Abduction in Risk and Safety

by Dr Rob Long on March 10, 2017

in Psychology of Safety and Risk,Robert Long

Abduction in Risk and Safety

imageWe all should know about induction and deduction but what do we know about abduction? Safety has a long tradition of deduction (not always that good), some reasonable history in induction (albeit, the wrong rite of passage to the wrong mentalitie) and virtually no one in safety speaks of abduction (the expectation and logic of expecting a surprise). When one is preoccupied with a discourse of controls, certainty, technology and objects, why would one accept the certainty of surprise? Why would one expect something alien to emerge from a system that has been created to manage risk?

Abductive reasoning (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abductive_reasoning) acknowledges the finitude of systems, controls and human perceptions. Abductive reasoning acknowledges mystery in the machine. It is why organisations, to use Dekker’s phase appear to ‘drift into failure’. In reality no organization drifts into failure, they never had ‘arrived’. The concept of completeness, perfection and infallibility is a concoction of the safety mindset, fixed on absolutes such as zero. This is why Weick’s work is so important, expecting the unexpected is an indicator of risk intelligence (Evans).

One of the worst mindsets that can get hold of the safety person is that everything is under control, everything is comfortable. This is the recipe for hubris, one of the greatest risks to safety. The moment all is comfortable, the moment we thing we have got that matrix colour down from red to green, we can stop thinking, stop interrogating the situation, all will go well. We need a dose of abductive reasoning. So, one makes a hypothesis but doesn’t ‘deduce’ or ‘infer’ that the outcome is predictable, one needs to explain why it is unpredictable.

The idea of abduction comes from Charles Pierce, one of the founders of semiotics (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Sanders_Peirce ).

Recently I have learned that people are being seduced by a nonsense called ‘predictive analytics’. The idea is that one can predict what a human will do if one can collect enough data on the human, including video data (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Predictive_analytics ). This has led to building sites overseas with hundred of cameras (big brother) on site collecting data in the naïve idea that behaviours are predictive and provide insight into what will happen next. Trouble is, humans are not machines and behaviourism is a nonsense. Humans are not the sum of inputs and outputs. Still people buy this crap amid promises to reduce injuries down to zero. Ah, the seduction of the absolute, lets buy it. As long as the discourse is safety we can rob any human of what we want.

Predictive analytics is from the same faith as ‘big data’ and ‘machine learning’ (sic, no machine can ‘learn’). This faith-belief in big data is behind the pain and suffering of thousands of Australians disturbed by the robo-debt debacle by Centrelink. How fantastic to attack the weak and vulnerable with fear, distress and cruelty in the name of ‘big-data ideology’ (http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/centrelinks-robodebt-creating-a-climate-of-fear-20170307-gut1z7.html ). We see in this debacle the ideology of predictive analytics. When will people begin to understand how humans make judgments and decisions? When will people begin to understand the social psychology of decision making? Instead, lets make some dollars out of promises in predictability and cover up the mess when we psychology injure tens of thousands of vulnerable Australians. Cool.

There is one thing for sure, humans cannot be predicted. Any ‘clap trap’ about ‘prediction’ is a religious belief in denial of fallibility, randomness and the reality of the world. You can read more about the religion here:




For a moment, let’s apply some critical thinking, just interrogate the language and the power behind the language. The guarantee is to ‘predict’ behaviours (and hence the unconscious and thinking) and then only the claim to ‘reduce’ injuries. Huh? If you can predict what humans will do, then go for zero!!! Ah, the promise of god, is alive and well in the safety religion.

  • Bernard Corden

    This has now directed me to John Horton Conway and his Game of Life:


    I came across him following an article in The Guardian Weekly some years ago and what prompted my interest was that he hailed from the same region as me in the UK.

    • Rob Long

      You lost me Bernard, I dropped Maths in Year 8.

    • Rob Long

      You lost me Bernard, I dropped Maths in Year 8.

  • Rob Long
  • Bernard Corden

    I also forgot to add that BMA Broadmeadow representatives were summoned to appear before the Queensland parliamentary inquiry select committee and comments from the chair are copied below:

    CHAIR: In conclusion and before you go, I know that BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance may feel that it is above any government or any other organisation. However, I remind you that your company is not above this or any other parliament in Australia, including this parliament here in Queensland. As a committee, we are still quite disturbed that we had to summons you to be here today. I sincerely hope that, if we need you to come back here in the future and we invite you to attend this committee, you will attend willingly and truthfully answer any questions that are put before you and not cause us to have to summons any of you again. We see it as potentially—and it could potentially be—in contempt of the Queensland parliament. Just because BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance is a transnational company, is a big company, does not mean that you are above this parliament or any other parliament in this country. I would ask that you take that message back to the most senior levels in your company.

    Good governance and corporate social responsibility what a heap of hogwash. It is pure corporate bilge masquerading as leadership and yet more evidence of regulatory capture.

  • Bernard Corden

    Dear Rob,

    I believe it was Soso who coined the phrase No person, no problem. He was pretty conversant with totalitarian regimes and dystopian environments.

