The Quantitative and Qualitative Divide in Safety
Risk and safety by their evolution through Engineering and Science have now become disciplines of quantity. Unfortunately, critical human skills like: communications, listening, dialogue, understanding persons, social psychology, community, ethics, critical thinking and semiotic/poetic thinking are completely missing from the risk and safety disciplines. There is very little human considered in the Risk and Safety Bodies of Knowledge (BoK) or related curriculum as well as in Safety 2 discourse.
The focus of the curriculum, BoK and S2 in risk and safety remains focused on objects not subjects. Introducing people to the Social Psychology of Risk is not about the elimination of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) but rather a balancing of Technique with all those things that are qualitative, that cannot be measured. These non-measureables are called Poetics. What SPoR seeks to do is draw the safety industry back into some sense of balance between qualitative and quantitative methodologies (https://safetyrisk.net/balance-in-risk-and-safety/). At the moment we see in the curriculum, S2 and BoK an 90% focus on objects, metrics, systems, hazards and numerics.
The best way to bring risk and safety back to balance is through a Transdsciplinary approach. I find the following quote by Belenky et.al. helpful:
‘We do not think of the ordinary person as preoccupied with such difficult and profound questions as: ‘What is truth?’, ‘What is authority?’, ‘To whom do I listen?’, ‘What counts for me as evidence?’, ‘How do I know what I know?’, ‘Why do the good suffer?’, How does any of this make sense?’… Yet to ask ourselves these questions and to reflect on our answers is more than an intellectual exercise, for our basic assumptions about the nature of truth and reality and the origins of knowledge shape the way we see the world and ourselves as participants in it. They affect our definitions of ourselves, the way we interact with others, our public and private personae, our sense of control over life events, our views of teaching and learning, and our perceptions of morality.’ (Belenky, et. al., 1997 Women’s Ways of Knowing)
The questions above are all commonly asked at any funeral, in times of suffering or when someone is harmed. I remember so many times being called to console, help and support people in times of loss and these were the questions that were asked. Most questions of why regarding fallibility involve answers that are qualitative and mysterious without answer. There is no binary answer to suffering and harm.
All humans try to make sense of things in life that are ambiguous, mysterious and paradoxical, looking for answers to fallibility (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/fallibility-risk-living-uncertainty/ ) as if an answer exists. It is often in times of such dissonance that people make huge leaps of faith to forms of faith that hold no stronger evidence than what was believed previously, even faith in Scientism. Many moments of conversion in faith don’t have anything to do with religion (further see The Oxford Handbook on Religious Conversion, 2014).
I often see extraordinary faith, trust and belief in risk and safety management systems when there is absolutely no evidence that such systems ‘work’! Much is attributed to systems when these are not actually used on site for decision making (https://vimeo.com/471823469 ). Then when things fall over and faith is exposed as faith out comes all the blaming and finger pointing.
How Workers Make Decisions? from CLLR on Vimeo.
Every time there is a fatality the industry doesn’t question the assumptions of the system, they always look for solutions to problems within the faith-in-the-system worldview. The basis of STEM-only-faith is unquestioned, hence management systems grow exponentially because solutions couldn’t possibly lie outside of the STEM-only worldview, that would give validity to other worldviews and other disciplines that cannot be measured. The ideology of quantative measurement rules the risk and safety world whether it be in s1 or S2, the worldview remains the same.
It seems strange that in a world that is so Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous and Diverse (VUCAD) that the discipline of STEM (embodied in Positivism) is the only trusted source of knowledge in risk and safety, even though STEM-only offers no knowledge or method for the questions asked by Belenky.
This is not to say that the STEM-only worldview is invalid but rather to say that there are other valid worldviews that could offer the risk and safety industry profound insight into tackling risk that have never been considered. The current Bodies of Knowledge in risk and safety are testimony to this.
Whenever I critique STEM it is never to its exclusion but rather I always use the language of ‘STEM-only’. It is only those from binary mono-disciplinary worldviews that cannot see, hear or read such a distinction. When one’s worldview is framed against one’s opposite in binary thinking then zero makes sense.
