What’s changed my thinking recently?

Have you ever had that moment where you hear something that radically changes your thinking? This happened to me recently while listening to a TED talk about Alice Stewart – one of the youngest women to be elected to the Royal College of Physicians in Oxford. Alice was the epidemiologist who, in the 1950’s made the groundbreaking discovery that x-rays during pregnancy can harm the developing foetus.

I’ve always known about this connection, as I think all women would know if they’ve ever been x-rayed (“Are you pregnant?” /”No” / “Are you sure?” / “Yes…well, pretty sure. Why do you ask?”). I guess I’d never wondered how this was discovered, or perhaps I’d just forgotten about it. Those lectures on radiology from my training days were a long time ago!

Anyway, Alice’s discovery went against the existing views of her medical colleagues. In fact, it took another 25 years for Alice’s research to change medical practice and for the exclusion of pregnant women from x-ray screening to become the norm. This is despite Alice finding that twice the number of children who had died from cancer had mothers who had been x-rayed while pregnant.

Alice was confident in her conclusions not only because she had compelling data but also –  indeed most of all – because her statistician colleague had been unable to prove her conclusions wrong. Yes, that’s right – Alice and her colleague George Kneale collaborated in a most unusual way – and this is what’s changed my thinking recently – they “dared to disagree”. The TED talk I was listening to was first delivered in Edinburgh in 2012 by Margaret Heffernan. It is 12 minutes of inspiration with the potential to change the way you think about yourself, your team and conflict.

Alice Stewart is the starting point in Heffernan’s discussion about communication, thinking and the value of constructive conflict. She suggests that rather than seeking out people who think like you do, you should seek out those who think differently, who challenge and question your conclusions. Only by this, can you avoid group-think and only by this can you do your best thinking. Over to you!

Alice Stewart epidemiologist who discovered link between xrays during pregnancy and childhood cancers

Alice Stewart, the epidemiologist who discovered the link between x-rays during pregnancy and childhood cancers

Bye for now, Sally

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