Conformity Kills

(Last Wednesday was chosen by NASA as a Day of Remembrance for the astronauts lost in the 1967 Apollo fire, the 1986 Challenger explosion, and the 2003 crash of the shuttle Columbia.  The occasion reminded me of my 2003 post which appears below, with the links fixed.)

What does a space shuttle disaster have to do with the current troubling situation in the teaching of the humanities? Strange as it may seem, I believe that there is a connection.

Most observers believe that the Columbia disaster was caused, to a substantial degree, by the unwillingness of key individuals to speak up forcefully enough about their safety concerns. This is often phrased as a “culture issue” or a “climate issue”–but, however you phrase it, it seems that a significant number of people didn’t raise their concerns–or at least didn’t raise them forcefully enough–because of worries about the implications for their own careers. (This also seems to have been a key factor in the earlier Challenger disaster.)

And in today’s university humanities departments, there are many senior professors who understand that much of what is now being taught is nonsense, and who are heartsick about the “posturing and lies.” But, as Erin O’Connor says: “…an older generation of “dinosaurs” looks on, seeing it all, and saying nothing. They do this to minimize the open displays of contempt for their traditional ways that they have learned to expect as their due.”

Now, here is an interesting point. There are very few people in American who have more job security than a civil servant or a university tenured professor. But this security seems to have little payoff when it’s time to speak up about something important and truly controversial. Perhaps jobs that offer high security tend to attract people who are not risk-takers. Or perhaps concerns about being liked by one’s peers trump job-security issues per se. In any event, it does not seem that systems with a high degree of employee protection really yield the expected benefits in terms of outspoken employee behavior.

I’m sure there are some NASA employees who had and have the courage to speak out, just as I am sure that such courage exists among some senior professors of the humanities. But it seems that such people are too few in number, at both institutions, to make a real difference.

No set of organizational policies, however well-designed, can substitute for human character. It takes many virtues, including the virtue of courage, to make an organization perform effectively. That’s true whether the organization is a university, a corporation, or a government agency.


4 thoughts on “Conformity Kills”

  1. Interesting idea. I have just finished rereading, after a gap of a few years, Lynn Spencer’s book Touching History about 9/11. She is an airline pilot and spent three years getting interviews with the participants of that day, especially the air traffic controllers and the pilots who were involved, both airline pilots and military pilots who improvised the response.

    The people she describes are probably better adapted to quick thinking but this was a totally unexpected and novel form of attack. It did not take long for the individuals to improvise around the incompatible equipment and bureaucratic rules.

    It was America at its best. I think NASA was way past the days when it could improvise or adapt. Apollo 13 showed the sort of adaptation that occurred on 9/11 but by 1987, it was gone. The engineers knew that temperature was a potential problem but could not break through the administrator ceiling. I was an engineer at Douglas when we were testing the Nike missile design. At one point we got weird data that no one could understand. Finally we figured out that the plenum chamber in the wind tunnel that was plastic to allow schlieren photographs was fluttering and producing odd pressure readings.

    It took a while to figure this out and it took a very new engineer (me) to see something wrong. In another example, an engineer made some errors in his calculations of the forces on an inlet cone in a new design engine nacelle. When the wind tunnel hit Mach 1, the cone detached from its supports and started to move UP the tunnel toward the fans and the throat of the tunnel. Everybody hit the deck and grabbed anything they could hold onto. When the cone came back downstream at Mach 1, it hit the Plexiglas windows in the chamber and the window blew out into the building. Fortunately, this had been anticipated by the designers and the roof was mounted on rails so it could rise and dissipate the air pressure surge. It was pretty windy for a moment.

    A year after I left, some of the hydraulic jacks that controlled the throat of the tunnel blew out and killed a couple of guys.

    Mechanical things go wrong and politics doesn’t help.

  2. And this : “And it’s a shame that pretty much the only people you will see bluntly telling the truth about a discipline that is rotting from within are those who are readying themselves to retire. Bloom is 73.”

    On Fox News the past several nights there have been retired generals, and a few before that, warning about our intelligence failure which seems to be willful.

    “Disruptive.” That’s how Michael Flynn’s enemies reportedly described him during his time as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a tenure that ends tomorrow – a year early – when the three-star general retires after 33 years in the US Army. Was Flynn forced out? The Pentagon said his departure had been “planned for some time” when it made the announcement in April. But Flynn had challenged the Obama administration narrative that al-Qaeda’s brand of nihilistic extremism had died with Osama bin Laden in 2011. He had bruised egos at the DIA trying to transform the 17,000-person bureaucracy into a more agile and forward-deployed intel operation, one shaped by the lessons he had learned as intelligence chief for Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq and Afghanistan, working for the ill-fated iconoclast Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

    The others, like General McInerney are regulars on Fox.

    They are, of course, attacked by the left and this explains some of the reticence of those on active duty, especially since the left is in control of the administration.

    To the New York Times, it was a Bush plot.

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