|Paradigms, And How One Saved the World
The paradigm built around the germ theory of disease is still a work in progress. Yet it has already saved and improved the lives of billions -- yes, that's "billions with a B" -- and prevented untold misery. Below, a look at how this astonishing feat was accomplished.
Excerpted from The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity Any approach to Paradise must, at a minimum, not violate the idea of Paradise itself. Paradigms fit that rule: they are powerful yet non-coercive; they are decentralized and entirely appropriate to the task.
© by G. D. Allport.
The Power of ParadigmsFor example, we wash our hands, avoid coughing in people’s faces, brush our teeth, use antiseptic on wounds, and vaccinate our children because of a commonly-shared paradigm relating to germs and illness. The result is far less mortality from infectious disease, lower death rates for the young, and even the complete elimination (smallpox) or near-complete elimination (polio, for instance) of diseases that once killed and crippled millions.
The modern idea of science is itself a paradigm, and a spectacular one. At its core is the belief that the world is best and most usefully understood by careful, systematic research, along with theory that is tested against that research. There is more to the scientific method and what might be termed the scientific mindset, of course, and it is this entire collection of standards, beliefs, ideas, rules, and so on that has been so impressive at revealing the depths of nature and at transforming the world. For centuries, learned men consulted the writings of ancients rather than perform experiments on physical systems (to discover, for example, the speeds at which two different objects fall). The scientific approach of actually looking at the world to see what happens seems almost too obvious to mention, but for centuries it was largely ignored and out of favor. Science begat improvement because it involved a more accurate paradigm. Without an accurate paradigm, people will often draw the wrong conclusions even when relevant facts are well known. The framework (paradigm) is what makes sense of the facts.
Unfortunately, seeing outside one’s current paradigm is almost as difficult as seeing through a concrete wall. Changing one’s paradigm is like shifting one’s vision to see those hidden 3-D pictures that initially look like random blotches of colors; unless one can focus one’s eyes (or mind) just right, the image never comes to life.
How a Simple Paradigm Transformed the World“Transformed the world” is not an overstatement. If anything, it is not forceful enough. Thanks to the paradigm of science, and the sub-paradigm centered around the germ theory of disease, life expectancy in the United States at the end of the twentieth century was roughly thirty years longer than at the beginning–people were living, on average, into their seventies instead of their forties. Why? Mostly because vast numbers of people (including a disproportionate number of infants and children) were no longer dying prematurely in horrible, painful ways from infectious disease.
How’s that for “changing the world?”
The improvement is more than most of us realize, and perhaps more than any of us today can truly appreciate.
Cholera, yellow fever, dysentery, smallpox, polio, and dozens of other horrors have killed so many, century after century, that for most of history death at a young age was common. Even modestly sized families typically had at least one child die before puberty. Entire nations and regions could be decimated by plagues. The Black Death, for instance, killed a third of Europe in the space of three or four years.
Scores of diseases have inflicted horrible deaths upon men, women, children, and infants relentlessly throughout human history. The diseases and symptoms have been many and varied, but all have been cruel, both to the victims and to their families and friends. How many children have been orphaned, for example, by diseases over the centuries?
Ten Thousand Years of Death and Misery,
Ended By a ParadigmThe paradigm that grew around the germ theory of disease changed all that. Today, deadly epidemics are rare in many parts of the world, and almost unknown in the more developed areas. Few families in such nations go through the horror and the grief of losing a child to illness, much less of losing several. It is unusual for Western children to be orphaned because their parents succumbed to cholera, or to lose a parent to tetanus or other such disease. Most infectious disease is preventable or curable today; excruciating death by microbe is no longer the common death sentence it was in the past.
This is one reason why Paradise has become possible–which it was not, for most of our history: less grief and pain; less trauma; more potential emotional health.
Even on the poorer parts of the globe, millions of people are today spared early death, disfigurement, and misery thanks to the same paradigm. Infectious disease has not been eradicated, but it has been clearly and decisively diminished.
Perfection Not NecessaryParadigms can bring about astonishing change even when they are imperfect or incomplete. For that matter, “perfection” is seldom attained in anything, including modern science or medicine–which are constantly filling in gaps and correcting errors with new data. Another example: even the best baseball team or NBA franchise typically loses several games a season. Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Venus and Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, and other sports superstars all have far-less than perfect records. Still, no one would call them failures.
