Re: [SystemSafety] New Yorker article...

From: Drew Rae < >
Date: Thu, 30 Jul 2015 09:26:29 +1000


Thanks for sharing the article John. I'm inclined to agree with the way the article discusses the Pinto case specifically, but I find it ironic that the journalist has a much more deterministic view of engineering than the engineer does. It's very clear that "traceable cause" for Gioia is not mathematical or logical concept, but a social construct - a "pattern" that will create consensus for a recall. There is even an explicit social test "which ones would pass muster with the executives upstairs".

I don't think there is anything wrong with safety being based on social agreement. The problem is when people think that there is some formula or algorithm that can tell you when something is safe. It is even worse when the people operating the algorithms are totally unconscious of the amount of individual judgement and group consensus-building that is involved.

An example from the article: "Engineers have a grievance. They think we should think more like them. They are not wrong." This followed a passage about allegedly disproportionate allocation of resources to fixing technical risks than controlling driver behaviour through regulation and enforcement. Not only does this misrepresent the engineering mindset (since when has a hierarchy of controls suggested putting "tell the user not to act dangerously" ahead of "improve the design"?) but it falsely suggests that it is somehow more rational to treat risks of equal sizes equally.

Why? It would be very nice engineering-wise if we could. Within the limits of uncertainty we could treat the design of society as a risk-minimisation problem. What would be irrational would be to ignore the fact that people don't have consistent risk preferences. Choosing which parts of travel to regulate, and how to regulate them, is not an engineering problem. Like it or not, the placement of a fuel tank is a more compelling and culpable explanation for a death than the reaction time of the other driver. There's no "rational" basis for this, but there's no "rational" basis to object to it either.

Where I think the Pinto case is interesting is that there was nothing that was non-normative about Ford's decision making, or even about the design of the Pinto, within the automobile industry. There was a big gap between those norms and what was expected in hindsight by the US public. Discovering and reacting to that gap led to an automobile safety advocacy movement that arguably pushed car standards and features beyond what the US would have otherwise been comfortable with. (This is a country that still has a vocal minority objecting to mandatory seat-belt wearing).

On 30/07/2015, at 7:13 AM, John Downer wrote:

> I donít disagree. (Especially given that anyone pressing the accelerator instead of the brake probably isnít a driving prodigy to begin with.)
> 
> I think the wider points of the article still stand though. (That we have a tendency to think about accidents emotionally rather than in terms of numbers. / That there is a sort of Ďengineering mindsetí. / etc.) 
> 
> Mostly I just thought it was interesting to see the Pinto story told from Fordís perspective.
> 
> J.
> 
> 
> 
> -----------
> Dr. John Downer
> Global Insecurities Centre.
> School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS).
> University of Bristol (UK)
> 
> 
> 

>> On Jul 29, 2015, at 4:47 PM, Mike Ellims <michael.ellims_at_xxxxxx >>
>> There is one obvious flaw in the argument presented, it is stated that; ďCars are engineered to be tolerant of pedal error: the driver who depresses the accelerator, thinking itís the brake, still has the option of simply putting the car in neutral or turning it off. (Thatís one of the reasons that cars have gearshifts and ignition switches.)Ē
>>
>> Which is true but irrelevant. For the average person stopping a car by putting it into neutral or by turning the ignition off isnít part of their normal experience nor part of any planned or practiced set of responses to emergencies (if there are any). Therefore the vast majority of people (90%)( wonít be able to cognate a solution involving either response in an emergency thus for the typical person neither is actually a viable option.
>>
>> If I remember correctly after the Lexus crash involving a CHiP officer Toyota did an internal survey and found that 30% of their own employees had no idea what neutral was. The engineering mistake here is assuming that the ordinary driver has the same internal model of how a car works as the engineer, which is incorrect. For the average driver the options available are usually limited to steer or brake.
>>
>> Cheers.
>>
>> From: systemsafety-bounces_at_xxxxxx >> Sent: 29 July 2015 19:25
>> To: systemsafety_at_xxxxxx >> Subject: [SystemSafety] New Yorker article...
>>
>> I havenít been keeping up with list discussions as religiously as I should, so I apologize if someone has posted this before, but I came across this article and it struck me as something that people might appreciate:
>>
>> http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/04/the-engineers-lament
>>
>> Itís about the star-crossed Pinto, and made me think about it a little differently than I had.
>>
>> (If you find yourself on the wrong side of a paywall, just google the title and it should send you through.)
>>
>> John
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>> -----------
>> Dr. John Downer
>> Global Insecurities Centre.
>> School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS).
>> University of Bristol (UK)
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
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systemsafety_at_xxxxxx Received on Thu Jul 30 2015 - 01:26:50 CEST

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