Margaret Heffernan: Is Conflict Good For Progress? Most people instinctively avoid conflict, but Margaret Heffernan says good disagreement is central to progress.

Is Conflict Good For Progress?

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It's the TED Radio Hour, from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And today on the show, we're talking about being wrong, making mistakes.

MARGARET HEFFERNAN: Oh, what a fabulous subject.

RAZ: And this next story comes from Margaret Heffernan.

HEFFERNAN: I could talk about mistakes forever.

RAZ: Well, we're going to, which is great.


RAZ: Margaret's an entrepreneur, guru, business-type person.

HEFFERNAN: And I spent 10 years in Boston, running software companies.

RAZ: What do you do now?

HEFFERNAN: Now I write full time, and I mentor chief executives.

RAZ: I thought you were going to say, "I mentor innercity children," but you said, "I mentor chief executives."

HEFFERNAN: Well, everybody needs help ...

RAZ: So anyway, Margaret's story is about a woman - a doctor, actually ...


RAZ: ... named Alice Stewart.

HEFFERNAN: Well Alice Stewart was a physician in England pretty much at the time of the second World War. She's very unusual ...


HEFFERNAN: ... Partly because, of course, she was a woman, which was pretty rare in the 1950s.

RAZ: This is Margaret's TED talk.


HEFFERNAN: And she was brilliant; she was one of the - at the time, the youngest fellow to be elected to the Royal College of Physicians. She was unusual, too, because she continued to work after she got married, after she had kids. And even after she got divorced and was a single parent, she continued her medical work. And she was unusual because she was really interested in a new science - the emerging field of epidemiology, the study of patterns in disease. But like every scientist she appreciated that to make her mark what she needed to do was find a hard problem and solve it. The hard problem that Alice chose was the rising incidence of childhood cancers. Most disease is correlated with poverty, but in the case of childhood cancers the children who were dying seemed mostly to come from affluent families. So what, she wanted to know, could explain this anomaly. Now Alice had trouble getting funding for her research. In the end she got just a thousand pounds from the Lady Tata Memorial prize. And that meant she knew she only had one shot at collecting her data.

RAZ: So she wrote up a single questionnaire for the parents of the victims, but she didn't really know what to look for.


HEFFERNAN: This really was a needle in a haystack sort of search, so she asked everything she could think of.

GAYLE GREENE: You know, did you eat tin sweets? Had you been exposed to automobile exhaust? What were your parents' occupation? How old were your parents when you were conceived? Were you raised with livestock? You know, a very inclusive questionnaire.

RAZ: That's Gayle Greene.

GREENE: I teach at Scripps College. Anything else?

RAZ: She also wrote a biography about Alice Stewart.

GREENE: Yeah, my book is "The Woman Who Knew Too Much."

RAZ: And Gayle spent a lot of time with Alice.

GREENE: Yeah. She was so much fun to be with. She would set people at ease.


GREENE: Say again what that unpublished or sort of unpublished Japanese study did.

NEAL STEWART: There's - in the accumulated list - reference list for the year ...

RAZ: This is audio of Gayle hanging out with Alice in a cottage near Oxford in 1996.


GREENE: Another coffee break? Oh, let's have another coffee break ...

RAZ: Alice died eight years after this recording, but over the course of several months she told Gayle that back in the 1950s, when so many children were dying of cancer but no one could figure out why.

GREENE: She had had the revolutionary idea to ask the moms. Ask the moms, she said. You know, ask the moms.

RAZ: Because most researchers at the time would have just been like, well what do the mothers know?

GREENE: You know, what are they going to tell us? But she had a feeling that the mothers might remember something that, you know, the doctors didn't know about.

HEFFERNAN: And as the forms started to come back, one thing jumped out with just fantastic statistical clarity, of a kind that, you know, really most scientists only dream of. And that was, that by a difference of really three-to-one the kids who had died of cancer had had mothers who had been x-rayed when they were pregnant.

RAZ: That was one of Alice's questions to those moms.

GREENE: Had you had an obstetric x-ray while pregnant?

RAZ: And nobody had ever asked that question?

GREENE: No, no. It's like this answer, this result, just cracked open an entire edifice of claims that were made about radiation.

RAZ: Remember, this was the 1950s. People were getting x-rays in shoe stores. And to say this amazing new technology was dangerous at any level?


HEFFERNAN: That finding 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 was huge enthusiasm for the cool new technology of that age, which was the x-ray machine. And it flew in the face of doctors' idea of themselves, which was as people who helped patients, they didn't harm them. Nevertheless, 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. So how did she know that she was right? Well, she had a fantastic model for thinking.

RAZ: Not just a model, a partner. A statistician named George Neal.


HEFFERNAN: And George was pretty much everything that Alice wasn't, so Alice was very outgoing and sociable.

RAZ: But George?

GREENE: He was ...


HEFFERNAN: And George was a recluse ...

GREENE: ... a numbers person ...


HEFFERNAN: Alice was very warm, very empathetic with her patients.

GREENE: She had a marvelous hands on medical experience.


HEFFERNAN: George frankly preferred numbers to people.

GREENE: And he said, you know, he said at one point ...


HEFFERNAN: ... this fantastic thing about their working relationship, he said, my job is to prove Doctor Stuart ...

GREENE: ... to try to prove Doctor Stuart wrong.


HEFFERNAN: ... Wrong. He actively sought disconfirmation, different ways of looking at her models, at her statistics, different ways of crunching the data in order to disprove her.

RAZ: She was prepared not to always be right.

GREENE: Yeah, and, she said, I actually think that a researcher - it's the best thing that can happen to any researcher, is to have opposition.


HEFFERNAN: Because it was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong, that George could give Alice the confidence she needed to know that she was right.

