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October 10, 2013

The Semmelweis Reflex

Why Resist Sabermetrics?

by Mike Gianella


A data analyst is hired to analyze a problem a baseball team is having. He studies and studies the problem from as many angles as possible but still can’t solve the issue. Finally, he comes upon some data that offers strong, tangible evidence of how to fix the problem and comes back to the team with his findings. The manager institutes the analyst’s recommendations and the team’s on-field performance improves. But then the general manager finds out about the change and orders the manager to go back to the old way of doing things. The analyst’s recommendations fly in the face of conventional wisdom, so despite the proof offered, the team rejects the analyst’s findings. Worse yet, not only is the analyst’s advice rejected in this specific instance, but he is discredited in the industry for presenting such a controversial theory as fact. He never gets a job in baseball again, and dies alone, penniless and forgotten.

This story sounds terrible, and I don’t mean that from the perspective of the unfortunate analyst who is now living on the mean and gritty streets of Hypotheticalville. It comes across as apocryphal nonsense that couldn’t have possibly happened in the real world and was devised by a numbers-oriented writer to pedantically prove a point.

The story, though, is based on real-life events. The only thing untrue about it is that it isn’t a baseball story.

In 1846, Ignaz Semmelweis was an assistant (resident) at the First Obstetrical Clinic in the Vienna General Hospital. At the time of his appointment, the mortality rates for women admitted to the First Clinic due to puerperal fever was 1-in-10. Vienna General’s Second Obstetrical Clinic had a 1-in-25 morality rate. The First Clinic’s reputation was so bad that some women refused to be taken to the clinic until after their babies were born.

It took the accidental death of a professor to lead to the solution to this horrible problem. This professor was accidentally poked with a student’s scalpel and died of symptoms similar to the puerperal fever that was killing women at the First Clinic. Semmelweis had already been studying this problem, but now he was able to conclude that there was a connection between contact with cadavers and the death rates in the maternity ward. Indeed, physicians in the First Clinic were going straight from handling cadavers in the morgue to delivering babies in the maternity ward. In the Second Clinic—where only midwives were delivering babies—there was no prior contact with cadavers.

Semmelweis immediately instituted a hand-disinfecting policy and within a year the death rate in the clinic plummeted to near zero. If only the story had ended on this happy note. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Despite the success of the disinfection procedure, the medical establishment rejected Semmelweis’ findings. While his theories seem ho hum in the W21st century, germ theory hadn’t been established yet and few were willing to give his conclusions any merit. Within a few years, Semmelweis had been dismissed from the hospital, his procedures were abandoned, and the clinic’s mortality rate shot right back up to where it had been before Semmelweis had instituted his procedures. After years of trying in vain to convince the medical community that his theories were valid, Semmelweis’ mental health deteriorated. He was institutionalized in 1865 and died days later from a wound caused due to a beating administered by the institution’s guards.

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Related Content:  Sabermetrics

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