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Dare to Disagree

At Oxford in the 1950s, there was a revolutionary doctor named Alice Stewart, who was very unusual for a number of reasons.  First she was a woman, which was pretty rare in the 1950s and 2nd she was brilliant.  And she was unusual because she was especially interested in a new science, the emerging field of epidemiology, the study of patterns in disease.

Like every scientist, Dr. Stewart appreciated that to make her mark, what she needed to do was to find a hard problem and solve it.  The hard problem that Alice chose was the rising incidence of childhood cancers.

Alice had trouble getting funding for her research.  In the end, she got just 1,000 pounds from the Lady Tata Memorial prize.  She knew that because of that small amount it meant that she would have only one shot at collecting her data.  On top of everything else, she had no idea what to look for.

This really was a needle in a haystack sort of search, so she asked everything she could think of.  Had the children eaten boiled sweets?  Had they consumed colored drinks?  Did they eat fish and chips?  Did they have indoor or outdoor plumbing?  What time of life had they started school?  And when her carbon copied questionnaire started to come back, one thing and one thing only jumped out with the statistical clarity of a kind that most scientists can only dream of.  By a rate of two to one, the children who had died had had mothers who had been X-rayed when pregnant. 

Here was a finding that flew in the face of conventional wisdom.  Conventional wisdom held that everything was safe up to a point, a threshold.  It flew in the face of conventional wisdom, which had huge enthusiasm for the cool new X-ray machine technology.  And it flew in the face of doctors’ idea of themselves, which was that as people who helped patients, they didn’t harm them.

Despite the resistance, Dr. Alice Stewart rushed to publish her preliminary findings in The Lancet in 1956.  People got very excited, there was talk of the Nobel Prize, and Alice really was in a big hurry to try to study all the cases of childhood cancer she could find before they disappeared.

In fact, she need not have hurried.  It was fully 25 years before the British and American medical establishments abandoned the practice of X-raying pregnant women.

The data was out there, it was open, it was freely available, but nobody wanted to know.  A child a week was dying, but nothing changed.  Openness alone can’t drive change.  So for 25 years Alice Stewart had a very big fight on her hands.  How did she know that she was right?  Well, she had a fantastic investigator to challenge or confirm her thinking.

Dr. Stewart worked with a statistician named George Kneale.  George was pretty much everything that Alice wasn’t. Alice was very outgoing and sociableand George was a recluse.  Alice was very warm and empathetic with her patients.  George frankly preferred numbers to people.  But he was driven by this unique perspective on their working relationship.  His viewpoint was “My job is to prove Dr. Stewart wrong.”

Kneale actively sought disconfirmation.  He sought different ways of looking at her models,at her statistics, different ways of crunching the datain order to disprove her results.  He saw his job as creating conflict around her theories.  It was only by not being able to provethat she was wrong,that George could give Alice the confidence she neededto know that she was right.

Stewart and Kneale thus had an outstanding model of collaboration.  They were thinking partners who were not echo chambers.

That is exactly the same model of thinking that drives us here at the Bullvine.

We don’t offer up opposing opinions to those of the establishment because we seek the downfall of the industry.  On the contrary,    we are so passionately devoted to the dairy industry that we offer other ways of thinking about problems in order to use new perspectives to find new solutions to old problems.

You see the dairy industry suffers from the same problem many large groups and organizations suffer from.  They have stopped thinking.  This isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s really because they can’t.  They can`t because the people who are charged with decision making are too afraid of conflict.

It’s interesting to see that since we have dared to disagree, we have found many members of the dairy industry expressing exactly the same questions and doubts.  And if we don’t express our concerns or disagreements, there is no way that we can start to solve the problems.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The fact is that most of the biggest catastrophes that we witness rarely come from information that is secret or hidden.  It comes from information that is freely available and out there but that we are willfully blind to, because we can’t handle, or don’t want to handle, the conflict that it provokes.

Many of the biggest problems facing the dairy industry today are clearly in front of us. Unfortunately, we choose to ignore them.  But when we dare to break that silence, or when we dare to see, and we create conflict, we enable ourselves and the people around us to do our very best thinking.

So we ask you dare to disagree.  Dare to disagree with what you are told, with what you read, and with what people expect you to do. Dare to challenge assumptions.  Feel free to disagree with what you read on the Bullvine. We encourage it.  What we ask from you is that you don’t disagree in silence.  Raise your voice, because you will most likely find that others disagree with things as well.  Once the conversation is started, we can find solutions for even the biggest dairy industry problems that we face.



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