Our System Needs a Clown

First, you must not fool yourself & you are the easiest person to fool

In light of the troubles at FIFA, and at the Red Cross, and knowing that I will be attending a meeting of the grand poo-paws of the United Methodist Church next week, I present a remembrance of Richard Feynman. He was a clown, prophet, atheist, and one of the sharpest minds of the twentieth century. Famous for picking the locks and leaving ‘got-cha’ notes in top secret file cabinets at Los Alamos, where he worked as a theoretical physicist on the Manhattan project, Feynman was asked to serve on the commission investigating the Challenger explosion.

The Space Shuttle Challenger blew up shortly after lift off in January 1986. The cause of the accident was the culture of disrespect for life at NASA — the people in charge of the launch knew they shouldn’t go when the temperature was below 40 degrees. The temperature at the pad was 28 degrees at launch. This fact should have made investigation into the disaster easy. It wasn’t.

Richard Feynman was asked to serve on the Rogers Commission, even though he was in ill health (he died of cancer the next year). He was the token scientist and outsider — a Nobel prize winner, expected to add some credence to the investigation without making a nuisance of himself. Richard found himself annoyed by the nice little guided field trips that NASA let the commission take around the facilities. He left the beaten path and asked enough questions to reveal that NASA was under political pressure to keep to the launch schedule. Further, what the brass at NASA told the public about the safety of the shuttle differed from what the engineers on the project knew to be true. A systemic culture of disregard for life kept the shuttle flying.

At the public press conference where the Rogers commission made its report, little was said about the systemic problems at NASA.  Feynman spoke up at the end of the conference. He produced an O-ring, made of the same material as the ones that sealed the critical booster joints on the shuttle. He flexed it and then threw it into the glass of ice water at his table. Lifting the o-ring out, he showed how brittle it had become. Here was the direct cause of the accident — but Feynman would be gone before NASA was ready to fly again.

Sometimes the system needs a clown. Churches and nonprofits, like the American Red Cross, are always in danger of believing their own PR. A culture develops were everyone seeks to meet their metrics or quotas, and no one considered the biblical call to choose life.