Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Why airliners crash - and what conservatism is going to look like

Richard I. Cook, MD, formerly of the Cognitive Technologies Laboratory at the University of Chicago and now of the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, has written about How Complex Systems Fail (18 headlines over 4 pages and well worth reading). 

The sorts of things Cook has looked into are operating theatres, airline cockpits, electrical power generation and so on (there's a video here - 30 minutes). You probably have a vague idea of the sorts of things that we learn from these kinds of studies, e.g. that catastrophe requires multiple failures – single point failures are not enough (the 'Swiss cheese effect' and Cook's point 3), and so post-accident attribution accident to a ‘root cause’ is fundamentally wrong (point 7).

All of that is interesting enough. But I want to leave hospitals and planes aside and turn to even broader issues. A civil society is a complex system. It can fail - we even have the new phrase 'failed state'. So how can a civil society fail? (See further below).
If you read Cook's work with the idea of a civil society as a complex system in mind, it suddenly becomes a striking articulation of the theoretical underpinnings of conservatism. So, for example, we learn that catastrophe is always around the corner (point 6), but is surprisingly rare because, over time, systems develop a series of defences to avert catastrophe (point 2). Point 13 includes this sentence "In every case, training and refinement of skill and expertise is one part of the function of the system itself": this is almost exactly the same thought that Roger Scruton expresses about the role of education, particularly education in high culture, within society as a whole - and all the more interesting for being expressed so differently from how Scruton would express it.

But let's take point 14, which is "Change introduces new forms of failure":

"The low rate of overt accidents in reliable systems may encourage changes, especially the use of new technology, to decrease the number of low consequence but high frequency failures. These changes maybe actually create opportunities for new, low frequency but high consequence failures. When new technologies are used to eliminate well understood system failures or to gain high precision performance they often introduce new pathways to large scale, catastrophic failures. Not uncommonly, these new, rare catastrophes have even greater impact than those eliminated by the new technology. These new forms of failure are difficult to see before the fact; attention is paid mostly to the putative beneficial characteristics of the changes. Because these new, high consequence accidents occur at a low rate, multiple system changes may occur before an accident, making it hard to see the contribution of technology to the failure."

That is probably the central insight of conservative thought: fiddle with it at your peril. You worried that Scottish people feel a bit far from Westminster politics and perhaps want more say over North Sea oil revenues? Once upon a time, that was a high frequency but low consequence failure of the UK. And now ... Or, wouldn't it be nice not to have to change your money when you go on holiday to France (that's a high frequency, low consequence irritation)? Perhaps you could ask the Greeks about "new pathways to large scale, catastrophic failures". The Established Church, the Monarchy, the Common Law ... perhaps they all impede "high precision performance" and contain multiple low consequence failures - but beware the new forms of failure to come.

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