GREENE: She said it was like playing with a better tennis partner. You should always try to find a better tennis partner.


HEFFERNAN: Thinking partners who aren't echo chambers. It's a fantastic model of collaboration. I wonder how many of us have or dare to have such collaborators.

RAZ: I mean, you even say in your talk that we're kind of like neurobiologically driven to seek out people who are like us, not unlike us.

HEFFERNAN: That's right. Well I think this is really interesting. So what we know is that the brain is quite lazy in a way, or you could call it efficient depending upon your point of view. And so we take lots of shortcuts and the way that our brain takes shortcuts is to look at something and think, is this like something else I know? So we're going through life looking for matches. Now the problem with that is that what's most familiar to us is us. So anything that agrees with us, we tend to trust. We know that we're drawn to people who are physically very similar to ourselves. To think that people are terribly smart if they're thinking is like ours, if they look like us, talk like us, we tend to read newspapers that hold the same political opinion or bias that we do. So we organize a huge amount of our life and our learning to surround ourselves with people and information that reinforce our opinions, and don't challenge them. But I think what I found so inspiring about looking at the relationship between Alice Stewart and George Neal was that they were prepared to invest time and energy in the relationship, which allowed them to challenge each other.


HEFFERNAN: Alice and George were very good at conflict. They saw it as thinking. So what is that kind of constructive conflict require? Well, first of all, it requires that we find people who are very different from ourselves. People with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking, and different experience. And find ways to engage with them. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy. And it also means that we have to be prepared to change our minds. Alice's daughter told me that every time Alice went head to head with a fellow scientist they made her think, and think, and think again. My mother, she said, my mother didn't enjoy a fight, but she was really good at them. So it's one thing to do that in a one-to-one relationship. But it strikes me that the biggest problems we face, many of the biggest disasters that we've experienced mostly haven't come from individuals, they've come from organizations. Some of them bigger than countries, many of them capable of affecting hundreds, thousands, even millions of lives. So how do organizations think? Well, for the most part they don't. And that isn't because they do not want to, it's really because they can't. And they can't because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict.

RAZ: How do you - how do you sort of reward people who do that, who acknowledge mistakes? I mean, you know, we don't have that kind of system right now. I mean you're ...

HEFFERNAN: Well it's really interesting. I mean, I've sometimes worked with companies and suggested, you know, that they have an award for the best mistake. You know, which is essentially, you know, not the stupid mistake and obviously not the mistake that you make twice, 'cause that shows you're not learning. But you know, the mistake that offers the greatest amount of insight, and that therefore allows for the largest amount of improvement. And if you can see top people acknowledging mistakes, it makes it much easier for everybody else to acknowledge mistakes. But one of the things I certainly learned in the course of my research was that some of the worst institutional or organizational disasters, and sometimes even crimes, come about because mistakes are made and buried. And I really passionately believe that mistakes are a fantastic opportunity to learn, and however terrible they are, and some are terrible, nothing makes it worse except covering it up.

RAZ: See this makes complete sense, right. You would make a mistake and you would learn from that and then you would be a better person or you would do your job better.

GREENE: Yeah, yeah.

RAZ: But our whole lives are set up inside a reward system that's designed to encourage you not to make mistakes, right? I mean we get graded in school for coloring in the lines, or for our penmanship, and then we're penalized when we do make mistakes.

HEFFERNAN: Yeah I think that's a really excellent point, and in fact, we do bring children up to imagine that there is a right answer, and that intelligence is about knowing that right answer, and therefore if you get a wrong answer, you're stupid. So what we do is we teach people not even so much to have a passion for the right answer, but have great talent for second-guessing what everybody wants the answer to be. So you see this in the workplace a lot, which is if I ask a question of a team of people, a very large proportion of them, instead of really thinking about the problem, will think, what is the boss want the answer to be?

RAZ: Hmmm.

HEFFERNAN: Well that's incredibly uncreative, and it shuts down the possibility for superior answers. So I think, you know, I think our fear of mistakes hugely impedes our creativity.


HEFFERNAN: I think we need to be think - teaching these skills to kids and adults at every stage of their development if we want to have thinking organizations and a thinking society. The fact is that most of the biggest catastrophes that we've witnessed 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, don't want to handle the conflict that it provokes. 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. Open information is fantastic. Open networks are essential. But the truth won't set us free until we develop the skills and the habit and the talent and the moral courage to use it. Openness isn't the end. It's the beginning.


RAZ: So Alice Stewart is this example right, she's this person that we hear about, and in some ways we should almost try to be. But I wonder if it took a certain level of confidence that most of us just don't have.

HEFFERNAN: Well I don't think it was that Alice had confidence in herself, I think she had confidence in the method. That if there were something wrong with her science, that the data would prove it. I mean, although clearly she was very angry with the medical establishment that wouldn't pay any attention, she seemed somehow to have been very gifted at not taking it too personally. She really understood it was a fight, she had to have the fight. But she didn't think when people attacked the science that they were attacking her. And I think it's quite hard for us often to step back and think, actually let's just argue about the issues. And also let's accept that if when we have this conflict, it turns out I'm wrong, I've learned something. I want to know if I'm wrong, because I'd rather be right. So if I'm wrong let's find out.


LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (singing) ... then oops, my heart went oops, sitting on the stoops, the local droops, they nearly flipped their toops, I mean in groups, the silly way we acted, of course they couldn't know, that you were so a-glow, and I was so attracted, yes baby take a bow, my heart is going oops oops oops oops oops right now, oops, oops then ...

RAZ: Margaret Heffernan's full talk can be found at Hey, thanks for listening to the show this week. If you missed any of it, or if you want to hear more or you want to find out more about who was on it you can visit, you can also find many more TED talks at You can download the show through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app.

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