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Thatís not fair! Or is it?
February 2013
by Peter T. Kissinger  |  Email the author

A number of accusations in the 2012 electionsóon both sidesóstruck me as extrapolations that were then rebroadcast out of context. I then began to wonder if the very notion of fairness was worthy of study, or if the word had any substantive meaning at all beyond complexion or the weather.   
Is it fair that a runner is faster and thus wins a race? Is it fair that if you study harder, you get a better grade? Is it unfair that others are smarter than you? Is it fair that you have two parents who love you and others do not? Is it unfair that you can't stop smoking? Disease is unfortunate, but is it unfair? Does fair have anything at all to do with luck or 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? Only something others should pay, but not you? Who decides?
In my youth, fair implied "not cheating." We spoke of fair play or a fair ball in baseball. The word had nothing to do with outcomes achieved (or not) when the rules of the game 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 copy homework. It was fair to lose a race or get an "F" in math. A girl was near-perfect on every test in my 9th grade math class. I did not think this unfair, 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 fact that he was not Chinese, and that this was unfair. Neither his mother nor I could change his genome at that stage.
Thus, a totally unanticipated consequence of Nixon engaging with China more than 40 years ago impacted our family. That damn Nixon and the one we've unfairly joked was Uncle Henry Kissinger.
I have recently become fond of overrepresented minority groups and why they are overrepresented. I am now neither. I contend that underrepresented minority groups would do well to study the former and emulate those characteristics proven to work. This would indeed be both a smart and fair strategy. Complaining about the overrepresented minorities is, in my view, inappropriate. The best of them didn't use unfair tactics to achieve their success 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 recognized and rewarded. That's thought to be fair. In the second, fair implies equal outcomes, an equal share of the recognition or rewards. The second is appealing to egalitarians and engenders the thought of "entitlement" as in "all get a blue ribbon, and that's only fair.'' One could argue this second view carries back to the American Revolution, but making that extrapolation is not accurate. "All men are created equal" is a phrase countering birthrights to royal positions, not the guarantee of equality of result. The choice of words in the Declaration of Independence was less than precise and subject to misinterpretation. The expressed right was to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Any guarantee of achieving happiness destroys it and replaces meritocracy with a dystopia. Slavery complicated the Declaration, but we worked through that (slowly).  
What do you think is the meaning of the word fair? Today, it seems to be a loaded four-letter word (an F-bomb?) used with convenient imprecision. As with the more popular F-bomb, we can drop this one on any number of occasions. In this respect, most of us seem to follow F. Scott Fitzgerald's notion that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still be able to function." This quote is from an essay, "The Crack-Up," which was published in 1936 in Esquire as the world was doing exactly that, and so seems to be doing once more. As now, we were indecisive and let our troubles grow.
Fair deserves a rest. A more precise set of words could include meritorious, disciplined and ethical.   We learn the most from failure, and the more we fail, the more we learn from trying. To hide this fact behind self-esteem does not serve our students well and prepare them for the real world. Keeping score in sports is encouraged, and we learn to handle disappointments to try again. Why are we so reluctant to face the inevitable disappointments in other endeavors? Inventing an excuse called "that's-not-fair" doesn't serve us well. Character counts, and doesn't develop if all failings are someone else's fault.  
We are in an industry where many spend a career and never work on a drug that is approved for sale. Our hit rates are extremely low, yet the cause justifies trying. That's noble and fair. What is unfair in our game is fiddling with the data to increase our odds. John Adams famously noted in 1770 that "facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be your wishes, our inclinations or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." It's sad to note the number of Lance Armstrongs in politics, science and business. Making stuff up is cheating. That's not fair.  

Peter T. Kissinger is professor of chemistry at Purdue University, chairman emeritus of BASi and a director of Chembio Diagnostics, Phlebotics and Prosolia.       



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