Sotomayor, Obama and the illusion of selecting the best
May 27, 2009
Studies have shown that most of us are convinced that, like the residents of Lake Wobegon, we’re all a little bit above average, if not superior to virtually everyone. In fact, most who hold this belief about themselves are wrong. Even those who realistically assess their own place on the bell curve of wonderfulness fall prey to the illusion (or delusion) that there’s an absolute best choice for our leaders, from presidents to Supreme Court justices.
The bell curve, we’re all on it and in many places depending what we’re measuring, but where?
Above: for overall intelligence.
Certainly the closer we get to the top (here, the right) of said bell curve in qualifications to hold lofty positions like president or Supreme Court justice, the fewer people there are to choose from. In most human endeavors only when we reach the very edge of a kind of statistical event horizon do we find only one or two individuals who have been judged as figures towering over their associates. Since I brought up the realm of physics, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking are examples.
I think we’re acculturated to believe there’s really a big difference between the winner and the runner up, as on American Idol and in the Olympics and other sports.
In most competitions there’s no tie for first. American Idol must have a winner for that last dramatic announcement. There’s only one World Series winner. Even in head to head sports, technology has narrowed the winner’s time to 1/100th of a second over number two so an actual tie is almost unheard of.
There’s only one gold medal per event, one Kentucky Derby winner.
Even 4-H children – and their parents – are well aware of the differences between the blue, red and white ribbons, and the coveted purple ribbon. I’ve seen a lot of 4-H pies, pigs and pumpkins and the ribbon winners all look the same to me.
How many parents can be seen at 4-H fairs hugging their red and white ribbon winning sobbing children?
We learn from an early age to adore our winners and reassure our runners up that they shouldn’t feel too badly…. but just to try harder next time, honey.
In far more important human endeavors like being the leader of the free world or wearing the robes of the United States Supreme Court only history tells us who actually turned out to be one of the greatest.
What history can never tell us is who might have been one of the greatest had they been elected or selected.
It’s a stretch, but can we be absolutely sure that Stephen Douglas wouldn’t have changed his mind about slavery and been as great a president as Lincoln?
In truth, when it comes to making the choice for a president or Supreme Court justice, there’s no hindsight and in many cases there is no best of the best.
We’re hearing from the conservative and even some liberal opposition to the Sotomayor nomination that while she’s smart, she’s not an intellectual heavyweight. I’ve been around some recognized intellectual heavyweights in the field of psychiatry and believe me, you wouldn’t want to open up to them about your personal problems.
Because Supreme Court judging isn’t like brain surgery…
… and that’s a good thing because if it was all we’d want was the equivalent of the nine most brilliant neurosurgeons in the country.
If I need a brain operation I don’t care the least whether my surgeon knows or even cares how it feels to be me. I just want the best surgeon. If I’m going to have my life impacted by the decisions of a Supreme Court justice I do want them to have empathy for what it is like being me.