June 27, 1997


Incompetence is much easier to tolerate in a college teacher than it is in a surgeon.

A crazed Chinese man brandished a broom handle like Bruce Lee might have done in a Kung-fu movie and shouted at a cop. The cop pulled out his gun and shot him dead.

It should be obvious to anyone that the cop was just plain incompetent. Any competent cop would have talked him down or, as a last resort, taken the broomstick away from him. If he thought that the man was dangerous, he would have called for more backup and he and his fellow officers would have disbroomed him.

Does it surprise me that there are incompetent cops? Of course not. There are incompetent teachers, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, social workers, presidents of everything, parents, carpenters, electricians....you name it. And, like it or not, all attempts to weed them out usually fail. They fail for the simple reason that the way that you find out that someone is incompetent is when he botches a job. In the case of an electrician, if his bad job causes a house fire, the cost is high. Usually all that has to be done is to have another electrician, who knows what he is doing, fix it.

In the case of that cop and the crazy-drunk man, there is no way to fix it. The man is dead and you can't bring him back to life.The trouble with killing someone is that you can't undo the mistake. The best that can be done is to keep it from happening again. While that is possible with that particular police officer, it is just a matter of time before a similar incident occurs with another officer. You can reduce the probability of such a thing happening by having officers work in pairs; but that's expensive -exactly twice as expensive. But even that is no guarantee. The cop who shot the broomster had a partner who didn't stop him.

The consequence of an airline pilot making a serious mistake is so terrible, that all commercial aircraft have two pilots. One is called a co-pilot.

The medical profession tries to weed out incompetents with examinations. Unfortunately, while it works most of the time, it doesn't work all of the time. There is no fool-proof test for the one quality that distinguishes the fine physician: judgment. There are ways to insure that a surgeon has had an adequate amount of experience. For a surgeon to become board certified by the American College of Surgeons, he has to work his way up to the post of chief resident in a teaching hospital. If he doesn't make it, he may end up practicing surgery anyway, without being certified. Yet, even with those strict tests, I have dealt with a board certified surgeon who terrified me. Of course, I got out of his office in a hurry and found someone who knew his business. Unfortunately, one usually finds out that a surgeon is incompetent when he kills or cripples someone.

The nice part about an incompetent high-school or college teacher or a writer is that, after you have experienced him, you can simply walk away no worse for for the experience; having just wasted some time -which we all do frequently.

Do I have any solution to the problem? No, because I think that the problem in unsolvable. However, I do recommend that if you are planning to shout and wave a stick at a policeman, make sure that he is competent. How do you do that? Why, ask him, of course.

Next column

Return to the Unclassified Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page