It’s normal to ask questions in assessing change

The question has come up as to whether or not I am normal. I immediately became defensive when confronted. Of course I’m normal! However, I almost always resent being told that I am just like someone else, too. It seems I want to be unique, but not too unique, I guess. Does anyone else feel this way?

What is normal anyway? Is normal conforming to social norms of behavior? Is it good to conform to social expectations? Does it make me happier and more successful? Or is conformity a form of tyranny? Maybe I will be happier and more successful if I refuse to conform. If I don’t conform to social expectations, how far can I unconform before society conforms me? It’s a fine line.

Or is normal a measure against some average based on a group? It is normal for a healthy human to be able to run long distances, like even 10 miles. There is nothing in the anatomy or physiology of most people to prohibit that. Yet the fact that I probably can’t run two blocks makes me about average, and average, in this case, isn’t normal. Now, why do we call the opposite of sanity, insanity? Shouldn’t we be in-sanity when we are sane?

When we measure children by their performance on standardized tests, we compare them to what is average, not what is normal. It is normal for children to learn, and learn very complicated things, early in life. Consider the great intellectual strides made by children in the first five years of life. Adults seem to be satisfied, once they reach school age, if they have learned enough to be above average. Actually, by the very definition of average, half the people are above average. The frightening thing is that half of everyone we come in contact with is below average. Do you suppose that applies to elected representatives as well?

This concept is actually more important than it sounds. One cannot define abnormal until there is a clear understanding of what normal is or looks like. Understanding that is perhaps the most disregarded bit of common sense in existence. Abnormal means “not normal,” but until we clearly understand normal, we cannot know what the significance of various deviations from the normal might be.

Knowing what normal looks like is crucial in science. We call the “normal” the control. Then we measure some item or event as it exists in relation to the control. By changing one parameter in an experiment, we can see if the results change. We compare the change to what we presume is normal, the control. Not surprisingly, even scientists sometimes fall into the trap of not defining normal before they begin their experiments.

OK, are we running out of water? Is too much carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere? Is the Earth warming? Are there fewer amphibians than there used to be? Are there more natural disasters than in the past? Is the number of species of insects declining? Are new species being created? What can a child learn by the age of 4? How far back do we have to look for normal data?

All of these types of questions have something in common. In order to answer them, we need to know two things: what is normal and what has changed. In many cases, we don’t really know the answer to either question. For example, what is the normal temperature of a planet that seems to have been changing, and vacillating in temperature, since its creation? What is a natural disaster, and how many occurred each century? Is there really less water on Earth, or is the water just dirtier and more expensive to clean up? Is it better to be crazy and know it, or to be sane but doubt it?

So if I am above average and normal, does that make everyone who’s normal about average?

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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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