In which a wise scientist demolishes some of my most cherished clichés.
A dyed-in-the-wool skeptic
By Dyan Machan
I HAVE LUNCHED with a wide variety of folk in pursuit of my FORBES assignment, but never
with anyone quite as contrarian as Ralph Gomory, president of New York-based Alfred P.
Sloan Foundation. Every piece of accepted wisdom that I threw at him, he threw right back
Like this: Aren't Americans working harder than ever? Seems true but is not, he says.
I lob another: Knowledge has no boundaries? Wrong, he says. There are things we know are
None of this, mind you, is in a confrontational tone. A widely regarded scientist, Gomory,
at 69, is polite and courteous. But he has trouble tolerating imprecision. An innovative
thinker, he led all IBM research labs as director from 1970 to 1987. His independent
streak helped him champion such innovations as the first relational data bases, and the
now industry standard one-device memory cell.
When Gomory disputes a point, he leans forward, narrowing his eyes as if to peer into a
microscope. He then locks into your eyes. And politely demolishes whatever you just said.
When our waiter arrived at our table at the Rainbow Room, high atop New York's GE
Building, I expected Gomory to contradict the waiter when he announced the specials.
The much-vaunted American work ethic: "People have done research to try and show that
individuals are working longer and harder," he says. "The best data show that
professionals are working somewhat longer than, say, 20 years ago, but just a few hours
more per week. However, people in lower echelons are working less, so the average hasn't
Gomory doesn't dispute that people do feel more frazzled these days, but it isn't work
that's getting to them. It's that they have to juggle work with domestic chores in today's
typical two-earner household.
Gomory: "It's not that one individual is working longer so much as that two people
are now doing three jobs. In the past, one person did the working job and the other one
brought up the family, took care of the home, built a social network or anything else you
want to describe in that category. It was never recognized as a job. But it was.
"Now both parties come home from work and keep working. That's why there's a general
perception of overworking."
Studying two-career families is one of the things the Sloan Foundation does. Its focus is
on people, not the poor, but everyday people.
It seemed to me the individuals involved must like the new way or they would find a new
Gomory replies that that was just my assumption. "It may turn out that everybody
really loves this, and it is good for the kids," he says. "The point is I don't
think we know."
Suppose it turns out people don't like it?
"If I could solve this," Gomory replies, "I'd say what you really need is
real part-time employment for one of the parties. Not a dead-end part-time job," he
Almost forgetting food, I challenge him: Don't we have that? I think of mothers I know who
"Yes," he says, "but many times, part-time turns into full-time at half
pay. So the work place has not evolved. It tends to be all or nothing, except for some
trimming around the edges. Nor has the support structure for the home adapted.
"For instance: When does an electrician come? From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nobody is
We move on to another common assumption about American life. Gomory: "Today there's
an assumption that we have a shortage of computer programmers. I'm skeptical."
At this point, his skepticism doesn't surprise me. He went on: "Late in the 1980s we
had a projected shortage of scientists and engineers. At our foundation, every second
proposal came in with the preamble 'because of the shortage of scientists and engineers we
need to. . . .'
"Oddly enough, the shortage never materialized. Because it was an invention. Some
researchers at a science foundation did some modeling and projected supply and demand.
Very questionable work, but it suited someone's agenda."
Instead of accepting information as fact, we ought to be taught that it is only a fragment
of knowledge on the edge of the unknown.
Gomory presses his hands against his ears as if to shut out noise. "Ideas that suit
someone's agenda are often taken up with great vigor and become widely accepted," he
For example? Gomory says the assumption about the shortage of computer people suits a
certain type of employer.
"The immigration bill that recently passed in Congress was intended at least in part
to address this 'shortage.' Well, we at the Sloan Foundation say, 'gee, this is
interesting, but is it true?' We heard a presentation from one of the major proponents of
the shortage and found it completely unconvincing.
"At the same time, we are getting e-mail from 40-year-old programmers who say, 'Hey,
no one will even give us an interview. They just want young people who will work 24 hours
Sipping his water, our skeptical Gomory pauses to add, "I think it would help to know
what's really going on."
I figure this is one Gomory will agree with: Don't we need to do something drastic about
our messed-up educational system?
He doesn't. "I'm not going to give you the usual stuff," he says, provocatively.
"European high school graduates are generally two years ahead of ours in what they
learn. It's been this way for years. And you know what? It doesn't seem to matter. It
could be an advantage to us. In many countries around the world, there is much more
respect paid to education and teachers than we show here. In fact, we tolerate disrespect
and contempt for teachers," he says.
Isn't that awful? Not entirely, says Gomory. Americans respect those who do, not those who
teach, and that helps fuel American entrepreneurship.
Gomory ventures that highly educated high school kids may be less important to the nation
than having more kids with a higher education. The Sloan Foundation has invested $25
million in what it calls Asynchronous Learning Networks, where people with families and
jobs can get advanced training or a university degree over the Internet.
So far we've talked about Sloan projects dealing with very practical topics. But the
foundation is also deep into a project to discover the limits of what's known, unknown and
unknowable. What good is that?
"We grow up thinking more is known than actually is known," he replies. For
example he cites Herodotus, the source for much of what we know about ancient Greece.
"Instead of accepting [Herodotus'] information as fact, we ought to be taught that it
is a fragment of knowledge on the edge of the unknown. That pushes us to look
Now we have it. Of courseGomory is a genuine skeptic. Not a cynic. A skeptic.
Ancient Greek skeptics believed that all knowledge is uncertain. That led them to keep
asking questions rather than becoming silenced by certainty. That's how we discovered the
world is round and that the sun doesn't revolve around the earth.
We shouldn't be too certain, Gomory says, that everything is knowable. "Weather is
only somewhat predictable. It can be changed with a sneeze!" Who doesn't know that
the weather people are always wrong more than a few days ahead.
Another? "The fluctuation of stock prices. Too many interacting unpredictable
factors. There are times when it pays to give up on what we can't discover and concentrate
on what we can."
Plates cleared. I went out into the cold air of Manhattan thinking that this guy had
contradicted just about everything I said.