Lessons from the Talented Dr. Steven Hayne’s Career

I wrote last week about Dr. Steven Hayne, the incompetent forensic pathologist from Mississippi whose mistakes led to numerous wrongful convictions in that state. He made nothing but excuses — fantastic ones — when critics began to confront him. It took years for critics’ exposure of his shabby, shoddy practices to bring change to Mississippi. (See, The Talented Dr. Steven Hayne.)

Where a just man wouldn’t have done half the things Hayne did, and where a decent man who did any of them would have resigned after being confronted, Hayne clung to his office, continued his bad work, and defied reason for years.

There are countless lessons from Hayne’s career. I think about his bad example often, and from it one can gain insight into less extreme cases, too.

1. A Chair. For selfish officials, there’s nothing more important than retaining office.

2. Contempt for Principle. If having a chair matters much, then principle matters not at all. Men like this only understand having a having a position, not taking one, so to speak. They think value comes from a situation, not a belief.

3. Words. As a consequence of being unprincipled, they’ll say anything to keep power, contradicting yesterday’s views with today’s if they feel it’s useful. They have no underlying conviction exception the conviction that they deserve an official place or post.

4. Useful Allies. Corrupt, incompetent officials are sure to get the support of other corrupt, incompetent officials. Even incumbents who aren’t rotten will often defend mediocrities. Incumbents have a preference for other incumbents.

Bad officials are so situational that they’re like a dog in a story I once heard.

A dog, staying inside a house during the day, hears the mailman visit each day at noon. The dog anticipates the visit, and starts to become angry just before noon. At noon, as he hears the mailman approaching the porch’s mailbox, the dog begins to bark like mad. The canine keeps barking, until he hears the footsteps of the mailman fade away from the house.

Each time, after the mailman leaves, the dog is reassured that his barking forced a potential intruder away. From the animal’s point-of-view, he’s successfully defended the house yet again, as he does day after day at noon.

We know that the dog’s done nothing of the sort; the dog, limited by his surroundings to the exclusion of a broader perspective, can’t see what’s really happening.

In a similar way, small-minded officials cannot see the broader, more powerful trends sweeping through their communities. If anything, an insider’s view actually leads them astray.

It is the lack of principle and perspective, and the underestimation of strong forces in the world beyond an office door, that often undoes the mediocre.

That, and critics’ patient persistence.

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