Openness Isn’t The End, It’s The Beginning

Fascinating and eloquent talk by Margaret Heffernan on the value of openness, constructive disagreement and ‘daring to say what you believe’. Well worth listening to right through!

The opening story on Alice Stewart is quite captivating; from The Guardian

Alice Stewart… achieved worldwide fame, and changed medical practice, through her tenacious investigations and demonstration of the connection between foetal x-rays and child cancers. She went on to attract the enmity of the nuclear and health physics establishments – and the hostility of the British and American governments – by insisting that her studies showed that the adverse effects of exposure to low-level radiation were far more serious than had been officially accepted.

Open information is becoming more and more prevalent but, as she points out, that alone is not sufficient. There also needs to be the skill for encouraging and using conflict in novel and convincing ways, which may be quite foreign to what we’re used to.

I was curious what an alternative view on Alice Stewart’s approach might be: from The Journal of Radiological Protection (my emphasis in bold)

It is profoundly unfortunate that Stewart did not share the trust of more conventional scientists. Those who disagreed with her publicly often evoked a level of animosity that made rational discourse impossible and one suspects that those who were not conspicuously for her were deemed to be against her. It is simply not reasonable to suppose that they were all prejudiced, unimaginative, or guilty of conforming to establishment thinking. Had she been able to discuss her ideas more openly, accepting the criticism that is an inevitable part of the scientific life, she might have changed thinking in key areas – especially the risk of obstetric irradiation and the ante-natal origin of childhood tumours – more effectively and sooner than she did. But by any standards her work on the Oxford Survey was a remarkable achievement by an unconventional and determined woman, without whom the risk of x-raying pregnant women would not be as widely accepted as it now is. That would stand as an adequate memorial for most of us.

So, as always, life is rather grey although the primary point made about not being scared to use open information in challenging and questioning ways still stands of course. In particular, you need the capability for open, imaginative conversations (from all sides) as well as open information!

As I’d previously not heard of Margaret Heffernan, I did a bit of research and was interested to find that

She spent thirteen years working for one large corporation – the British Broadcasting Corporation – where she wrote, directed and produced radio plays and documentaries…

As I liked the above video I looked for others and found this one where she talks about business in a wider context.


  1. Thanks for this David.Something to discuss next time we have a beer.

    1. David Pottinger says:

      Looking forward to it 🙂

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