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December 14, 2011

When neutrinos coursed through solid rock faster than Einstein thought plausible, expectations were cracked. When Tim Tebow managed to win 7 games in a row the expectations of everyone who objectively regarded him as a fundamentally flawed quarterback ignored other criteria for judgment.

The dance between fact and performance can be exhilarating and threatening. When Tebow won against the Jets last month with a seemingly miraculous run late in a fourth quarter, it proved that those evaluating his essential inadequacy had deeply miscalculated what it takes to win a football game. When those neutrino’s duplicated their faster-than-the-speed-of-light pace in a second run of the first mind-blowing experiment, those evaluating what were the experiment’s probable outcomes had to admit they too, miscalculated.

Einstein’s law may yet be upheld, and the speed of one type of matter as measured through so much other matter may simply work its way into conformance with expectations. And Tim Tebow will most assuredly fail at some point due to his clear incapacities.

But meeting, exceeding or failing expectations reveals more about what made us believe in the standards that were blown away or were unobtained. We expect our children to behave with a level of maturity that is often absurd given their tender years, or is absurdly tolerant of their immaturity given that it reflects on our parenting skills. When “everyone is a winner” expectations are so modest that “just showing up” gets a trophy the characteristics of the players beyond attendance are effectively irrelevant. When Ivy parents are deflated by a state school offspring it is more a mirror of their expectations than the offspring’s acceptance performance stats.

When a President disappoints his base, as just about every one has in my lifetime, the expectations of the base are judged with a clarity rhetoric often obscures. When my work as an architect falls short of a design jury’s expectations, I am vaguely crushed – but having lived up to other juries’ expectations with work that had the same legitimacy my perspective becomes objectified, despite the wince.

We often survive through ambiguity via expectations. “The sun will come out tomorrow” is a fact, not a hope. But good health is an expectation we must accept, or we would stay under the covers to avoid disease, accidents and psychological risks – and that expectation is patently absurd given the grinding truth that all bodies ultimately betray that expectation.

Human relationships are facilitated by legitimate expectations (the Golden Rule, the laws of the land, manners/etiquette) – but many relationships are destroyed by broken expectations – the Penn State abominations only happened because there were basic human expectations of decency that were simply ignored.

But the greatest peril of expectations is when they blur with reality to become unsupportable as facts in evidence.

Tebow was regarded as a fundamentally incompetent athlete at the NFL level for a variety of reasons – ignoring the essential (and vital) reason football teams can win that have low expectations – the implicitly hard to define role of emotion. His connection to a deeply emotional bond between those who experience pain together over unending hours of practice and play is direct, abiding and makes Tebow’s presence amidst those he clearly loves transformative. Transformative in a way virtually no “expert”, player or not, anticipated.

Ongoing absence of evidence of the Higgs Boson particle has begun to erode the expectations of physicists with a quiet desperation that has a bit too much let down to it to be simply scientific. Definitionally science may have probabilities, but should not have expectations.

But just like football teams, scientists are human. They fall prey to investing in things not proven. Hope is only irrelevant if unfelt. Once hope leverages expectation the rejection letter from Harvard, the bad diagnosis or the unexpected sub-atomic data can reveal how every one of us builds our perspective on a foundation of fact, but cantilevers that perspective far beyond where facts provide direct support.

Tebow will lose, Einstein will remain central to how we understand the universe. But when expectations are shown to be what they are – extensions of fact born up by hope – it simply proves that humanity trumps stats, whether in physics or the physical.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 15, 2011 8:07 pm

    great post on expectations. my expectations on the speed of light was that light was really, really fast and prolly one of the fastest things but not nessecarily the absolute fastest thing. Its all about expectations of absolutes, with no tolerances/approximations. is a 1/16″ variation in top plate hieght (over whole building) acceptable? yes of course, that kind of variation is not even large enough to discuss. Will the structural rules of the wall still apply even with this variation? yes. nothing is absolute anyway is it, so why are we Expecting absolutes? if we need absolutes so badly then why dont we fix things we can control. Ya, fix the english lanquage and make i work after E even on tuesdays with a full moon. Or is it E before i on the second thursday of the leap year. whatever. close enough.

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