Coverage of every relevant factor is not necessary either; a paradigm can be highly effective without being all-inclusive. For instance, there is more to disease than germs: nutrition, stress, poisons in the environment, genetic details of an individual’s immune system, and other factors are important. In many diseases, germs play little or no role. Despite that, germ-based diseases have been a plague (thousands of plagues, actually) since the dawn of time–and the germ theory of disease allowed men and women to vastly reduce the death and misery caused by such disease. The germ theory became the core of a paradigm that allowed mankind to cut infectious disease to a tolerable level. We have not ended infectious disease, and perhaps we never will. But the paradigm has diminished the levels of such disease to a point where the quality of life has improved for literally billions of people.
Many Problems; One SolutionA good paradigm can address and solve many seemingly different and intractable problems at once. For example, when the cause of disease was unknown, and because there were dozens of infectious diseases killing thousands on a regular basis, these diseases appeared to be dozens of major and quite distinct problems.
But in some ways, they are all one problem. The paradigm created by the germ theory taught this new idea to doctors, scientists, and eventually to almost everyone. Some of the resulting actions and remedies worked to reduce the incidence of, or to lessen the severity of, or to prevent altogether, many diseases at once. For instance, surgeons began washing their hands to reduce the spread of germs, which greatly reduced infections from a variety of different organisms transmitted during surgery. As mentioned, mothers began to teach their children to wash their hands before meals for the same reason–and to do other things, such as put antibiotic ointment on cuts–with the same positive result: less infectious disease in general; more good health. The problems posed by many seemingly unrelated diseases were addressed by one paradigm.
The germ theory led to many beneficial approaches and behaviors. By creating a new and more useful framework for understanding the problem of infectious disease, it gave natural human problem solving ability something real to work with.
A usefully accurate paradigm makes all the difference. In this case, the link between microscopic organisms and infectious disease was the key ingredient (but not the only ingredient) in a paradigm that, over time, saved many millions of lives and prevented untold pain and misery.
In the same way, a paradigm which helps people understand the link between [treatment of the young] and [the character of the human world] will–if it gains wide-enough acceptance–reduce crime, cut drug use, prevent much of the personal misery which causes the drug use in the first place, eventually put an end to war, and do other positive things that today seem impossible. Yet I do not believe such things are impossible–only that we haven’t done them yet.
The elements of the paradigm are, for the most part, already well-known. More than anything else, this book is a way to publicize those elements, to give them a name and a cohesive, concise presence in people’s minds–to make them visible and to tie them together in hopes they will reach, with the aid of other like-minded people, the necessary critical mass.
Perhaps I am being overly-optimistic, but then again, perhaps not. In any case: suppose all this effort ever does is improve the lives of even a small number of children.
Would that be a bad thing?
Why and How Paradigms Work at Such MagnitudeParadigms work by harnessing the natural creativity, intelligence, and energy of millions of people.
By not forcibly imposing a single plan, many plans and approaches may be taken. By not creating a centralized bureaucracy, a paradigm fosters the sincere, diverse efforts of many people. Paradigms are tools of perception, not coercion.
Paradigms harness the free human action of as many people as care to join in–and nothing formal is required. The mere understanding of a paradigm begins to shape behavior in light of that understanding.
This hints at the first thing anyone can do to advance the goal of a healthier world: spread the word. Tell people that such a world is possible, and that proper treatment of pregnant women, infants, and children is the necessary, central tool to get there.
EmergenceTHERE IS STILL MORE to the power of paradigms. In particular, there is the phenomenon of emergence.
Emergence is the process whereby simple action at one level creates more complex and seemingly unrelated forms and entities at higher levels.
The lower-level actions are performed by micro elements–cells in a body, ants in an anthill, people in a society–that, together, create something entirely different.
Paradigms reprogram the micro elements (us) in the emergent system of human society. That is, paradigms change people’s thinking in ways that lead to changes in actions, and thus to changes in the larger system that emerges from those actions.
Lower-level action; higher-level result.