Don’t Let Evidence Get in the Way of Safety

by Dr Rob Long on April 16, 2017

in Investigation,Psychology of Safety and Risk,Robert Long,Zero Harm

Don’t Let Evidence Get in the Way of Safety

imageWhen it comes to faith-belief, evidence rarely works. This is the primary discovery of Festinger et. al. in their study of Cognitive Dissonance. You can download When Prophecy Fails here

The idea that people will make a ‘paradigm shift’ (Kuhn – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) just because evidence is presented to them assumes that all decision making is logical and rational, which is rarely the case. This was discussed extensively in my book Real Risk, Human Discerning and Risk and also in the video presentation on the ‘Cognitive Dissonance Cycle’ ( Unfortunately Safety tends to promote Cognitive Dissonance as some sense of discomfort in the face of contradiction, ambiguity, ambivalence and paradox. Such an understanding totally distorts the context of Festinger’s work. Again, good on Safety for another effort in dumb down. I will present more about this in my next Newsletter which comes out in a few days.

When something is a faith-belief and is invested with much sunk cost and identity, it becomes a religious-like commitment. From then on, it is highly unlikely that there will be any paradigm shift just because a logical argument and evidence is presented. This is the case for any of those who ‘believe’ in ‘safety differently’. There is much more going on than just rationality when it comes to things like zero harm and safety philosophy. So, to jump from safety to ‘safety differently’ is something more akin to a religious conversion than a change in idea.

Let’s look at the evidence regarding something simple like wearing bike helmets. Surely it makes sense to wear head protection when riding a bicycle? New fines introduced in 2016 in NSW shows that the NSW Government are serious about the wearing of helmets when riding a bicycle. ( NOT! All the evidence demonstrates that wearing helmets when cycling is less safe (

When the NSW Government (and Victorian Government) entered into a religious binary commitment toward safety ( they raised the sunk cost and faith-belief in a binary philosophy. Binary philosophy is fundamentalist philosophy, all logic then becomes black and white and any element of sophisticated thinking is eliminated. As the NSW Transport advertisement asks: what is a suitable number of road deaths? Here we see the championing of ‘dumb down’ at its best, only safety could think up such a dumb question. Like, ‘when did you stop belting your partner?’ or ‘do you support the war on terror?’

The chance of changing zero once it is introduced is much more difficult to shift, regardless of the evidence. And, the evidence already shows that zero harm campaigns not only don’t work, they make things worse ( They have a social psychological affect on a population that drives complacency and creates a religious fixation on minor risk. Zero ideology infuses the culture with binary logic when it projects thinking about risk. Interestingly, when there was no philosophy of zero in the semiosphere, the road statistics were coming down steadily.

Zero target thinking and zero mentalitie requires religious-like commitment in spite of the evidence. Indeed, any evidence thrown against zero is attacked with religious fervor as a death wish and anti-safety. Like suggesting that head protection is unsafe

So, as Governments spend more money on road improvements they also invest in a philosophy that creates a ‘collective unconscious’ that mitigates the effectiveness of their budget investment, clever!

  • Bernard Corden

    The climate gate scandal with the UEA was not the accuracy of the data. It was that obtained data was deliberately excluded to reinforce their conclusions.

  • There is more to this argument than just “evidence”, in the sense that even evidence is never (or at least seldom) complete. Therefore, not only is the factual evidence important, it is also important to consider how complete the evidence is, as well as the “glasses” with which the evidence is viewed. As I understand it, cognitive dissonance will also put a “filter” on those “glasses”, so even presenting the evidence from your own view will not guarantee that it is understood in the same view. Global warming, and specifically anthropogenic global warming is a point in case. I have seen the exact same information being presented in two different ways (the same graph, different explanations on how to interpret the data), depending on whether you are a supporter or critic of the subject (and this also took on some religious character). Add to that the complexity of some data, and there is seldom a unique or single answer to what the data represents. Even if there was a unique answer, it will still only be as accurate as the data.

  • Bernard Corden

    Dear Rob,

    This has happened repeatedly with climate change. Ian Plimer, James Dellingpole, Christopher Booker and Matt Ridley are effectively categorised as heretics for challenging anthropogenic global warming, despite revelations of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia falsifying evidence.

  • Thanks Rob – if they want me to slow down and pay attention then why do they keep making the roads wider and straighter and adding more and more “safety” features to cars to stop me having to think? – seems to me that they are telling me to do one thing but making it easier for me to do the opposite?

    • Rob Long

      If culture change takes a long time to change then heaven help us. After 10 years of the bloody idiot campaign and now years of zero ideology it is not likely that safety will ever escape the binary malaise. So I think we are in for a long religious road ahead where everyone in safety will be baffled as to why things don’t improve and wonder why it has nothing to do with them.

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