Incrementalism, Catastrophism and All That’s In-between

Originally posted on June 7, 2015 @ 5:27 PM

Dr Rob Long has posted many articles on the dangers of zero harm here. This is perhaps the heaviest argument he has ever written against zero – WARNING: Some traditional safety people may be offended or find themselves performing some complex mental gymnastics!

Incrementalism, Catastrophism and All That’s In-between

Hand playing with a real jet aircraftOne of the continuing assumptions of research in the risk and safety sector is that risk ‘incubates’, ‘evolves’ and ‘develops’. This is mostly observed in hindsight and is popular in theories originally proposed by Heinrich and Reason. The general idea is that a collection of small indicators and events accumulate in time to create a catastrophic outcome. In Heinrich’s and Bird’s models for example, the idea is that: counting near misses, near hits and incidents provide an indication of incident ratio to fatality. Therefore, the reduction of incidents decreases the likelihood of catastrophe. Life in risk then becomes simply and objective search for hazards. The belief is that incidents and events have an accumulative effect. Is this really the case or, is this more a methodological filter applied to the evidence? Could it be possible that some events are catastrophic without a sequence of causes? Must all events have a cause? Does the search for cause and incubation create its own self-fulfilling prophecy? Is there suffering without cause?

Whilst it is true that many events can be reviewed in hindsight and a sequence of causes found. Are there not events that occur without cause or accumulated risks that have no incubation? Could it be that some events that happen on random, unfortunate circumstance occur simply by one mistake? Until the very moment of the Germanwing’s decision to enact what had been thought, were any of these events in themselves a cause? Would one not have to be omniscient to recognize a collection of thoughts as a cause? How many people undertake a series of preparations and don’t enact a final decision? For example, in suicide. Until, the moment of enactment, many events remain no more than ideation. Is all ideation causal?

Recently I discussed an event that seemed to have no cause where a person fell down a flight of steps and died ( After endless investigation, there was deemed no cumulative cause indeed, there was no cause. All one can presume was a mis-perception and mistake in one moment. Unfortunately, the quest for cause and the assumption and attribution of cause constrained such fundamental qualities as listening, observing, empathy and compassion.

One of the things we learn from Norrtranders (The User Illusion), Ramachandran (A Brief Tour of Consciousness), Hallinan (Why we Make Mistakes), Taleb, (Fooled by Randomness), Lehrer (How we Decide), Bargh (Social Psychology and the Unconscious), Wilson (Strangers to Ourselves), Hassim (The New Unconscious), Hand (The Improbability Principle) and Wegner (The Illusion of Conscious Will) is that, human decision making is neither predictable, systematic and accumulative. The sudden surprise, that unconscious impulse to act, is always present and ‘snap’ non-judgment is enacted. Not all decision making is rational or irrational but also arational (non-rational). Polanyi (The Tacit Dimension) and Ellul (To Will and To Do) also help us understand that ‘powers’ outside of human rationality, socially construct immediacy and catastrophism without accumulated cause.

Could it be that not all events associated with humans are in process? Can the safety industry accept the proposition that harm and suffering can occur without cause? Even the creation of the notion of ‘an act of god’ finds cause in the mystery of an event without cause. What is more, can we accept inexplicable suffering without cause without a drift into fatalism? These are all questions the safety and risk industries need to tackle if they wish to escape the bounds of mechanistic and deterministic evolutionism.

Kletz (A Engineer’s View of Human Error) is a good example of how one’s anthropological and ontological assumptions direct epistemology. The last thing that Kletz wants is the admission that suffering can have no cause because, the opposite brings great comfort to managers (and engineers). If there is a cause, then there is a ‘fix’ (control) and if there is a cause, something or someone can be blamed. To imply that some accidents cannot be controlled is for Kletz a most futile assumption. Instead, Kletz (with an engineering ontology) assumes that all human error is mechanistic and preventable. This is where the zero proponents find such solace, ‘all accidents must be preventable’ if, all accidents have a knowable cause.

One of the classic creations of the Reason process-school of thought is that, error is a knowable and classifiable entity. The text books in safety are filled with the ‘Engineer’s View of Human Error’. It seems that when we disposed of the Theocentric discourse on human error we ‘progressed’ to the Cartesian and Newtonian replacement that must find and attribute everything to a knowable cause. Under such an anthropology and epistemology humans are ‘Mechano’ sets and zero is possible. If on the other hand human decision making is both unconscious and unpredictable then there must be both incubation and non-incubation in causality. In such a position the ambiguities and paradoxes of human fallibility, non-diety and uncertainty can be accommodated. Perhaps there is a dialectic in freedom as Fromm (The Fear of Freedom) supposes and there is both cause and non-cause in human freedom. As Bateson (Angels Fear, Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred) supposes this need not trigger ‘an epistemological panic’.

If some suffering has no cause, does this mean we should abandon an improvement in systems and process to try and prevent cause? Of course not, there is no hope in the assumptions of binary opposition, it should not be ‘either or’ but rather, ‘both and’.

In Bateson’s world miracles, dreams, surprise and transcendence are possible. There are ‘powers’ outside of human rationality and mechanistic materialist determinism that influence events in human living without cause. As Bateson (2005, p. 51) states: ‘ there are narratives that precisely – too precisely – confront the premise of linear causality’. In Bateson’s words perhaps human living is both mechanical and supernatural. Perhaps the insurance companies are right, there are ‘acts of god’. Must it be a case of ‘either or’, or ‘both and’. Can there not be incrementalism, catastrophism or everything inbetween?

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