On Excellence

This is a sensible essay on the disconnect not only between science and media, but media and the ethos of accuracy.


In some ways, it reminded me of another essay written by a scientist, one who most definitely has “learned to say no.”

I see this problem, and the related pandering of media to 10-second attention spans, as a symptom of a broader, cancerous socio-ethical malaise: abdication of excellence. What has happened to devotion to excellence in all forms of work?

This mass-laziness reveals itself in all manner of corner-cutting, large and small:

    Shoddy craftsmanship in home-building (e.g., any leaky pipe or faucet in a house less than 10 years old)

    Inattentive service from waiters and clerks

    Software that has to be “updated” every week because it was programmed full of bugs and security holes in the first place

    Entryways that are torn up and reconstructed three times in the four years since a building was completed

    Parents not engaged in (and inquisitive about) the daily lives of their minor children

    Any automobile that lasts less than 10 years

    The federal government’s inability to account for $24.5 billion of spent money in 2003

    Pricing inconsistencies between shelf label and scanner

    Unfamiliarity of first-level tech support with a problem

    A moldy peach in a supermarket’s produce section

    Roads full of potholes five years after being built or rebuilt

    Misspellings and grammar errors in newspaper stories or formal scientific submissions

    Bricks in a new wall that don’t line up, or that have missing mortar

    College graduates who can’t differentiate between “they’re”, “their” and “there” when writing a simple online comment

    Professional forecasters who regurgitate model guidance (the fastest path to job automation) instead of analyzing and understanding the atmosphere

    “Scientific” reporting distilled to oversimplified and grossly misleading sound bites

Look closely enough and you’ll see numerous examples of inattention to excellence, on a daily basis.

These aren’t new problems either, nor is my recognizing them a function of aging. I noticed and bemoaned them even as a teenager, watching those people my age (who weren’t already lost to gangs and hard drugs) talking and not listening in class, leaving cheese off the cheeseburgers at Jack in the Box, putting half the needed syrup into snow cones, and falling asleep on the lifeguard stand at the pool, all with no internal calibration or foresight into the impact of such behavior on their own futures. In my 20s, I read all sorts of sloppiness in English usage, grammar and punctuation in the Miami Herald and Kansas City Star, before I got disgusted with it and quit subscribing to each. Online news now is liberally sprinkled with shoddy composition and egregious violations of rudimentary English.

Yes, mistakes are human, a flaw common to all of us. That should not excuse us from their consequences! I expect to correct my own, and not make the same error again. I promise that nobody is harder on me, than me, about my own errors.

Don’t blame mass production or Wal-Mart or China or our demand for the cheap, either. That’s simple-minded and misleading. It is possible to have high-quality, excellent products that are mass-produced at low prices. Otherwise, none ever would occur at all.

If one pair of off-brand shoes happens to last five years, that shows that every such shoe could and should. If one scientific story is very well-written, it sets the example for all to be. If one Ford or Toyota goes 200,000 miles with no major malfunctions, why not any of the rest? If one poor kid from a roach-infested dwelling the inner city or the backwoods can succeed, despite the circumstances, so can any other.

We just have to demand quality, first from ourselves and then others, and hold people accountable for its absence! When you do discover excellence in someone or something, broadcast it. The world needs every example of excellence it can muster.

I know it’s harder to be excellent than not, and harder to notice one’s own errors and correct them. Perhaps folks just don’t care enough to bother. If so, what does that convey?

Don’t misconstrue me; excellence is not the same as perfection. Instead it is the fruits of the pursuit thereof, manifest as the highest quality humanly possible.

The solution to a systematic, pervasive lack of quality, such as I am witnessing, ultimately lies in each individual, in what I call the holy trinity of excellence: practice it when no one is looking, set an example of it in all you do openly…and demand it from everyone. As applied here, this means accurate, concise, engaging, well-written reporting and communication of science to the lay reader.

Consistent excellence in any person or service only exists where that person or service is held accountable at a peak achievement level.


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