Transdisciplinarity and Worldviews in Risk

image‘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.

All humans try to make sense of things that are ambiguous, mysterious and paradoxical, looking for answers to fallibility ( as if there is one. 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. Then when things fall over and faith is exposed as faith out comes all the blaming and finger pointing. 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.

It seems strange that in a world that is so volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and diverse (VUCAD) that the discipline of STEM (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 above.

This is not to say that the STEM worldview is invalid but rather to say that there are other valid worldviews that could offer the 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 than 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 STEM-only. I pointed out the possibility of transdisciplinary when I mapped the various ‘schools of thought’ in risk and safety (

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 (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 (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 unless one ‘entertains doubt’ in one’s own discipline and considers what one might not know in another discipline. This is where conversation, semiotics and metaphor serves as the starting point for learning. Unfortunately for the safety industry there is a huge impediment to conversation that is, there can be no conversation or transdisciplinarity in the absolute of zero. Conversation comes when one can entertain doubt. 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 doesn’t 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.

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.

9 Replies to “Transdisciplinarity and Worldviews in Risk”

  1. Shewart/Deming PDCA mechanistic cycle supplemented by operational excellence and Six Sigma with Skinner’s black box psychology and supported by an ICAM/RCA cause-effect witch hunt when it all turns pear-shaped.

    The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection – George Orwell
    There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in – Leonard Cohen

  2. The race to the bottom is policed by cohorts of ignorant malaperts with superficial post nominals such as COHSProf or ChOHSP and wallowing in debt as one half of the working class aspires to kill the other half.

    1. And still I believe many of these COHSProfs and ChOHSPs are both honest and serious in their intent – the problem is most likely a combination of not having the right skills and not having the right worldview and mindset. The will is there (I believe), the intent is there (hopefully in all levels) and the money usually is there in abundance. However, there is nothing more tragic than doing the wrong thing well. (I think Peter Drucker said this – I am not quoting, but saying it as I remember it).

      1. The idea of accreditation in itself is not a bad thing, the trouble is what is being accredited. Postman covered this well years ago in his book Compulsory Miseducation. Represents well the status of the zero-infused safety sector.

        1. No one to follow
          And nothing to teach
          Except that the goal
          Falls short of the reach

          Leonard Cohen (The Goal) from Thanks for the Dance (2019)

        2. I love the term “miseducation”, because I believe that is the issue. Also, I did not aim my comment at people who are accredited, but to all who are working in the safety sphere. I wish more would become involved in the debate away from the current indoctrination.

          1. Wynand, in a sector that is fixated and obsessed with compliance, indoctrination and zero and, little expertise in education and curriculum, there is little chance that any of this will change. When the sector seeks reform they go to engineers and regulators and end up with more of the same, NZ is a classic example of how NOT to improve risk and safety by simply adopting Australia’s failed STEM system.
            The accreditation process is not an education process, training is not education or learning and calling something a profession doesn’t make it professional. Wouldn’t it be nice if the sector was interested in drawing some of these things together rather than protecting the fortress and chasing more bricks.
            As it stands I reckon 80% of the WHS curriculum is a waste of space and energy and doesn’t educate people for risk intelligence, engaging people, helping or critical thinking.

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