Why risk community rejects science, logic and common sense

First, I wanted to share an extract from the book I am reading at the moment

Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life

The chapter is called “I Know It Works in Practice, but Does It Work in Theory? On John Harrison, Semmelweis and the Electronic Cigarette” and I though it gives a great historical take on why most risk managers and all risk management associations reject decision science, probability theory and neuroscience.

Here is the quote from the chapter:

In a sensible world, the only thing that would matter would be solving a problem by whatever means work best, but problem-solving is a strangely status-conscious job: there are high-status approaches and low-status approaches. Even Steve Jobs encountered the disdain of the nerdier elements of the software industry – ‘What does Steve do exactly? He can’t even code,’ an employee once snootily observed.

But compared to an eighteenth-century counterpart, Jobs had it easy. In the mid-eighteenth century, a largely self-taught clockmaker called John Harrison heard that the UK Government had pledged £20,000 – several million pounds in today’s currency – as a prize for anyone who could establish longitude to within half a degree* after a journey from England to the West Indies, and was determined to find a solution. This was a life and death matter – a navigational disaster by British naval ships off the Isles of Scilly in 1707 had left several thousand sailors dead. To judge proposed solutions, the crown established a Board of Longitude, consisting of the Astronomer Royal, admirals and mathematics professors, the Speaker of the House of Commons and ten Members of Parliament.

You’ll notice that there were no clockmakers on the committee – the prize was clearly offered under the assumption that the solution would be an astronomical one, featuring celestial measurement and advanced calculation. In the end, Harrison produced an astonishing series of discoveries that led to the invention of the marine chronometer, and with it a revolution in navigation. Once ships could carry an accurate timepiece at sea, they were finally able to calculate how far they had travelled from east to west without recourse to less reliable methods. 

Alongside Harrison’s remarkable technological work, there is also an interesting psychological aspect to this story. Though they awarded him a great deal of money for his invention, the prize was always denied to him, even though he demonstrated that his solution worked more than once. A great part of his later life was spent petitioning the authorities and complaining that he had been cheated of his reward. Nevil Maskelyne, a supporter of the ‘lunar distances’ method of astronomical calculation, is often portrayed as the villain for denying Harrison the prize – and it cannot have helped Harrison’s case when Maskelyne was made Astronomer Royal and a member of the prize-giving committee. But the real story is one of professional and academic hierarchy: to an astronomer, the solution of an uneducated man whose life had been spent making clocks did not seem worthy of recognition.

I am not so sure that Maskelyne was a villain and instead see him as a ‘typical intellectual’. I say this because we see the same pattern in a series of significant innovations – science seems to fall short of its ideals whenever the theoretical elegance of the solution or the intellectual credentials of the solver are valued above the practicality of an idea. If a problem is solved using a discipline other than that practised by those who believe themselves the rightful guardians of the solution, you’ll face an uphill struggle no matter how much evidence you can amass.

Until 1948, the Wright brothers’ Flyer was displayed not in the Smithsonian, but in the
Science Museum in London. This might seem strange, but for years after the bicycle shop owners from Ohio had flown their manned heavier-than-air device on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the US Government refused to acknowledge their achievement, maintaining that a government sponsored programme had actually been first.

In 1847, when Ignaz Semmelweis decisively proved that hand-washing by doctors would cut the incidence of puerperal fever, a condition that could be fatal during childbirth, he was spurned. All too often, what matters is not whether an idea is true or effective, but whether it fits with the preconceptions of a dominant cabal.

I had always innocently assumed that after Edward Jenner discovered a vaccination against smallpox he would have presented his findings before sitting back to enjoy the acclaim. The truth was nothing of the kind; he spent the rest of his life defending his idea against a large number of people who had profited from an earlier practice called variolation, and were reluctant to admit that anything else was better.

As you can see, the push back we get for RM2, a approach to risk management superior in every way, is only to be expected. Well, while associations like FERMA, IIA, RIMS, RMIA, PARIMA and every single national risk association continue to push their pseudoscience, astrology-like agenda, a small group of good risk managers will focus on applying proven and tested techniques from decision science, probability theory and neuroscience using it as competitive advantage for their organisations.

That’s why we created RISK AWARENESS WEEK 2020, a place with no heatmaps, no risk management frameworks, no risk appetite statements, no risk owners, risk mitigations and other nonsense.

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One thought on “Why risk community rejects science, logic and common sense

  1. Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” also seems particularly germane to this discussion.

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