Jonathan I. Katz
Professor of Physics
Washington University, St. Louis
[my last name]@wuphys.wustl.edu
January 28, 1986 the space shuttle Challenger exploded on launch, killing all seven astronauts aboard in the worst space disaster ever. This catastrophe was entirely preventable. Engineers knew, and warned, that the solid fuel booster rockets of the shuttle were not safe in cold weather, but senior managers dismissed these warnings and insisted on launch. At the subsequent inquiry the physicist Richard Feynman summarized the debàcle with the statement ``Nature cannot be fooled.''
We have not learned that lesson. In more and more ways American society has come to confuse its wishes with reality, and to pretend that wished-for fictions are true. In most cases these fictions are well intentioned, just as we all wish the Challenger could have been launched safely, but good intentions do not make wishes come true.
We ignore history, which shows that most airplane hijackers are Arab. Refusing to ``ethnically profile'' airline passengers, airport security paid little attention to obvious risks, with the result that more than five thousand Americans were murdered by terrorists. All because we deliberately refused to recognize the obvious.
Most of our self-deception occurs in softer fields, where its consequences are less immediate and less obviously catastrophic, and where the ideological pressures to enshrine fantasy as reality are stronger. For example, two deaf people sued YMCAs for enormous sums of money after losing jobs as lifeguards on account of their deafness. We all wish the disabled could do everything other people can do, but they cannot. That is why they are called disabled. The deaf cannot hear a call ``HELP!''. Should people drown to maintain the lie that deaf people can do a lifeguard's job?
We know how AIDS is transmitted: by promiscuous sexual activity, chiefly homosexual, and by abusers of intravenous drugs who share hypodermic needles. The human body was not designed for these activities, and lacks the immunological defenses to deal with their consequences. Except for a comparatively few cases transmitted by transfused blood and blood products or congenitally, the victims of AIDS knowingly and deliberately put themselves at risk. AIDS could be stopped by a program of contact tracing and quarantine, methods which successfully contained venereal and other communicable diseases in the pre-antibiotic era. Instead, public policy refuses to admit that AIDS is a consequence of behavior, a fact which everyone knows to be true, and pours a large fraction of our biomedical research effort into a search, so far unsuccessful, for a cure.
Education is probably the field in which we deceive ourselves the most, because the damage only appears decades later. We pretend that all children learn at the same rate and in the same way. Every teacher and parent knows this to be untrue, and to deny it is folly. But deny it we do.
We insist on teaching all children reading in the same manner, even though some learn well with ``look-say'' methods (also known as ``whole language'') and others require phonics. We ignore differences in ability, and cram dull, average and bright students into the same classrooms, boring the bright and leaving the dull behind, or reducing the education of all to the level of the slowest. When we observe that, on average, boys are better at mathematics than girls we refuse to accept that nature made them that way (just as nature made boys taller, on average). Instead we pretend this is the result of prejudice and custom, and spend a great deal of effort trying to coax girls into fields in which most of them don't have enough interest or talent to succeed.
``Learning disabilities'' are another example of denying reality, and a growing problem at American universities. Some children are brighter than others, and learn faster. Pre-college education is a universal right in America, and it is common sense to give the slower children extra help. But some ambitious parents of slow children are not satisfied with this. They wish to pretend their children can do everything brighter children can do. When their children get to college they demand to be excused from doing anything they do badly, and when this is not possible they demand softer standards and relaxed rules. With the help of cooperative psychologists who certify these supposed ``disabilities'' and a misinterpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, these students demand privileges such as double time on examinations. Grades earned this way are lies, but these lies maintain the fiction that the slow students are not really slow at all.
What harm is done? The integrity of the grading process is corrupted, and the grades earned by other students in honest competition are devalued. Weak students get grades they have not earned, and may build a career on them. Would you want to be treated by a doctor who was admitted to medical school only because he received double time on examinations?
Perhaps the greatest harm is to the principles of fairness and honesty. Bending the rules for the ``disabled'' establishes the idea that rewards go to those who manipulate the system, not to those whose accomplishments are earned through honest effort, evaluated fairly. And it encourages everyone to lie about reality when it does not satisfy our desires. That is the path to the Challenger disaster, and much worse.
More on learning "disabilities"