Disaster Rituals

Combine How Complex Systems Fail with Fooled By Randomness and throw in some organizational behavior models, and you get the human response to unforeseen disaster. We think we can prevent future disaster, somehow, by going through a particular set of rituals. Then Malcolm Gladwell asks, way back in 1996:

But what if the assumptions that underlie our disaster rituals aren’t true? What if these public post mortems don’t help us avoid future accidents? Over the past few years, a group of scholars has begun making the unsettling argument that the rituals that follow things like plane crashes or the Three Mile Island crisis are as much exercises in self-deception as they are genuine opportunities for reassurance. For these revisionists, high-technology accidents may not have clear causes at all. They may be inherent in the complexity of the technological systems we have created.

I think there are lessons here for, among other things, the BP oil spill. As with most of Gladwell, it’s worth your time to read the whole thing.

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3 thoughts on “Disaster Rituals

  1. I’ve had similar conversations along these lines for the past few weeks.. it’s impossible to guard against Black Swan Events. I think prevention needs to be considered to a point, but we should work on coming up with effective responses. Oil leaks/spills happen regularly, normally on a small scale.

    Therefore, if we could come up with numerous/dozens/lotsa ways of addressing those, when someone bigger happened, we may be able to attack it in a variety of ways depending on the circumstances of the situation.

  2. this comment of Gladwell is practically nihilist. Post mortem discussions of these events lead to new law, new policy, new training, and new safety guidelines that save lives and prevent hazard. To give up asking why is to give up the hope that we could ever avoid catastrophe. Without asking why, we could only prepare ourselves for sacrifice one day.

    BP has lobbied to reduce safety standards on oil rigs; They have lobbied to remove the requirements for equipment that could have averted the scale of the catastrophe.

    So just because disaster somewhere in the world is inevitable doesnt mean that it is ok to live with it.

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