What is Normal?
Are you normal? Most of us have quirks, traits, and likes or dislikes that make us unique. While whatever makes us unique is not normal, it is not necessarily bad to deviate from the norm, as math geeks like to say. You could be the best cello player in the world. This is not normal, but it is desirable. America is all about having everyone try to raise the norm. This means finding that skill or passion that pushes you to be the best at what you do. As you become better at your labors of love, you raise the standard (or norm) for everyone else. Contrary to popular opinion, no one is good at everything. No one has a passion for every means of displaying talent. Even great musicians don’t generally learn how to play more than a few instruments over the course of their lifetime. Scientists tend to get very stove piped into their areas of expertise. We all tend to be specialists about some area that excites us. Global climate change has gotten a lot of press lately, with some proposing extreme measures costing trillions of dollars to keep everything exactly as it is now. But is the climate we have now normal?
What would happen if we took the world’s fastest man and started to declare that running a sub-four-minute mile was the norm for mankind? Then all of the rest of us would fail to measure up. Clearly, being the best at something is not normal, except maybe for Tic-Tac-Toe where no one can win if everyone plays well. Similarly, if we went the other way and declared the normal time to finish a race is the slowest time ever recorded for that race in previous events, then we would all be winners, comparatively, but we wouldn’t really have a measure of value. What we really want to know is what is that time in which half the racers will be finished and half the racers will still be heading towards home. We call this the median. This is a pretty good measure of what it means to be normal. There are ways to measure normal also, like taking an average time to finish. Each of these measures gets progressively harder and harder to calculate.
When scientists start to measure things, almost the first question they ask is: “What is normal for this system?” Of course they may have to refine this question over and over before they can come up with a question that can actually be answered. But all scientists know one basic fact. If the data says something different than your ideas or theories about an experiment, the data is assumed to be correct until proven otherwise, and it is the theory that must change to fit the data.
Suppose we move to Santa Fe, New Mexico during the wettest year ever measured. We start with a 5’ snowfall and we are just inundated with rain in storm after storm. The locals tell us that they’ve never seen anything like it. There is green everywhere. The lawns grow perfectly without any maintenance and everything is beautiful. Do we get to decide that that is how Santa Fe should be normally? Should we stop calling the area the high desert and instead refer to the region as a sub-tropical paradise? Of course not, for the very next year things could be dramatically different.
The global climate change proponents face the same challenge. What is normal? They claim that we cannot afford for the average temperature to go up even a slight amount because of catastrophic consequences. But what if there is a larger cycle that needs to be maintained for our survival? Maybe the Earth has another way to let off some steam (pun intended), and we need to let nature take its course. So what if Manhattan falls to the oceans. We will just build again in a better location. It’s not like it is going to happen next year. The rise of the oceans is happening on a geological time-scale. Mankind is tied to a much shorter leash. Our children’s normal is completely unrelated to anything we have ever experienced, and their children will think of them as similarly strange. The world as we know it is an individual experience and there is little benefit to trying to guess the future, and much less benefit for those trying to change it before we can predict accurately what is really going to happen.
John Hall PhD