Tag Archives: Three Mile Island

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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