Jay Stuart Snelson describes the ideological immune system as a system that “resists acceptance of any new ideas that would overturn any of our old basic ideas.” The idealogical immune system highlights the fact that change is hard, especially when that change comes along with a heaping dose of cognitive dissonance and contradicts our previously held beliefs.
Snelson gives significant historical examples of discovery and invention being “greeted as unwelcome intruders” such as the vehement denial of Louis Pasteur’s germ theory and Max Planck’s quantum theory. Notably, the early rejection of Planck’s quantum theory led to to him writing what is now known as Planck’s Maxim:
An important scientiﬁc innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning.
There are numerous examples of outdated ideas persisting in physical therapy such as those highlighted by the Choosing Wisely — Physical Therapy campaign, core stability training for low back pain, or the idea that outcome measures measure treatment effectiveness (more on this idea from Kyle Ridgeway here). Chad Cook has even described the idea of “emotional based practice” in physical therapy, in which an individual continues to practice in a way that is in contradiction to current best evidence due to an emotional or personal attachment to an intervention or concept. The notion of emotional based practice can easily be thought of as a consequence of an overactive idealogical immune system.
But why does this happen? What puts our idealogical immune system on high alert? According to Snelson, idealogical immunity is due to three principal causes:
- PRINCIPLE OF INTELLECTUAL INDOLENCE: It always takes more time and effort to embrace a new idea and less time and effort to cling to an old idea.
- FEAR OF REPUTATIONAL LOSS: When an individual’s reputation is built upon a foundation of certain basic premises, if the truth of these premises is challenged, his reputation is also challenged.
- FEAR OF ECONOMIC LOSS: If the truth of an individual’s basic premises is inextricably tied to his economic well being, he will feel compelled to defend his premises as a means of defending his income.
So what do we do about this idealogical immunity? Snelson writes that one of the best ways to combat, and even leverage, our idealogical immune system is “the recognition that everyone has an ideological immune system that protects him or her from new ideas: new good ideas and new bad ideas” and utilizing healthy skepticism in our thinking. Snelson provides the following principle to aide individuals in this effort:
THE PRINCIPLE OF SCIENTIFIC SKEPTICISM: The less scientiﬁc verification for an explanation of causality, the more skeptical one can afford to be; and the more scientiﬁc verification the less skeptical one can afford to be.
In a previous post on skepticism, I quoted David Hume in writing “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence” and this idea is equally applicable when discussing idealogical immunity. It is essential that individuals align their beliefs with best available evidence, rather than reputation, emotion or financial interest. Of equal importance is an individual's ability to interpret and appraise available evidence, to discern new good ideas from new bad ideas and know when to adopt new beliefs and when to discard previously held beliefs. Get to know your idealogical immune system to better equip yourself to make better decision.