The Wrong Stuff

From the Slate, a piece by Kathryn Shulz interviewing ex-astronaut James Bagian on relative risks and relative attention to risks in bleeding edge exploration and business-as-usual.

[Post Note :  I have since read the complete article and it is really very good, on the human psychology side of “error” and risk, and between error and harm, proximate individual causes and fixable systemic causes, etc. One side connection – Bagian mentions the little appreciated fact that the Challenger crew hearts were still beating when their cockpit escape module hit the ocean – reminded me of a comment I made recently on the F111 Wikipedia page, where the crew escape module was mis-captioned – since corrected on the main page.]

[And whilst we’re here : That Kathryn Shulz post is just one of a series of blogged interviews on the subject of “wrongology”.]

6 thoughts on “The Wrong Stuff”

  1. Good article.
    I notice Bagian is also opposed to too much open communication, (like yourself) saying …
    “I don’t think it makes sense to make [field error reports] public. They’re often too misleading. People don’t understand what they mean, they don’t have the knowledge and sophistication and opportunity to get the full facts, and the way something looks at first blush is often not how it looks after an investigation”.
    I sympathise, and realise that exposing failure can divert the “best” course of action in times of crisis. But as with the mess in the Gulf of Mexico, the publics’ appitite for information can be satisfied with the help of conscientious journalism. I’m thinking The BBC, The Independent, question impartiality at will.

  2. (Not really digested the whole article yet, I have to say.)

    It’s like everything … good in moderation. As I also keep saying trust is also very important (paramount importance in fact), and clearly “concealing” (or appearing to conceal) information is a cause of mistrust. The key thing is to be open to providing credible information if “legitimately” called for, but not publishing everything in real time, just because you can. That legitimacy is of course tied up in the words like “conscientious” and “impartiality” which you associate with journalism. Exposing other people’s problems – live – is not necessarily good journalism, even if it is good copy for the media. There is a moral angle to journalism too, and trust is a two-way street.

    It’s not just the short-term distraction either – simplistic misinformation can be very long-lived – rabbits run – the most successful memes are not necessarily the best morally (my thesis is in fact the opposite is true). I made similar comments about the “volcanic ash” saga recently too. Knee-jerk, play-safe, options are not necessarily the rational best.

    In the BP case no-one is impartial. And I have to say I’ve not yet studied the reported causal events and reasoning behind the actual accident – deliberately. I look at people’s current words and actions – here and now.

  3. Yes, I actually agree with you, particularly on the points about the need for more trust; and the most successful memes not necessarily being the best in the long run.

    Maybe I’m a young cynic, I believe in some cases it is necessary to “expose other people’s problems” because other people’s problems may have serious implications on us, the public, the environment e.t.c. Also, it is sometimes important to expose these problems “live” and in “real time” before the most salient issues are concealed or lost in the dustbin of history. Suppose this brings us back to the need for more trust 🙂

  4. No, that’s not cynical. It IS necessary to sometimes expose people’s problems directly that’s the point. It is simply that that is a million miles different to a situation where everyone’s problems must always be exposed in real time by default.

    You are also mixing up the “publishing” (the exposure) from the records, and the trust that records are reliable & credible – that is not optional. The three most important things are trust, trust and trust 😉

  5. Responding to post note:
    Yeah, Bagian could teach me a thing or two about how to promote a positive safety culture : by encouraging moral responsibility; providing “tools” so the culture can form itself, and most importantly: paying attention. Good stuff !

    Going off topic. Will you be reviewing the new MOQ at Oxford DVD anytime soon? Apologies if you have already.

  6. Never did publish a review. I drafted some notes, gave Ant some comments, but never did get round to posting anything. Overall impression from a documentary production perspective this is still really stuff for Pirsig enthusiasts rather than new audiences. By far the best section is the Liverpool 2005 Karen Whiteside interview of Bob talking about the Sarah seed-crystal period (Henry Gurr has published some notes on his site). The long talk to camera by Dave Buchanan is very good – a gentle summary of what MoQ is about, quite unlike DMB’s argumentative style – but cinematically not likely to set the world on fire.

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