BBC Radio Interviews

Hi all,

I had several BBC radio interviews recently (and several more to come). Two of them are posted on my site. The first was by Phil Mercer of BBC Radio Oxford for his “More Questions Than Answers” segment. You can listen to it here.

The BBC World Service’s interview was conducted by venerable reporter and presenter Dan Damon. You can listen to it here. The segment explores the ethical aspects of bystanders and related matters. The unique aspect of this show is that my discussion partner is Professor Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist famous for the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment which established that situations can be evil — and they can change ordinary people into evil-doers.

Together Zimbardo and I explore the interplay of individual factors, such as denial and the “bystander effect,” with the important role that the situation plays in encouraging people to behave in ways that appear to be counter to their values, character, and past behavior.

The important lesson we can draw from Zimbardo’s work for our understanding of disasters is that if ordinary people can be prompted to behave in clearly evil ways as a result of situational factors, it is certainly clear that they can be easily intimidated to behave passively as bystanders irrespective of the consequences for others. This has obvious implications for the design of organizations if we are to make substantial progress toward protecting our collective welfare.


PS. There is a live interview on Leonard Lopate’s NPR program on Friday. I’ll post my reactions.

The Tale of “Running Fan”

Fan Meizhong, a Chinese language teacher at a private high school in Dujiangyan city, one of the hardest-hit areas in the May 12 eight-magnitude earthquake, got the nickname “Running Fan” from bloggers after he abruptly left his classroom to save himself, leaving his students behind. This critique came despite no loss of life (an event Fan could not have known as he ran from the building). The critical view was apparently shared by Fan’s school administration. “We learnt from the school that he was dismissed,” said Wang Xuming, Education Ministry spokesman. [Photo of Fan Meizhong: New Express]

The most revealing comments about Fan’s behavior focus on the condemnation of his self-interested escape despite the apparent acceptance of the “human nature” character of his actions. This is a rare case of the public discussion of bystander behavior, and a vivid disclosure of some of the public’s obvious discomfort with people’s choice of self protection over helping others.

I think that Fan’s statements justifying his behavior (he focused on his allegiance to his own daughter) are a breath of fresh air in a debate often filled with a combination of rationalization and wishful thinking. This is not a support for Fan’s behavior. Rather, it recognizes the near universal compulsion to save our own skins (and those our families) at the cost of largely ignoring the peril of others. This is, for many people, a matter of considerable shame, and it makes them uncomfortable to talk about it honestly.

It is also rare that this story has gotten so much play despite the fact that Fan’s school did not collapse and none of his students were killed. This does not change the moral debate, of course, but certainly would change the outcome in most western courtrooms. Without damages, there is no reason to go to trial.

Here’s the key question: If we apply to other high risk incidents the self-sacrificial standard some think Fan should have applied, how can we excuse all the ordinary people who remained silent, or made only modest efforts to forestall harm?

In all the cases in Flirting With Disaster (Challenger, Columbia, Katrina, Vioxx, BP Texas City, etc.), many people knew of the risks, but chose self-protection of their jobs, status, and political position over the safety of others. What happened to the public outrage in those cases?

There are several important differences that explain the public silence. First, the danger in the case of the earthquake was certain. The ground was shaking when Fan bolted out the door. In contrast, in all the cases in FWD, and most other similar situations, the risks were uncertain, making it much easier to rationalize that one’s selfish actions won’t make any difference. On the other hand, the costs to the whistle-blower — though they may only affect a single individual — appear both real and inevitable, thus making it easy to justify keeping silent.

Second, Fan was a teacher, and therefore in a formal responsible position. In many people’s minds, such positions are morally equivalent to that of a parent. Fan was therefore obligated to put his own life at risk in order to save the children in his charge. Third, Fan was the only person in this role in his classroom, and thus his selfish lapse was easy to point to. As you may recall from FWD’s discussion of bystander behavior, when there are many people in potential helper roles, individual feelings of responsibility quickly evaporate. The opposite is also true: it’s easy to point the finger when there is only one person who might have made a difference.

