Coinage: misnorm

When people have a distorted image of a discipline, and harbor a detailed misunderstanding of how that discipline achieves its results, this can result in a “misnorm”. A misnorm combines a fanciful picture of what a discipline really accomplishes, how it functions at the micro and macro-level, why it has developed its various practices, and consequently, how it is most effectively managed.

Management is where misnorms are most damaging — where groups of practitioners are required to conform more closely to the misnorms of their own field, or where well-meaning innovators attempt to import “best practices” from other fields. In such cases, rigor means introducing effort-wasting burdens, removing necessary flexibility and autonomy, and, worst of all, the smothering of the tacit skills and intuitive judgment that are the substance of mastery of any craft.

This last casualty of misnorms, is itself the result of the greatest misnorm of modernity: scientific rationality. Behind the misnorms of scientific rationality is the craving for a fully explicit world, where articulate logic plans, directs and evaluates all behavior, which makes all gut responses, inspirations and talent obsolete. These irritating ineffables are quarantined to another misnormed sphere of activity: creativity.

This is why reexamining the history of science, ethnographically studying the daily practices of scientists doing science, and philosophically interrogating scientism is so crucial to life outside the laboratory. These investigations reveal a scientific methodology that resembles life as most of us know it, where logic, language, craft and inspiration are combined in flexible collaboration — not segregated and forced either to march in line or to frolic whimsically.

If scientists were forced to conform to the misnorms of science, science would cease to happen. Luckily, the prestige of science is such that this does not happen. But unfortunately paralyzing imposition and enforcement of misnorms does happen all the time in other less prestigious and empowered fields, such as education, where teachers are forced to conform to innumerable incompatible misnorms of education. Where education still happens, it is done entirely despite the control of politicians and administrators. It appears this misnorming dysfunction is also happening in the field of medicine, where the power of doctors is overwhelmed by the even greater resources of the insurance and legal industries.

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