Archives For Uncertainty

When you look at the safety performance of industries which have a consistent focus on safety as part of the social permit, nuclear or aviation are the canonical examples, you see that over time increases in safety tend to plateau out. This looks like some form of a learning curve, but what’s the mechanism, or mechanisms that actually drives this process?

There are actually two factors at play here, firstly the increasing marginal cost of improvement and secondly the problem of learning from rare events. In the first case increasing marginal cost is simply an economist’s way of stating that it will cost more to achieve that next increment in performance. For example, airbags are more expensive than seat-belts by roughly an order of magnitude (based on replacement costs) however airbags only deliver 8% reduced mortality when used in conjunction with seat belts, see Crandall (2001). As a result the next increment in safety takes longer and costs more (1).

The second case is a more subtle version of the first. As we reduce accident rates accidents become rarer. Now one of the traditional ways in which safety improvements occur is through studying accidents when they occur and then to eliminate or mitigate identified causal factors. Obviously as the accident rate decreases this likewise the opportunity for improvement also decreases. When accidents do occur we have a further problem because (definitionally) the cause of the accident will comprise a highly unlikely combination of factors that are needed to defeat the existing safety measures. Corrective actions for such rare combination of events therefore are highly specific to that events context and conversely will have far less universal applicability.  For example the lessons of metal fatigue learned from the Comet airliner disaster has had universal applicability to all aircraft designs ever since. But the QF-72 automation upset off Learmouth? Well those lessons, relating to the specific fault tolerance architecture of the A330, are much harder to generalise and therefore have less epistemic strength.

In summary not only does it cost more with each increasing increment of safety but our opportunity to learn through accidents is steadily reduced as their arrival rate and individual epistemic value (2) reduce.

Notes

1. In some circumstances we may also introduce other risks, see for example the death and severe injury caused to small children from air bag deployments.

2. In a Popperian sense.

References

1. Crandall, C.S., Olson, L.M.,  P. Sklar, D.P., Mortality Reduction with Air Bag and Seat Belt Use in Head-on Passenger Car Collisions, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 153, Issue 3, 1 February 2001, Pages 219–224, https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/153.3.219.

Monkey-typing

Safety cases and that room full of monkeys

Back in 1943, the French mathematician Émile Borel published a book titled Les probabilités et la vie, in which he stated what has come to be called Borel’s law which can be paraphrased as, “Events with a sufficiently small probability never occur.” Continue Reading…

MH 370 search vessel (Image source: ATSB)

Once more with feeling

Sonar vessels searching for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean may have missed the jet, the ATSB’s Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan has told News Online. he went on to point out the uncertainties involved, the difficulty of terrain that could mask the signature of wreckage and that therefore problematic areas would need to be re-surveyed. Despite all that the Commissioner was confident that the wreckage site would be found by June. Me I’m not so sure.

Continue Reading…

Two_reactors

A tale of another two reactors

There’s been much debate over the years as whether various tolerance of risk approaches actually satisfy the legal principle of reasonable practicability. But there hasn’t to my mind been much consideration of the value of simply adopting the legalistic approach in situations when we have a high degree of uncertainty regarding the likelihood of adverse events. In such circumstances basing our decisions upon what can turn out to be very unreliable estimates of risk can have extremely unfortunate consequences. Continue Reading…

MH370 underwater search area map (Image source- Australian Govt)

Bayes and the search for MH370

We are now approximately 60% of the way through searching the MH370 search area, and so far nothing. Which is unfortunate because as the search goes on the cost continues to go up for the taxpayer (and yes I am one of those). What’s more unfortunate, and not a little annoying, is that that through all this the ATSB continues to stonily ignore the use of a powerful search technique that’s been used to find everything from lost nuclear submarines to the wreckage of passenger aircraft.  Continue Reading…

2015/02/img_4472.jpg

An interesting article from The Conversation on the semiotics of the Doomsday clock. Continue Reading…

Interesting article on old school rail safety and lessons for the modern nuclear industry. As a somewhat ironic addendum the early nuclear industry safety studies also overlooked the risks posed by large inventories of fuel rods on site, the then assumption being that they’d be shipped off to a reprocessing facility as soon as possible, it’s hard to predict the future. 🙂