June 21, 2010 in Opinion

Outside Voices: The high price of cut corners

About this column

Outside voices is a roundup of excerpts from editorials published in newspapers around the nation. They do not necessarily reflect the views of The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board.

St. Louis Post-DISPATCH, June 17: In 2007, obscure mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb published “The Black Swan,” a book about unexpected events that have an outsized impact on history.

We all know that random events – Taleb called them “black swans” – sometimes can occur.

The idea of random bad luck is attractive to oil company executives facing hostile questioning from Congress. But not all aberrations are “black swans,” and not all accidents and collapses result from random, unpredictable events.

Consider the pioneering work of sociologist Diane Vaughan at Columbia University. In assessing why the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986, she coined the phrase “normalization of deviance” to describe a culture within NASA that had grown to accept shortcuts and downplay possible bad outcomes.

Sadly, her findings were not taken to heart, and the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on its return to Earth in 2003. The investigation board again cited the “normalization of deviance” as a reason. Foam had struck the leading edge of the shuttle’s wings on launch many times without problems. NASA had stopped worrying about it.

Complex systems are prone to failure because mistakes become accepted.

A mounting trail of evidence suggests that the Gulf oil disaster occurred because corners were cut and risks were taken to save money.

No company sets out to trigger a global financial collapse or unleash an out-of-control oil well. But risks are cumulative; the more you take, the greater the odds are that something will go disastrously wrong. The more that deviance becomes the norm, the likelier you are to accept it.

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