By Phil La Duke
“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt”—Mark Twain
I haven’t posted an original post in over a month. I decided a while back that posting for the sake of posting served no good purpose. Not that I haven’t had anything new original to write, it’s just that I have started no fewer than six pieces that degraded into lengthy meandering pieces with which I was never quite satisfied; those of you who are long time readers must know that my bar for satisfactory work is set pretty low and can conclude that while the pieces have had some kernels of truth and fresh perspectives they weren’t worth the paper on which they were printed. I have been working on an original published piece for the Michigan Manufacturers Association which will be out in the organization’s digital June issue, a follow up piece for the same magazine for June, three pieces for Entrepreneur which are far and away more of a pain in the ass than they effort could ever be worth, and my monthly column for Fabricating & Metalworking which inexplicably haven’t even been read by my editor let alone seen print (do me a favor and drop him an email and ask him why email@example.com I’m more than a bit curious myself.) But most of my in the last two weeks has been spent sparring (both publicly and privately) with one of my many detractors; the particulars of said feud aren’t really important, but what IS important is that all of the back and forth has inspired four different posts (the first one being the one you are reading).
The argument devolved into a “is so, is not” where the detractor did nothing but heap condescension and abuse on anyone who dared question his interpretation of what I found to be specious conclusions to dubious research. I quit the exchange early, as it was, as I am so found of saying “like trying to do a card trick for a dog—no matter how hard I tried, how slowly and patiently I explained my point, or what I said, he just wasn’t going to get it.”
One of the other participants in the public quarrel quoted something that James Reason said of the safety profession in the early 70’s (those of you who simmer in pedantic rage at my lack of citation can look it up, I have neither the desire not the ambition for such an undertaking). The quote had to do with the great schism in the safety community over whether or not injuries were the outgrowth of individual error or system flaws. I’ve spent the better part of two years reading scientific and behavioral science research on why we make mistakes and I am somewhere in the middle of this debate. But the concept resonated with me (and I use the word “resonated” in the truest, purest form) I found the concept of this most basic philosophical disagreement echoing through my thoughts, coming to me at odd moments, and nagging at me. I realized that my work in safety is probably a waste of time, that I might as well be standing on my balcony addressing an army of ceramic lawn gnomes; in other words I am not likely to change anyone’s mind about safety.
Who Needs Facts? I Got Me An Opinion!
When future historians trace the origins of the demise of Western Civilization my guess is that the Wikipedification of society will be seen as a key factor. People today are quick to believe what they want to believe, seek out other opinions disguised as facts that support their largely untenable positions. It’s not just Wikipedia that has created this “if enough people believe it then it must be fact” mentality. A few years back Google modified its search algorithm to steer people to web pages that were aligned with their beliefs. It seems that people don’t want to have their beliefs challenged and learn; rather they want to be reassured that whatever stupid dreck they’ve come to believe isn’t nonsense after all. We have created a world where facts, logic, research, and even scientific findings are subject to a vote; while Lot looked for ten just men, today all one need do is find one delusional crackpot with a message we find reassuring and we can discount science, history, and…well just about everything. It doesn’t matter if we have a smoking gun definitively and indisputably disproving a methodology or belief, the people who derive a living from spewing their soft-headed pabulum will simply shout it down whilst speaking to rapt audiences eager to believe in their hog wash.
So What’s the Point?
Ostensibly, this doesn’t seem to have much to do with safety, but it does. If we continue to give equal credence to charlatan and visionary alike people will die. Innocent people are being killed in our workplaces every day. And when people over simplify safety with their magic bullet solutions—which are lucrative and easy to sell—they have blood of innocents on their hands. I know of a company that invested heavily in a well-known snake oil solution and had a fatality. I am still haunted by the blood-splattered poster and I wonder if the victim was able to see the irony in his gore festooning a poster reminding him to work safe. I wonder as he lay dying if he was able to think of anything beyond what must have been incredible pain, and if he was able to think, if he would care that so many people around the world bought the snake oil worked, drank the Kool-Aid, or simply agreed that reminding people to work safe would save his life. Or did he think of his widow and his children, if the dead could edit Wikipedia what would he have to say on the subject?
The Attention Spans of a Fruit Fly
I write for a lot of outlets, and when I am given my first assignment I always get the same spiel: No more than 500 words. Why? “my reader’s don’t have time to read anything more than that, and frankly 500 words is too much”. We aren’t just getting dumber as a society we are demanding that people dumb it down. I gave a speech recently where the second of two was cancelled because my message was “too sophisticated for workers” (my speech was on what it meant to have safety as a value) I was literally replaced by a guy who set fire to stuffed squirrels to demonstrate the dangers of arc flash.
Stupid Is As Stupid Does
I have never wanted to be stupid. I have had a strong thirst for knowledge and seek out opinions diametrically opposed to my own. It can be scary to read books by experts that artfully lay out an argument that makes such perfect sense that it shakes your beliefs to the core, but it’s necessary to grow as a person. I don’t think I’m in the minority but you will never go broke selling stupidity to the stupid. I spend my spare time reading non-fiction books on safety, just culture, mistake making, the physiology of the human brain and how our emotions shape our decisions. It doesn’t make for fun weekends or scintillating dinner conversation. (You might be surprised at the level of uninterest (apparently this is not a word, but I don’t mean “disinterest” which means not really caring one way of the other, but of the absolute dearth of interest) in how synapsis work, or what part of the brain we use to make decisions, or why biologically making mistakes is not only unavoidable but necessary for survival.)
Is There No Hope?
I realize, I confess, that I print a pretty bleak picture. But when we stop listening to experts in favor of money-grubbing mouth-breathing safety profiteers we risk more than our own careers we risk the lives of others. I should note, for the record, I don’t really think of myself as an expert on worker safety, rather I think of myself as a guy who reads all the articles, books, and opinions of true experts and translates their work into simple truths that I share with a handful of safety professionals who by and large are just looking for solutions to problems that are beyond their ability. They’re looking for fast answers and quick fixes—in safety time isn’t money time it’s blood—and I do my best to find and share them.
I started this post with a quote (at 1388 words I wonder if anyone is still reading this) about staying silent and being thought a fool (I guess we’ll know by the number of people who post comments correcting me on the source. I checked my sources (as I generally do) and found that this Mark Twain quote had been attributed to no fewer than 8 sources. I thought it appropriate to start the article with something so easy to verify (who said what) on which know one seems to be able to agree. For the record, Abraham Lincoln said something similar (“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”) but both he and Mark Twain were both quoting (or more accurately paraphrasing) Proverbs 17:28, or Proverbs 18:28, or A Farewell To Arms, or Curious George Goes To The Beach let’s put it to a vote; what difference does it make?