Malcolm Gladwell, Challenger, and the Oil Rig Blow up

I need to half-take-back part of my assessment of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, What the Dog Saw. I said I liked the book overall, which is still true, but that the chapter explaining the Challenger disaster bored me.

Okay, so, lately that chapter seems way relevant. I picked up the book again after the news of the oil rig catastrophe along the Gulf Coast headlined last week.

In the article, called “Blow Up,” Malcolm Gladwell basically explains why extensive investigations into such disasters usually prove futile (I managed to unearth a link to the original New Yorker article if you want to check it out). Challenger and the Three-Mile-Island nuclear disaster were both caused by a series of smaller, normal accidents. Three Mile Island had a normal blockage problem in the plant’s filter. Then the backup cooling system failed. Then a gauge that should have alerted operators about the backup failure failed. And at this point there was almost a meltdown.

Back to May 2010–apparently the oil rig had several backup systems that failed too, resulting in another unexpected and unprecedented disaster. I’m not sure where I stand on nuclear power, offshore drilling, and space exploration, but Gladwell’s observations articulated something I’ve always noticed: the ritual of disaster investigation. The need to find something or someone to blame in order to prevent it from happening again.

I only wish Gladwell had suggested a way to solve the problem. Instead, he points out that more inexplicable disasters await us in the future, since safety investigations don’t do squat, really. We investigate and discover the equivalent of how to prevent lightening from striking in the same place again–but how often does lightening strike in the same place twice?

So, should humanity get rid of oil rigs and space shuttles and nuclear power? Is the answer to arrive at some sort of balance? If so, how do we know when we’ve crossed the line?

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2 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Thoughts

2 responses to “Malcolm Gladwell, Challenger, and the Oil Rig Blow up

  1. Excellent post. I suppose ultimately even if we get rid of one technology, we’ll be replacing it with another that has its own as-of-yet unexplored problems.

  2. David S.

    The answer to the Challenger accident is relatively simple compared to the others. One component failed: a solid rocket O-ring, because its material is brittle at cold temperatures. In fact, the designers specified that the rockets should not be operated below 40 degrees, but NASA launched anyway. It was a simple matter of management more concerned with schedules than with engineering facts.
    We didn’t need a multi-million dollar investigation to figure that out. All we needed was someone to talk to one of the engineers for ten minutes.

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