How to Be Objective, Identify Fact From Opinion, Lesson From Ignaz Semmelweis

Posted by Sherry Borzo on

Do you approach your problems with a calm and impartial assessment, or are you more of a mood-driven mess? If you feel stuck by limiting and biased beliefs that trap you from weighing facts, read on and glean encouragement from the story of Ignaz Semmelweis. Deciphering fact from opinion enables you to tackle your life challenges more objectively. 

It seems 2020 was a year when we learned how different people deal with crisis and misinformation. When faced with the pandemic's health and safety issues, some people took actions based on personal preference rather than following experts and scientists' direction.

It turns out this tendency to deny facts and be led by emotions and ego is nothing new. Ignaz faced the same obstacle in his day. Known as the father of antiseptic technique, Ignaz was a physician of the mid-1800s in Vienna. He proved the value of a disinfecting hand technique for doctors that saved lives.


Born in Budapest, Ignaz studied medicine at the University of Vienna and became a doctor of obstetrics, working at the Viennese General Hospital. These were dark times for medicine when treatments like bloodletting and dosages of arsenic were popular. And even the natural process of childbirth proved deadly throughout Europe's hospitals because of a disease called childbed fever.

Morbidity post-labor was high at the hospital in Vienna because of the fever, with illness rates up to 5% in one of their two obstetric clinics. A second clinic in the hospital staffed by midwives had a lower rate of only 1%. Ignaz wondered why there was a difference in percentages in the two clinics and decided to study the situation.

After observing the doctors' behaviors in clinic one and the midwives in clinic two, Ignaz realized that physicians performed more internal exams compared to the midwives. He also documented that doctors didn't wash their hands thoroughly between touching patients and examining cadavers.

Physicians routinely touched the sick and performed autopsies and only superficially washed their hands before examining women in labor. Ignaz hypothesized that if the doctors washed their hands thoroughly before touching other patients, they would not spread disease.

It's hard to imagine such an essential thing as washing hands being a revolutionary discovery; however, Ignaz' theory came before the discovery of germs. His hypothesis was tested. All doctors were required to disinfect their hands between examinations. Within days the death rate due to the fever declined in the first clinic to below 1%.


You would think the physicians in charge in the Viennese hospital would have embraced Ignaz' discovery and required everyone to disinfect their hands. However, the doctors in power felt threatened by the information, which challenged their authority and defied their long-held opinions about medicine.

Politics and infighting prevented Ignaz' contemporaries from adopting the method. However, while the General Hospital in Vienna chose not to practice this antiseptic technique, other hospitals elsewhere in Europe did and saw childbed fever decline.

Fast forward to us here in the 21st century, and you could ask if much has changed. Faced with the prospect of illness and death, even doing something as basic as wearing a mask has become an issue fraught with personal preference and opinion getting in the way of facts.

Of course, a sense of identity, of feeling "right," is at stake for some, but you need not fall into this trap. With practice and stepping back from the emotional ledge, you can make more objective and informed decisions rather than being led by biased and limiting beliefs that don't serve you well.

Wherever we have strong emotions quote by Carl Sagan


When considering the information you use to make your decisions, the first step is to distinguish what is fact from what is opinion.

Scientific facts, for example, are supported by overwhelming evidence. Scientists prove and refute hypotheses by testing them against data, the evidence they use to advance or reject a theory.

Scientific fact is constantly tested with new data, and the proof is yielded by trial and error. Measurements, figures, and research can prove facts. 

Opinions can't be proven by data. They are a matter of personal belief or judgment. And these beliefs, of course, differ from person to person. That's what makes a horse race, as they say, but not science. 

In the story of Ignaz, he had a hypothesis that dirty hands helped spread disease. He tested it by comparing outcomes of two obstetric clinics; the behaviors of the doctors in the first and midwives in the second.

He collected information and formed his hypothesis. Like today, scientists have determined through research and underlying knowledge of the disease that germs from our mouths and nose spread can COVID-19. Some people accept the facts provided by experts and behave accordingly, while those who prefer to stick with biased beliefs and uninformed opinion, do not.


We each form thoughts and opinions over time. Opinions are handy and help us function swiftly at a general level, but if we never step back and consider why we believe what we do, we cannot grow and improve. And if we choose to remain entrenched in unproductive opinions, we can even put our health at risk. 

Survey yourself about the opinions you hold. Can you prove them to be accurate, and by what measure? Consider where your opinions come from and if each helps or hinders you from moving forward in your life. It's not a problem to have opinions, but recognizing them as such and how they may differ from facts is essential.

You can make a journal practice of selecting an opinion and running it through your objectivity wringer. For example, I believe successful people are happier because they are more intelligent and more talented. Of course, I don't have to look too far into others' stories to realize that even high-profile achievers can and do suffer from unhappiness.

Beyond our social and political opinions are those ideas we have about ourselves. These limiting beliefs can be insidious, subconscious, and toxic to our lives. You should test those, too.

Journaling can help you consider if your opinions are valid, if they can be proven, and if they serve your progress or hold you back. Are there facts you can look at to show your opinion to be accurate or inaccurate? Take an objective Ignaz approach to your long-held beliefs and see if they still measure up.

If you'd like to learn more about Ignaz Semmelweis and utilizing critical thinking to solve problems,  we have a post for you on Storied Gifts. You can also get in your craft zone by purchasing the printable history hero cutout of Ignaz in our Words of Encouragement shop. 


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