Jan. 2, 2004

Commentary by
Roger Martin

Answering the unasked questions

by Roger Martin

What did you learn in school today?

Nobody asked me that when I was growing up so I've spent my professional life getting even. I've made my living by answering questions that no one's asked me.

Like this one: What was the second biggest mass extinction of species in the history of the Earth?

You've no doubt heard about that famous meteor that bonked the earth and polished off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

But that wasn't the biggest mass extinction ever. The Mother of All Extinctions happened around 250 million years ago, scientists think, because of volcanic eruptions in Siberia that clogged the atmosphere with sulfuric acid.

The second biggest was around 440 million years ago. This time the villain may have been a collapsing star that spewed gamma rays our direction, killing off half of Earth's species.

That's the so-far unpublished theory of some University of Kansas scientists, led by Adrian Melott, a professor of physics and astronomy.

Here's another question I wasn't asked lately: Did you know Kansas was important in the U.S. eugenics movement that eventually inspired the Nazis?

Eugenics isn't about mass extinctions but selective ones that some people tried to engineer in the first half of the 20th century. Eugenicists believed we should sterilize the "feeble minded" so they couldn't reproduce.

In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court backed a Virginia law permitting sterilization of the genetically "unfit." Kansas had been sterilizing people for many years by then. In 1938, it ranked third in the nation in the total number of people it had sterilized.

A paper in the journal Mental Retardation, authored by Mike Wehmeyer, the director of the KU Center on Developmental Disabilities, tells the story -- which I'll talk about in more detail in my next column.

And now for a third question you didn't ask: Is false hope a bad thing?

I swear I didn't read about hope in order to cheer up after thinking about extinctions and sterilization. Cross my heart. I just happened across a paper written by KU psychologist Rick Snyder.

Snyder doesn't actually think "false hope" exists except in the most extreme cases. He prefers to speak of "high hope" -- and believes there's nothing wrong with it.

In the October issue of the journal American Psychologist, Snyder wrote that people with very lofty goals are no less likely to achieve them than folks with lower goals. And those people generate better step-by-step plans for succeeding than people with lower hopes.

Snyder believes that rather than speak of false hope we should talk about delusion or psychosis, because hope turns negative only in combination with insanity.

What a day I had answering questions nobody asked!

I had learned more about world-ending cataclysms. (Make room, fire and ice, for volcanic acid smog and gamma ray bursts.)

I pondered the wisdom of a Supreme Court decision upholding the right to sterilize (which also made a lot of sense to the Nazis).

And I questioned my cherished assumption that pessimism is the best defense against turning into a hopeful dope.

What made the day so good was that I didn't touch down in the same place I started. That's the thrill and the threat of education.

Not that you asked.


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