbs and vitamins and it works quicker and with less expense to my pocketbook than the so-called “drugs.” The only problem to the pharmaceutical companies is that I don’t buy their product and I have extra money each month to spend on other purchases. By the way, I was on five asthma medications twice a day for fifteen years and never got better. Then I decided to try weaning myself off of the meds and thus save myself at that time $350 a month. Today, ten years later I am completely off the pharmaceuticals and enjoy saving that money or spoiling my grandchildren. Turns out I was deficient in magnesium which is a whole lot cheaper each month and definitely less dangerous.

    As for the educational field, NCLB has endangered the last ten years of students in the classroom. I have had fifth graders tell me that they will not ask me, as a substitute teacher, a question to see if they could “Stump the Teacher.” Their reason was that IF they asked questions they would be tested on them. Another factor affecting the educational community is the belief promulgated that “Rigor, Relevance and Relationship” are the key factors in providing a quality education for American children. The author of that slogan has it upside down. Rigor is a precursor to rigormortis. I see that rigormortis daily as I substitute teach. There is no connecting of math, science, art, music, geography and reading. Thus I have proposed to people I meet that the order of the above three R’s should be “Relationship, Relevance, and then Rigor.” If the teacher/educator develops a caring workable relationship with the student then, and only then, is the teacher able to show the relevance of what is being taught. Once the student accepts and gets excited about the relevance of the subject THEN the rigor can be applied. However, don’t get too carried away too quickly because there is one other word which needs to be inserted between Relevance and Rigor. That word is “VIGOR”. I chose vigor because I taught second graders for ten years. Second graders struggle with the letter formation of a lower-case “r” and a lower-case “v”. Thus vigor has to come before rigor.

    Now regarding the transportation industry, IF the automobile industry had adopted the higher fuel efficiency engine even twenty years ago we may not have as high of gasoline costs as we do today. We definitely wouldn’t be waiting for the “advancement” of high fuel-efficiency cars today.

    As for gardening, we need to recognize the value of heritage seeds and plants to feed the world. Small 24’x25′ garden plots can feed two families well and provide freezer food and canning food along with delicious fresh food even in the northern tier states. The GMO foods are setting us up for insecticides being found in our intestines and gut. There is also the scary possible reality of sterility, especially IF the research of feeding mice ground soy flour results in sterility within three generations.

    What have we learned regarding greed, limited ideas, and limiting ideas? I agree that it is time for us to “UNlearn” lots of stuff, aka information or knowledge, other than the limited ones I mentioned here.

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