We’ve been away from our American television channels and DVR for a few months already, and I’ve had some odd cravings for bad television. So last night I loaded up the season premiere of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills only to watch some unsanitary behaviour and food safety mistakes.
After bombing out as a genetics grad student and dabbling in journalism, I re-entered academia teaching risk analysis to engineering students at the University of Waterloo (that’s in Canada, down the road from Guelph). I taught a course called Science, Technology and Values to about 100 engineering undergrads twice a year.
I loved it.
We got to examine in real-time the assessment, management and communication failures of the 1994 Intel chip melt-down, which is now being repeated with the Apple iPhone. Engineers are big on failure analysis and figuring out ways to prevent future accidents.
The causes are usually cultural rather than technological failures.
As William J. Broad writes in the New York Times this morning, disasters teach more than successes.
While that idea may sound paradoxical, it is widely accepted among engineers.
They say grim lessons arise because the reasons for triumph in matters of technology are often arbitrary and invisible, whereas the cause of a particular failure can frequently be uncovered, documented and reworked to make improvements.
Disaster, in short, can become a spur to innovation.
Henry Petroski, a historian of engineering at Duke University and author of “Success Through Failure,” a 2006 book, said,
“It’s a great source of knowledge — and humbling, too — sometimes that’s necessary. Nobody wants failures. But you also don’t want to let a good crisis go to waste.”
What’s baffled me is that the food industry seems immune to such lessons. Or it takes forever. It took 29 outbreaks involving leafy greens before the California industry had a tipping point and decided to get serious about food safety? The same mistakes are repeated over and over and over and it’s boring (and really dangerous).
Canadian greats, The Tragically Hip, who are not engineers, just dudes from Kingston (that’s in Ontario) summed it up in their 1994 song, Titanic Terrarium:
An accident’s sometimes the only way
To worm our way back to bad decisions