Old Wives Tales and Conventional Wisdom

I spent Easter with my mother, siblings, their spouses and eight children.

The weather was truly awful.

I caught my daughter singing; “I’m dreaming of a white Easter”.  In the bleak North of England it snowed on Good Friday.

There are few things as unpleasant as 8 children running around a house screaming.   So despite the weather we threw them out into the garden and watched them from the warm, but not until their mothers and grandmother had dutifully wrapped them up, after all, we wouldn’t want them catching a cold.

Will you catch a cold in the cold?

Does the cold give you colds?  My mother believes so and my wife believes so.  I haven’t the nerve to argue with them.

The word “Flu” even comes from the Italian: ‘influenza del freddo”, or “influence of the cold”.  The cold causes colds.  Putting on a hat and scarf is the best way to prevent your children from catching a coldIt is obvious, why else would colds spread in winter?

Why else would colds possibly spread in winter?

Well there are lots of theories why we catch colds in winter:

  1. Cold viruses are more stable in the cold so last longer in the environment
  2. Our immune system is weaker because we using energy keeping warm
  3. We are all huddled together inside to keep warm so it is easier for germs to spread
  4. Changes in weather patterns in the winter blow and spread new viruses around
  5. It is less humid in the winter and cold viruses like it when it is dry
  6. There is less sun so we make less vitamin D and are more susceptible to colds

There are lots of theories, which is true?

Which of the theories is right?

It is less than ethical to infect people with cold viruses, so nobody was sure until it was discovered that guinea pigs also suffer from the common cold.  (Guinea pigs aren’t susceptible to ethics).

So tests were carried out that showed that the cold virus spreads best when it is dry.  In humid conditions it is far less virulent.

Why do colds spread in the dry?

Nobody knows for sure, though many think that when you cough or sneeze cold viruses are expelled into the air covered in moisture.  If it is humid they stay covered in water, and, as they are heavy they sink to the ground.  But if it is dry the moisture quickly evaporates, leaving the cold viruses aloft in the air, where they are more likely to be breathed in by somebody else.

So a cold is a dry

A cold shouldn’t really be called a cold at all; it should be called a dry.

It just happens that in the winter when it is cold the air can’t hold much moisture so it is also dry.

So whilst a hat and scarf will keep you warm they won’t stop you catching a cold.  If they did you should try them next time you are in the Sahara, standing next to a man with a streaming nose.

The problem with conventional wisdom

The point of this post is not that my wife and mother are wrong to insist hats and scarves stop colds (you can tell them not I).  Instead it is to show the problem with conventional wisdom.

How much of what you do in your business is simply done because it is the obvious thing to do, and you have always done it that way?  What do you believe to be true?  Does the evidence support it?

If you challenged that conventional wisdom, what could you achieve?

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Girl with scarf

Read another opinion

Image by javcon117


  1. Mark Welch says:

    “Common sense is always wrong.” Taiichi Ohno, architect of the Toyota Production System.

  2. Hello James
    Thank you. I learned today. And I find myself in total agreement with you. Conventional wisdom perhaps is more useful labelled as conventional superstition?


  3. James,

    Great way to make the point… one we can all relate to. Imagine what companies could do if they took a look at policies and processes that fit “conventional wisdom” for them but really make no sense!


  4. James,
    As a physician I have to say that your mother and your wife are right as well. If your scalp, hands, feet etc. get cold, your body will automatically lower the perfusion of the mucous membranes in the nose. As a consequence antibodies and white blood cells cannot get there easily to protect the membranes from penetrating viruses.

    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks for your correction Doc.

      Perhaps it is as well I am not medically trained

      My bedside manner is truly dreadful. Particularly when it comes to listening to my wife.

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