How We Misunderstand What Is Normal

The term “normal” once referred to the statistical idea of average (the norm), but in recent decades the word has acquired instead the medical connotation of “healthy.” Even the hard sciences are affected. In good science, the opposite of normal (abnormal) in the statistical sense means “not average”; that is, above average or below average. No judgement is implied. However, when one switches to the frame of reference acquired from medicine, the opposite of normal is “pathological,” and a value judgement is very definitely evident. This switch or drift in the meaning of normal has become practically universal and increasingly harmful.

Satellite view of a hurricane near Florida

Weather is just one of many areas where we have lost sight of what constitutes normal. We now use a medical model rather than a statistical one. (photo credit:

In actuality, when a person is not normal in the statistical frame of reference that person may, in fact, be extraordinary in some positive way, unusually intelligent for instance, or exceptionally perceptive. However, to be not normal in the current usage of the word implies that a person is somehow dangerous, or at the very least, malfunctioning.

The same has become true for events. When something is not normal, it no longer means unusual – it means something is wrong.

Normal curve
Normal curve (Photo credit: AJC1)

This situation may help explain how the healthcare systems in Western nations come to be so chronically overused. The statistical bell curve is the basis for many medical diagnoses, and only results that fall within the central portion of the curve qualify as “normal.” In other words, the medical professions deem anyone near the edges of the range of possible results as having a disease – even though many show no symptoms and never will. High blood pressure is diagnosed in this way, as are thyroid gland “irregularities.” In the thyroid tests, one in ten falls too far from the centre of the bell curve to count as normal. Consequently, at one fell swoop, a staggering ten percent of the population is ill from just this one “disease.”

Sometimes there is a feedback effect from labelling people in this way. Those diagnosed with hypertension suffer a further rise in their blood pressure after learning they have a problem. Given our current rather morbid preoccupation with our health, this probably should not surprise anyone.

The incorporation of the medical meaning of the term “normal” into everyday usage shows how the preoccupation with health has affected the way people think. Experts in the history of science have pointed out that nothing like this drift in meaning occurs on the side of the physical sciences where thinking must be more rigorously objective and definitions of terms more precise. Yet the confusion surrounding the concept of what is normal is even now creeping into these “hard” sciences.

Serious ramifications arise from redefining the word “normal” along medical lines. By assuming that abnormal must mean something is wrong, we set up a deceiving and self-destructive way of viewing our extremely variable world. Recently, I heard President Obama making one of his many impressive speeches. In it, he mentioned climate change, attributing great significance to the appearance of both drought and super storms in America at the same time. He claimed this could not be just a coincidence.

In other words, Mr. Obama regarded the simultaneous occurrence of two edge-of-the-bell-curve weather events as abnormal and therefore an indication of destructive climate change. Yet ferocious storms and extreme droughts happening in concert is actually a regular occurrence. Drought and powerful storms go naturally together and always have.

Consider the “Dirty Thirties” droughts that brought on the devastating dust bowl conditions, and then recall the huge hurricanes that ravaged American coasts during the same period. For example, the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane was the strongest tropical cyclone of the 1935 Atlantic hurricane season, and the most intense hurricane to make landfall in the United States and the Atlantic Basin in recorded history (Wikipedia). The worst dust bowl years of 1934 and 1936 bracketed the great hurricane. In the 1930s (an earlier warm spell), drought and huge storms occurred together just as they do today.

Storms and droughts are abnormal weather events, but they are not abnormal in the sense that something is wrong with the weather. They are abnormal only in the statistical sense that they are not average weather events.

It is vitally important that we remedy our present misunderstanding of what normal means. President Obama and other leaders who share his confused views are in a position to set incredibly powerful wheels in motion. They enjoy the support of an equally confused electorate. We must soberly remind ourselves that drastic and costly actions taken to head off imaginary threats constitute self-destructive behaviour.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

4 thoughts on “How We Misunderstand What Is Normal”

  1. I can’t argue with any of this, Thomas. I’m not sufficiently well-informed to make any judgement as to what constitutes normal or abnormal in terms of the climate, but I agree that the confusion of ‘not average’ with ‘abnormal’ can have terrible effects in terms of people’s mental and physical health, having witnessed them myself. I think that many people are made to feel abnormal (and, by implication, ill) even when all that is really happening is that they are not sufficiently ‘average’. And I agree that the current obsession with health is indeed morbid!

  2. Well, let’s hope you are right about the weather, Thomas!

    Mari, I so agree. I love that quote by Adler (rolls eyes and goes off, laughing wildly)…

  3. Mari, your experience of noticing that labelling impairs mental and physical health is becoming more common. For example, there is growing criticism that psychology and psychiatry are no longer treating “personality disorders,” but have, in practice, begun to treat personality itself as a disorder. These professions promote an increasingly narrow definition of “normal.” This overvaluing of ordinary needlessly positions many individuals beyond the boundaries of what is, and what is not, acceptable.

    On the other hand, physicians who diagnose people with pseudo-diseases such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome prevent sufferers of these physical *symptoms* from dealing with real underlying psychological problems such as stress and depression. At midlife, I suffered intensely from both sets of symptoms, yet changes in lifestyle and some psychotherapy cleared them off completely.

  4. I’m in the “let’s wait and see” camp when it comes to climate change, Lucinda. It does *appear* to have been warmer lately, but many of the predictions about continually rising temperatures and their dire effects on everything from icecaps to food crops to sea levels come from questionable mathematical climate models. I prefer science that does not depend so heavily on computer-simulated crystal balls.

    When working beyond the immediate future, these simulations can be powerfully influenced by the software designers’ assumptions rather than actual realities (since some of these are not known). With the current Western taste for hyperbole, drama, and catastrophe, it is hardly surprising that ruin is what they “find.”

    Have you read about the recent Norwegian study that says global warming may have been exaggerated? There are an increasing number of such studies coming out.

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