Archives For Philosophy

The philosophical aspects of safety and risk.

Current practices in formal safety argument notation such as Goal Structuring Notation (GSN) or Cause Argument Evidence (CAE) rely on the practical argument model developed by the philosopher Toulmin (1958). Toulmin focused on the justification aspects of arguments rather than the inferential and developed a model of these ‘real world’ argument based on facts, conclusions, warrants, backing and qualifier entities.

Using Toulmin’s model from evidence one can draw a conclusion, as long as it is warranted. Said warrant being possibly supported by additional backing, and possibly contingent upon some qualifying statement. Importantly one of the qualifier elements in practical arguments is what Toulmin called a ‘rebuttal’, that is some form of legitimate constraint that may be placed on the conclusion drawn, we’ll get to why that’s important in a second.

Toulmin Argumentation Example

You see Toulmin developed his model so that one could actually analyse an argument, that is argument in the verb sense of, ‘we are having a safety argument’. Formal safety arguments in safety cases however are inherently advocacy positions, and the rebuttal part of Toulmin’s model finds no part in them. In the noun world of safety cases, argument is used in the sense of, ‘there is the 12 volume safety argument on the shelf’, and if the object is to produce something rather than discuss then there’s no need for a claim and rebuttal pairing is there?

In fact you won’t find an explicit rebuttal form in either GSN or CAE as far as I am aware, it seem that the very ‘idea’ of rebuttal has been pruned from the language of both. Of course it’s hard to express a concept if you don’t have the word for it, nice little example of how language form can control the conversation. Language is power so they say.

 

MH370 Satellite Image (Image source: AMSA)

MH370 and privileging hypotheses

The further away we’ve moved from whatever event that initiated the disappearance of MH370, the less entanglement there is between circumstances and the event, and thus the more difficult it is to make legitimate inferences about what happened. In essence the signal-to-noise ratio decreases exponentially as the causal distance from the event increases, thus the best evidence is that which is intimately entwined with what was going on onboard MH370 and of lesser importance is that evidence obtained at greater distances in time or space.

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As Weick pointed out, to manage the unexpected we need to be reliably mindful, not reliably mindless. Obvious as that truism may be, those who invest heavily in plans, procedures, process and policy also end up perpetuating and reinforcing a whole raft of expectations about how the world is, thus investing in an organisational culture of mindlessness rather than mindfulness. Understanding that process inherently elides to a state of organisational mindlessness, we can see that a process oriented risk management standard such as ISO 31000 perversely cultivates a climate of inattentiveness, right where we should be most attentive and mindful. Nor am I alone in my assessment of ISO 31000, see for example John Adams criticism of the standard as  not fit for purpose , or KaplanMike’s assessment of ISO 31000 essentially ‘not relevant‘. Process is no substitute for paying attention.

Don’t get me wrong there’s nothing inherently wrong with a small dollop of process, just that it’s place is not centre stage in an international standard that purports to be about risk, not if you’re looking for an effective outcome. In real life it’s the unexpected, those black swans of Nassim Taleb’s flying in the dark skies of ignorance, that have the most effect, and about which ISO 31000 has nothing to say.

Postscript

Also the application of ISO 31000’s classical risk management to the workplace health and safety may actually be illegal in some jurisdictions (like Australia) where legislation is based on a backwards looking principle of due diligence, rather than a prospective risk based approach to workplace health and safety.

Metaphor shear

27/11/2013

Coined by Neal Stephenson the term metaphor shear is that moment when unpalatable technological complexities that we’ve smoothed over in the name of efficiency or usability suddenly intrude, and we’re left with the realisation that we’ve been living inside a metaphor as if it’s reality. And it’s that in that difference, between the idea and the reality where critical software systems can fail. For example (harrumph) we talk about the protection provided by software ‘architecture’ like partitions, firewalls and watchdogs as if these have a physical existence and permanence, in the same way as the real world mechanisms that they replaced, when in fact they’re ‘simply’ a collection of algorithms and digital ones and zeroes.

The igloo of uncertainty (Image source: UNEP 2010)

Ethics, uncertainty and decision making

The name of the model made me smile, but this article The Ethics of Uncertainty by TannertElvers and Jandrig argues that where uncertainty exists research should be considered as part of an ethical approach to managing risk.

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Taboo transactions and the safety dilemma Again my thanks goes to Ross Anderson over on the Light Blue Touchpaper blog for the reference, this time to a paper by Alan Fiske  an anthropologist and Philip Tetlock a social psychologist, on what they terms taboo transactions. What they point out is that there are domains of sharing in society which each work on different rules; communal, versus reciprocal obligations for example, or authority versus market. And within each domain we socially ‘transact’ trade-offs between equivalent social goods.

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The safety theatre

11/09/2013

I was reading a post by Ross Anderson on his dismal experiences at John Lewis, and ran across the term security theatre, I’ve actually heard the term, before, it was orignally coined by Bruce Schneier, but this time it got me thinking about how much activity in the safety field is really nothing more than theatrical devices that give the appearance of achieving safety, but not the reality. From zero harm initiatives to hi-vis vests, from the stylised playbook of public consultation to the use of safety integrity levels that purport to show a system is safe. How much of this adds any real value. Worse yet, and as with security theatre, an entire industry has grown up around this culture of risk, which in reality amounts to a culture of risk aversion in western society. As I see it risk as a cultural concept is like fire, a dangerous tool and an even more terrible master.