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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