    On a much more serious note, the response from the safety discipline has been mediocre at best and I suspect many are afraid of the political and economical ramifications, which leads me to quote one of the early members of the Fabian society, Harold Laski,….”A healthy loyalty is not passive and complacent but active and critical”

    We have to address this resurgence of CWP collectively. Ultimately, it will impact on everyone and the standard of controls must be proportional to the likely worst consequence and supplemented by soft systems change management processes. There is a public hearing in Brisbane next Wednesday 15/03/2017 at the parliamentary annexe (Level 6). Dr Robert Cohen is presenting to the select committee.

    What has happened in the United States and here is amoral and to quote the late Gore Vidal, the US is the only nation to go from barbarism to decadence and bypass civilisation.

    The following links provide alarming details of how it has evolved in the US:




    The radiologist health surveillance all clear reports from the Johns Hopkins Medical Centre in Baltimore and impending civil action sounds all too familiar.

    The book by Alan Derickson entitled Black lung – Anatomy of a public health disaster is worth reading. It was not that long ago that public health officials in the US announced that exposure to coal dust prevented TB. This is analogous with many comments from the purveyors of cigarettes and other tobacco products and I am sure you will have read Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, a bible for semiotics.

    Moreover, it is only a matter of time before we experience another disaster like Moura or Pike River and to quote another early member of the Fabian society………………..

    “A reasonable estimate of economic organization must allow for the fact that, unless industry is to be paralyzed by recurrent revolts on the part of outraged human nature, it must satisfy criteria, which are not purely economic”

    R H Tawney – Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926)

    Tawney was a contemporary of George Orwell. However, more recently a there is a disconcerting dearth of critical thinkers, which is more than likely due to the internet and social media. We are losing the ability to think, much like losing the ability to do long division following the introduction of electronic calculators.

    • Rob Long

      Bernard, thanks for your enlightening share. Love your comments.

  • Bernard Corden

    Over recent years there has been extraordinary growth in the study of human behaviour, which includes psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, behaviourism, cognitive behaviour therapy, cybernetics, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, neurolinguistic programming, neuro-scientific imaging and neurochemistry. Dalrymple critically evaluates how psychology undermines morality and provides further interesting observations and extensive comments on this vast, arcane and dynamic discipline. Notwithstanding these remarkable developments and despite the logorrhea, it would be a bold person who claims that our self-understanding, with the forlorn hope of an existence free of inner and outer conflict, is now greater than that of Montaigne or Shakespeare. Human motives are rarely pure and never simple and we owe incomparably more to improved sewerage than to psychology. The human brain, for something supposedly so brilliant and evolutionary advanced, is a pretty messy, extremely fallible and complicated organ. This supports the philosophy of the late and much lamented Trevor Kletz ……..try to change situations, not people. It is much less complicated than teaching rodents or pigeons how to play table tennis and wallowing in scientology, neurolinguistic programming or obscurantist psychobabble.

    Meanwhile, we have witnessed a resurgence of black lung in the coal mining industry, with 19 confirmed cases in Queensland and one in NSW. In the United states, since 1975, the Department of Labour has paid out approximately US$ 45 billion in black lung related compensation claims, which amounts to a lot of hospitals and other public health infrastructure.

    The Queensland parliamentary public inquiry into coal workers’ pneumoconiosis is drawing to a close and the select committee presents its report to the legislative assembly on 12/04/2017. There have been almost 30 public hearings and approximately 40 submissions and our peak safety body, the SIA failed to provide a submission due to lack of technical expertise. I attended a recent SIA function in Brisbane and the topic was not even on their radar.

    The resurgence of CWP is a significant legal, financial and moral issue and it has barely been mentioned on this or many other safety sites or blogs. The silence has been deafening.

    I have attended several public hearings, read the transcripts, related publications and many other technical reports. Regulatory capture, the prevalence of contingent or precarious contract labour hire arrangements and the provision of significant performance bonuses for mercenary rednecks to meet extreme production targets are significant contributory factors. However, addressing the problem at the source using passive controls will resolve many of the organisational problems.

    Corporations are an anthropomorphic fallacy. They have no memory, soul to serve or body to incarcerate. It has happened before with the Radium Girls and with asbestos and it will happen a again. Leadership has been noticeably absent and several of the CWP public inquiry transcripts indicate it has been replaced by intimidation.

    • Rob Long

      Bernard, some good thoughts however, trouble is there is no difference between trying to ‘change situations’ or ‘change people’ unless the situation has no people in it. There is no simplistic solution to risk despite our wish that it might be so.

  • mick

    If we could just get read of all safety professionals and replace them with social psychologists with religious background, we would be fine

  • mick

    Drifting into failure is actually Reasons expression, not Dekkers, although he uses it more than Reason himself

    • Rob Long

      Yes but Dekker popularised the expression of it in his book, either way, the notion of drift into failure is not helpful. Just as Weick changed his position from High Reliability Organisation to High Reliability Organising, We also see development in Reason way from his initial notion of drift and its reductionist assumptions.

      • Craig

        I guess to a large extend we also see what we want to see … in Reason, Weick and others. I certainly do not agreed with many of your views however I have to say honestly that I am yet to see anything new from Dekker. All he seems to be doing is popularising concepts already created by others

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