Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Culture of Enabling

Dear readers, please permit me a dyspeptic screed.

There is a conspiracy of silence in this country. No one assigns responsibility. We enable failure. It starts early, when everyone on the kids’ team that went 0-14 for the season gets a trophy. And that’s just the start.

Pop psychology has no doubt played a part. “Positive reinforcement” is what we operate on. Look only at the positives.

Our Berkeley mothers say in dulcet tones, “Now, Joshua, Mommy needs you to take the knife away from your little sisters throat, right now.”

“I’m going to kill the little bitch!” says Joshua.

“Joshua, don’t you think you would be sad if Kelsey wasn’t here, and wouldn’t Mommy be sad?”

Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Somewhat. Maybe it's off the point - OK it probably is. It was just on my mind.

But seriously, what about responsibility? For instance, anybody know who screwed up the O-ring? We know that the Challenger went down because of a faulty O-ring design, that a defective NASA culture enabled it, that Morton Thiokol was the designer, and that NASA ignored warnings of engineers that low temperature was especially dangerous for the O-ring. But I want to know some names. Who did it? Who was on the team of designers? Who in NASA ignored the warnings? Why the anonymity?

We know the heroes well enough. Sully heroically saved a plane after a collision with birds, and showed up at every significant event afterwards for a year, and I felt as good about him as anyone. We know it was Francis Kelsey at the FDA who blocked approval of Thalidomide – in fact, go to Wikipedia and you will find a photo of her with President Kennedy. Success has a name.

But where are the anti-heroes? America needs them!

Who the hell was it that confused inches with centimeters in 1999 when NASA lost the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft after a 286-day journey to Mars, when thrusters used to help point the spacecraft had, over the course of months, been fired incorrectly because data used to control the wheels were calculated in incorrect units? The company was Lockheed Martin, which was performing the calculations, but who was the stupid engineer who did it? Why can’t we know?

Who screwed up the Hubble? Remember that? A small defect in one of the two mirrors was caused by a 1mm error in one of the machines that made it. This error made the telescope worthless, and only scientific heroics in 1993, at great cost, saved this treasure. The company at fault was Perkin Elmer in Connecticut. OK, we have a state and we have a company. But who, I want to know, made the error? It was somebody. Anyone got names? I don’t. What’s the theory, that they have suffered enough? Not in my book. I doubt that this achievement appears on his CV.

And who was the idiot that drove his truck off Interstate 880 and tied up the East Bay for months when he drove his oil-laden truck too fast in the middle of the night, crashed, and burned the freeway up? If we can’t have his name, can we at least have his ethnicity? Give us something!

In sports a lot is out in the open. Poor Bill Buckner – a long and distinguished career, but we remember the ball trickling through his legs at first base. We know that name. His error is a measuring stick for all other errors. It's painful, but it serves a function, and has a name. But even in sports the don’t-put-a-name-to-failure affliction has begun to infect commentators. In a Giants game a week or so ago, bottom of the ninth and two runs behind, I think it was Freddy Sanchez who was thrown out trying to get to third when he could just as easily stayed on second, since his run was meaningless – they needed two. It was only a rather amateurish new hire commentator who pointed out the mental error. Someone had forgotten to issue him the requisite rose colored glasses, or rather microphone. The regulars didn’t criticize anyone. Freddy’s a good guy, but this willful look the other way attitude debases the sport and our intelligence.

And just yesterday in the SF Chronicle we read that the California Air Resources Board overestimated diesel pollution by 340%. It was due to “a faulty method of calculation.” This comes on top of a miscalculation last year that overestimated the number of diesel-related deaths. Needless to say, we are given no idea at all who is responsible. “I think somehow some very poor decisions have been made,” says a Board member. Jesus. “Who” is a person, not an organization, a system, a process, or a culture.

Does it matter? It actually probably does. The culture of positive reinforcement has all but extinguished taking responsibility. And what about the entertainment value? Just as medicine has named syndromes after someone who described them first, we are missing the opportunity to name specific types of errors after their most prominent perpetrators. Wouldn’t such terms as “The McCarry Miscalculation” elevate our cultural heritage?

So, let’s stop the cover up! Here is a modest proposal to get the ball rolling: the esteemed non-profit organization, the Center for Responsive Health Policy, should offer a trophy to any individual reporter who succeeds in placing a specific name with a specific error in a major publication or blog. The name of the prize will be the Yudunit Award, or a Yuddy. You can imagine the image of the trophy – an enormous pointing index finger. You want trophies? You got’em. I know just where to get them, from Mary and Joe’s Sports Store down on San Pablo. They sell them by the dozens.

Other proposals are invited.

Budd Shenkin

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