The Paradox of Positivism for Safety

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.
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The Paradox of Positivism for Safety

imageMost people in safety would be unaware that the common philosophy driving the safety worldview is known as Positivism. You can get some background on positivism here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positivism. Positivism privileges information interpreted through reason and logic and is the most common worldview in the Discipline of General Science. Positivism is based on Empiricism which means it only accepts knowledge from sensory experience. Positivism like many philosophies was constructed in opposition to another philosophy. In this case Positivism was constructed by Auguste Comte (1798–1857) in opposition to metaphysics, non-materialist philosophies and philosophy itself. Positivism anchors to the scientific method and rejects non-material theory.

Positivism seeks to free itself from value-laden thinking in the quest for objectivism. Of course, this is a contradiction because the quest to divorce oneself from values is a value.

The positivist focus is on objects and the rejection of non-materialist understandings of the world. If something is not ‘observable’ then positivism must reject it, including psychology. There are a range of positivisms that have emerged since Comte but most share this foundation in objectivism, metrics, numerics and observable evidence.

The Frankfurt School which was founded by Fromm and Habermas later rejected the assumptions of positivism and founded the philosophy of Critical Theory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankfurt_School ). Since the development of Critical Theory a host of post-modern philosophies have emerged that critique the positivist assertion of logical realism and objectivity. Postmodernist and poststructuralist philosophies are two emerging philosophies from Critical Theory. The Social Psychology of Risk has evolved from these traditions.

When one looks at the WHS curriculum and the dominant focus on objects (at least 75% of all WHS curriculum) and Science, one understands some very strange contradictions in the safety-positivist worldview. In many ways this is a worldview that doesn’t have the philosophical equipment to even understand itself.

Strangely, without a focus on non-materialist thinking Safety finds itself with no thinking equipment to critique its own non-materialist discourse. Indeed, the positivist rejection of philosophy itself makes Safety more exposed to metaphysical trade-offs as it seeks numerical absolutes. Safety is now more immersed in metaphysics than one could imagine. In the search for zero that magical number, Safety now drifts into religious language and metaphors of super-heroes and faith/belief (https://safetyrisk.net/safety-for-true-believers/; https://safetyrisk.net/safety-as-faith-healing/; https://safetyrisk.net/no-evidence-for-the-religion-of-zero/). Because Safety is not equipped with philosophical thinking including An Ethic of Safety, it now accidentally falls into a religious worldview in its quest for secular absolutes. This is evident in the recent AASP (https://safety.assp.org/education/general-sessions/) and XXI World Congress on Safety 2017 (https://www.safety2017singapore.com/) conferences.

Philosophically speaking Safety has nowhere to go. Without a philosophical understanding of itself Safety cannot go any further than zero, which is why the new mantra must become ‘beyond zero’ or anything more or less than zero. This of course sets up Safety for delusion about fallibility (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/fallibility-risk-living-uncertainty/ ), vulnerability and suffering (all metaphysical challenges).

By building a fortress around positivism anchored to zero Safety can now only peddle confusion about its own metaphysical contradictions. Dekker experienced this at a conference recently (http://www.safetydifferently.com/oil-and-gas-safety-in-a-post-truth-world/) where he encountered faith-like denial of facts which he attributed to post-truth thinking. What this demonstrated was that in the grand search for positivist ‘facts’ the Safety worldview now rejects the presentation of those facts. Unfortunately, Safety is now anchored to a philosophical worldview that makes compromise and collaboration with other worldviews virtually impossible.

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