Dare to Disagree

In the 1950s, Alice Stewart was studying childhood cancer on a shoestring budget. Since she’d only be able to run a single study with minimal analysis, she surveyed people, asking them everything possible trying to see if anything gave a correlation.

The overwhelming answer was that X-rays on pregnant women were increasing cancer risk in children. Her findings flew in the face of doctor’s roles (that their tests were harming patients) and common medical wisdom of the time. The controversial findings took 25 years of fighting before they were adopted by the medical boards of UK and USA.

To give Alice confidence in her findings she used a statistician George Neil – whose job was to dig into the numbers and disprove Alice’s findings (rather than mindlessly support them). His job was to create conflict around her findings, and in failing to do so he gave her confidence. Alice and George saw conflict as a form of thinking, and were very good at it.

In life we work with people who are different from ourselves- different backgrounds, thought processes, personalities. This can be hard – it goes against our instincts and uses much more time and energy.

For instance, in corporations, 85% of executives acknowledge that they have refrained from raising issues or concerns at work because they didn’t want to cause conflict. This says that they can’t think together – they can’t raise the conflicts George and Alice did to challenge themselves. It is a skill to use conflict to fix an issue, and it is the job of a leader to raise issues they see – since everyone else may see the same issues but be too afraid to talk about them.

Phd. students at some universities are required to submit 5 statements that they are willing to defend – they must do this to show they can deal with being challenged. I suggests it needs to be extended to school kids – Get them ready for conflict at a younger age! Most major catastrophes aren’t caused by secret information –the signs are in open information that people are unwilling to discuss. When we dare to break that silence, we allow everyone to do their best thinking.

Why is it so crucial?

Actually its because open information is fantastic. Open networks are essential. But the truth won’t set us free until we develop skills, habits, talent and the moral courage to use  after throughly anaylsis. Openness isn’t the end.It’s the beginning

Make sure you read a biography that illuminates the life and achievements of the remarkable woman scientist who revolutionized the concept of radiation risk, The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart .

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