It is a shock to people when they first realize that knowledge is not ‘received’ but rather ‘constructed’. This is why there is such a diversity of disciplines, each representing a differing view of the world. The realization that knowledge is constructed according to a worldview changes the whole way one understands truth and learning. It is confronting when one realizes that various disciplines compete in dialectic for truth and that no one worldview (including my own) holds all the answers to the questions stated above.
This is why Transdisciplinarity offers risk and safety hope beyond the STEM-only ideology. I pointed out the possibility of Transdisciplinary when I mapped the various ‘schools of thought’ in risk and safety (https://safetyrisk.net/a-great-comparison-of-risk-and-safety-schools-of-thought/ ).
Any activity that demands human trust involves some element of faith. Faith enacts trust in what humans don’t know, in the absence of evidence. So when systems fail that one has trusted, then one experiences a failure in faith not a failure of the system (see further Sydow, How can systems trust systems? Pp. 377 – In Handbook of Trust Research, 2006).
Most of the risk and safety world that runs around madly hoping for the infallibility of systems (eg. Holnagel’s Resilience Engineering) never consider matters of trust and faith in their own assumptions about systems.
All suspension of uncertainty, involves the enactment of faith and trust. Humans must live life ‘as-if’ they know an outcome, when they don’t. But without the suspension of uncertainty, one couldn’t get out of bed in the morning and live life fallibly. Humans can endeavour to predict all they like, but there is no such thing as forward knowing in this world, unless one enters into the discourse on prophecy.
This is the nature of risk. Every intuitive decision, every action on tacit knowing displays an element of faith and trust. Giddens (Modernity and Self Identity 1991, p.19) states that trust: ‘presumes a leap of commitment, a quality of ‘faith’ which is irreducible’. It is astounding how much trust and confidence is placed in systems in the risk and safety industry as if systems are an infallible answer to fallibility.
The trouble is when a different worldview proposes a theory of knowledge that criticises compliance and oppositionalism then any questioning or debate will be perceived as anti-STEM. Unfortunately, one can’t embrace another worldview or qualitative worldview unless one ‘entertains doubt’ in one’s own discipline and considers what one might not know in another discipline.
This is where conversation, semiotics, poetics and metaphor serve as the starting point for learning. Unfortunately for the risk and safety industry there is a huge impediment to conversation about dissent. There can be no conversation or Transdisciplinarity in the absolute of zero. Conversation comes when one can entertain doubt and zero discourages any doubt just as compliance cannot question its own assumptions. Risk and safety by embracing zero-as-absolute has locked itself into one worldview framed in the mantra of stasis, everything only comes from one direction and when it gets there, it cannot move.
One way to break the deadlock of zero is to drop its ideological hold and move away from it. Such movement opens up opportunities of learning-risk in a new direction, of seeing risk in a new way and enacting a new vision. This is what happens when one seeks a balance to the STEM-only worldview and the seduction of measurement and begin to ask questions that don’t have measurable answers. This is the nature of the divide between quantitative and qualitative knowing.
Rob Long says
Technology is one thing and ‘Technique’ quite another. Ellul forecast the ideology of Safety 50 years ago in ‘The Technological System’ and the resultant religious ideology that emerges from the zero cult.
Bernard Corden says
The rapid expansion of technology with an exponential increase in artificial intelligence implies the human brain is merely a computer on top of your body.
This is exacerbated by the mechanistic black box psychology of Watson and Skinner’s behaviourism, which emerged in the 1920s in an otiose attempt to square the circle and turn our 3.14159 recurring subjective minds into one objective brain via operant conditioning. If we continue on this trajectory, why can’t we teach pigeons to play table tennis?
“Computers have calculated pi to the trillions of digits. But pi isn’t really solved and remains insolvable rendering it a fantastic philosophical tool and a reminder to both the mathematically and mystically inclined of all that cannot be fully understood despite great effort” – Ephrat Livni