Social media provocateurs are on the rise. Say something that’s a bit on the edge and wait for the avalanche of responses. It’s a way of getting traffic to a site. The scientific and technical sphere has these digital provocateurs less than the glossy magazine brigade, but the phenomena is growing.
Take a method or technique that is commonly used, challenge people to say why it’s good while branding it rubbish. It’s not a bad way to get clicks. This approach to the on-line world stimulates several typical responses.
One: Jump on-board. I agree the method is rubbish. Two: I’m a believer. You’re wrong and here’s why. Three: So, what? I’m going to argue for the sake of arguing. Four: Classical fence sitting. On the one hand you maybe right on the other hand you may be wrong.
Here’s one I saw recently about safety management. You know those five-by-five risk matrices we use – they’re rubbish. They are subjective and unscientific. They give consultants the opportunity to escalate risks to make new work or they give managers the opportunity to deescalate risk to avoid doing more work. Now, that’s not a bad provocation.
If the author starts by alleging all consultants and managers of being manipulative bad actors that sure is going to provoke a response. In safety management there are four pillars and one of them is safety culture. So, if there are manipulative bad actors applying the process there’s surely a poor safety culture which makes everything else moot.
This plays into the discomfort some people have with the inevitable subjectivity of risk classification. It’s true that safety risk classification uses quantitative and qualitative methods. However, most typically quantitative methods are used to support qualitative decisions.
There’s an in-built complication with any risk classification scheme. It’s one reason why three-by-three risk matrices are often inadequate. When boundaries are set there’s always the cases to decide for items that are marginally one side or other side of a prescribed line.
An assessment of safety risk is just that – an assessment. When we use the word “analysis” it’s the supporting work that is being referenced. Even an analysis contains estimations of the risk. This is particularly the case in calculations involving any kind of human action.
To say that this approach is not “scientific” is again a provocation. Science is far more than measuring phenomena. Far more than crunching numbers. It includes the judgement of experts. Yes, that judgement must be open to question. Testing and challenging is a good way of giving increased the credibility of conclusions drawn from risk assessment.