In the 17th century the word normal evolved from the Latin norma (noun), the carpenter square, and normalis (adjective), meaning forming a right angle. Until the middle of the 19th century normal was used in geometry and simply meant ‘standing at right angles, perpendicular.’ In 1733 Abraham de Moire recorded the discovery of the normal curve of error (the proper name for the bell curve), through the analysis of the results of games of chance. Laplace, the mathematician, in 1773 presented a paper in which he showed that the planetary motions were stable solving the error in Newton’s observation of planetary movement. Laplace believed that probability was a measure of the degree of certainty or rational belief that an event would occur.
Giuseppi Piazzi, discovered Ceres (a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter) on January 1, 1801. He made 19 observations over 42 days until it was lost behind the glare of the sun. Carl Gauss calculated the orbit of Ceres using three of Piazzi’s observations, and predicted where it would reemerge from behind the sun in the fall. The successes in astronomy led many to believe the normal distribution of a bell curve, or ‘law of errors,’ provided the potential for statistical analysis of many other populations. In the 1820s the French mathematician, Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier (1768-1830), noticed that the statistics on the number of births, deaths, marriages, suicides, and various crimes in the city of Paris had remarkably stable averages from year to year.
Adolphe Quetetet (1796-1874) was a Belgian mathematician and astronomer who promoted the use of the bell curve in measuring social phenomena. He observed that heights of any group of people tend to array themselves neatly around an average value. His concept was that human traits (physical characteristics and social aptitudes) were grouped according to normal distribution, or the Bell curve. In 1842 Quetelet described his ideas in Treatise – that included the concept that the correction of effects must begin with a correction of causes, thus the improvement of social conditions will require the reform of social institutions . He believed that the statistical measurements of social phenomena would identify the effects and it would be “the province of the legislators to ascertain these causes and to remove them as far as possible.” Francis Galton used Quetetet’s ideas to support eugenics – the science of improving the human species by breeding. Scientists at the turn of the 20th century applied Galton’s ideas to test for abnormalities in various populations, which were then used to define the normal.
By locating disease within individuals, the system fails to consider the broader social context in which problems are occurring, creating a world picture that people are fundamentally separate. In statistical measures behaviour is normal if it is frequent, and abnormal if it is rare. When applying the bell curve, the per cent of the population that are at either end of the bell curve would be considered abnormal as they are ‘rare’. There is no agreed upon definition of how much behaviour must deviate before it is considered abnormal. Social norms are standards set by society that show what is expected. These norms can change over time.
Over the last couple of years we have been told to get used to the new normal. The new normal is characterized by slow economic growth and what some call a ‘natural’ rate of unemployment that is higher than in the past. We haven’t seen the kind of economic growth that we would normally expect to see after a major recession and, in fact, it has appeared more than once in the past four years to be slipping back into another recession. Some claim this is the result of weakness in the global economy; others say it reflects the loss of confidence in the ability of governments and central banks to keep economies on a steady, low inflation growth path. The downturn has left governments struggling with new deficits and debts, while revenues have fallen. Central banks are unable to move away from the emergency point setting (low interest rates) that were put in place to deal with the financial meltdown of 2008 and its aftermath.
What are the measures of social phenomena associated with this new normal? There is an epidemic of chronic disease in Canada and the United States consisting of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disease. The factors that link these diseases are chronic inflammation and insulin resistance. Significant causes include environmental exposures to which we now realize the individual is much more sensitive than previously thought – external factors over which one has little control. The external factors responsible for the epidemic of chronic disease includes the change in diets such as the change from grass fed meat to corn fed, and edible oils that have introduced mankind to abnormal omega-3: omega -6 essential fatty acid ratio that enhances inflammation in the body. In addition the increased consumption of the unnatural sugar, high fructose corn syrup that is found in cheap foods – sugary drinks and processed foods that enhance obesity in the community, along with insulin resistance. The other external factor is increased stress – attributed to increasing economic inequality.
The root cause behind these changes in the environment started over 40 years ago with the changes associated with small government and minimal regulation world view that has driven the globalization philosophy. Agribusiness drove the mono culture of corn which favours corn fed beef (that can be brought to market faster than grass fed beef). The edible vegetable oil industry was dominating markets well before the minimal regulation ideology appeared. The last four decades has seen the widening of the economic gap between the wealthy and the rest of society. Hidden from the unemployment statistics is pay cuts, reflected in reduction of both days worked and hourly pay. The amount of money one makes affects their health. Generally the lower an individual’s socioeconomic position the worse their health, creating a social gradient in health that runs from top to bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum.
The stress that comes from the inequality in our society, in particular, from economic inequality, may have more effect on our health than any other single factor. The analysis of social phenomena associated with the new normal means the new generation, starting in the workplace, can expect to earn less than their parents, and are on track to enjoy poorer health – the consequence of an increasing income gap and the epidemic of chronic disease associated with changes to the environment supported by globalization and minimal regulations. Our generation’s task is to correct the causes of the new normal in order to improve social and political equity for the next generation.