That’s not fair! Or is it?

Fair deserves a rest. A more precise set of words could include meritorious, disciplined and ethical.

Peter Kissinger
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A number of accusations in the 2012 elections—on bothsides—struck me as extrapolations that were then rebroadcast out of context. Ithen began to wonder if the very notion of fairness was worthy of study, or ifthe word had any substantive meaning at all beyond complexion or theweather. 
Is it fair that a runner is faster and thus wins a race? Isit fair that if you study harder, you get a better grade? Is it unfair thatothers are smarter than you? Is it fair that you have two parents who love youand others do not? Is it unfair that you can't stop smoking? Disease isunfortunate, but is it unfair? Does fair have anything at all to do with luckor diversity? Would there then be no luck or diversity if everything were fair?Are differences to be avoided or celebrated? What is a fair share? Onlysomething others should pay, but not you? Who decides?
In my youth, fair implied "not cheating." We spoke of fairplay or a fair ball in baseball. Theword had nothing to do with outcomes achieved (or not) when the rules of thegame were followed. If we had a fair chance, we could lose with disappointment,but without complaint. It was unfair to trip someone in a race or to copyhomework. It was fair to lose a race or get an "F" in math. A girl wasnear-perfect on every test in my 9th grade math class. I did not think thisunfair, but I did find it annoying, so I studied harder, but never got close.More recently, a son struggled with physics. He said this was due to the factthat he was not Chinese, and that this was unfair. Neither his mother nor I couldchange his genome at that stage.
Thus, a totally unanticipated consequence ofNixon engaging with China more than 40 years ago impacted our family. That damnNixon and the one we've unfairly joked was Uncle Henry Kissinger.
I have recently become fond of overrepresented minoritygroups and why they are overrepresented. I am now neither. I contend thatunderrepresented minority groups would do well to study the former and emulatethose characteristics proven to work. This would indeed be both a smart andfair strategy. Complaining about the overrepresented minorities is, in my view,inappropriate. The best of them didn't use unfair tactics to achieve theirsuccess over a curmudgeon like me.
Today, I note two totally irreconcilable fairness concepts,both widely held. In the first of these, the winner or achiever is recognizedand rewarded. That's thought to be fair. In the second, fair implies equaloutcomes, an equal share of the recognition or rewards. The second is appealingto egalitarians and engenders the thought of "entitlement" as in "all get ablue ribbon, and that's only fair.'' One could argue this second view carriesback to the American Revolution, but making that extrapolation is not accurate."All men are created equal" is a phrase countering birthrights to royalpositions, not the guarantee of equality of result. The choice of words in theDeclaration of Independence was less than precise and subject tomisinterpretation. The expressed right was to life, liberty and the pursuit ofhappiness. Any guarantee of achieving happiness destroys it and replacesmeritocracy with a dystopia. Slavery complicated the Declaration, but we workedthrough that (slowly).
What do you think is the meaning of the word fair? Today, itseems to be a loaded four-letter word (an F-bomb?) used with convenientimprecision. As with the more popular F-bomb, we can drop this one on anynumber of occasions. In this respect, most of us seem to follow F. ScottFitzgerald's notion that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the abilityto hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still be able tofunction." This quote is from an essay, "The Crack-Up," which was published in1936 in Esquire as the world wasdoing exactly that, and so seems to be doing once more. As now, we wereindecisive and let our troubles grow.
Fair deserves a rest. A more precise setof words could include meritorious, disciplined and ethical.
We learn the most from failure, and the more we fail, themore we learn from trying. To hide this fact behind self-esteem does not serveour students well and prepare them for the real world. Keeping score in sportsis encouraged, and we learn to handle disappointments to try again. Why are weso reluctant to face the inevitable disappointments in other endeavors?Inventing an excuse called "that's-not-fair" doesn't serve us well. Charactercounts, and doesn't develop if all failings are someone else's fault.
We are in an industry where many spend a career and neverwork on a drug that is approved for sale. Our hit rates are extremely low, yetthe cause justifies trying. That's noble and fair. What is unfair in our gameis fiddling with the data to increase our odds. John Adams famously noted in1770 that "facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be your wishes, ourinclinations or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state offacts and evidence." It's sad to note the number of Lance Armstrongs inpolitics, science and business. Making stuff up is cheating. That's not fair.

Peter T. Kissinger isprofessor of chemistry at Purdue University, chairman emeritus of BASi and adirector of Chembio Diagnostics, Phlebotics and Prosolia.       

Peter Kissinger

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