To better understand the issues, let’s imagine a different scenario. Let’s say that you were in the classroom. You might be a parent, an administrative person, or a technician fixing a piece of broken equipment. What are your responsibilities to the children in comparison to that of Mr. Fan?

It’s easy to see that many people would differentiate these responsibilities. They might even say that while Mr. Fan was responsible, other people were not. In fact, such other people might be seen as being responsible to look after their own families by trying to get home, especially since High School students have significant capabilities to look after themselves, especially if there was the teacher to take care of them.

Lest you think that all of this is a confusing whitewash of Fan’s behavior, let me set the record straight because that’s not where I’m coming from at all. I think that Fan shirked his responsibilities, both as a teacher and as a responsible adult. However, I’d guess that there were other adults who ran out of that building, perhaps other teachers, but even more likely administrators and staff who also might be seen as having a role to protect the children. Did such individuals run from classroom to classroom to make sure that all the students were safety evacuated? I leave that to you to ponder.

Importantly, the real issue is that none of this individual behavior in the moment is the greatest crime. That dubious distinction must go well back in the causal chain to the officials who allowed dangerous schools to be built in the first place, to the architects who drew up the plans, the contractors who knowingly constructed them, the inspectors who looked the other way when the inevitable warning signs emerged that these buildings were unsafe, and to the officials who read worrisome building safety reports but deliberately ignored them.

Thus, while Fan and others did not fulfill their role in loco parentis, he is far from the guiltiest party. Far from it. The anonymous “collective many” silently collaborated to kill 10,000 children. So if there are fingers to point, let’s go after them and not poor Mr. Fan who, while morally responsible for abandoning his post, didn’t actually contribute to killing anyone at all.


Wall Street Journal Review of FWD

Hi all,

This is a good omen. Take a look here.



Who launched Challenger?

Hi all,

ChristaMacAuliffLast night on Coast to Coast AM, Daniel, Michael and I discussed the Challenger disaster, one of the best known disasters in American history. RK, a listener, wrote that we had unfairly accused President Reagan of making the launch decision. I don’t think that anyone on air said that President Reagan decided to launch Challenger, but it might be a good idea to set the record straight.

The pattern of the evidence points strongly to the existence of a plan for the President to speak with the Challenger crew during his State of the Union address the night Space Shuttle launched. Such celebrations of American heroes were a classic Reagan touch, and NASA had submitted just such a proposal to the White House some weeks before. A hookup to the spacecraft required the launch on that day, and at that time, in order to be ready, since Challenger had to be settled safely into orbit. Others at NASA and at the White House appeared to be trying to make this dramatic moment happen for the President.

My belief cannot be confirmed, of course, since the people who were directly involved have never been questioned under oath. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the natural desire to please the President (as well as for other, more practical reasons, such as ensuring military funding of the Space Shuttle program) encouraged a number decision-makers to push hard for a launch rather than to postpone. Postponements had already occurred in this Challenger mission for a variety of reasons, and a delay until the afternoon to allow the ice to melt (Rockwell’s concern) and the boosters to warm (Thiokol’s concern) would not have been a big deal.

Without Reagan’s influence we are left with the question of why many levels of NASA administration would have overruled their contractors, who were certainly not in the habit of issuing dire warnings. We also are left with many questions about why the Rogers Commission investigation steered a wide path around the White House’s involvement, including the Commission’s failure to put various people on the record, or to collect certain documents and records that might have provided the American people with a better picture of why Challenger launched when it did. (The actual O-ring failure had been established definitively when the booster rockets were recovered: there was a hole in the casing large enough for a man to crawl through.)

Based on the evidence to date, it remains unconfirmed whether Reagan knew of the concerns raised about Challenger’s safety and made the launch decision. Certainly, he denied having done so. In my book, I reference Richard C. Cook’s Challenger Revealed (2006) that quotes Reagan’s astrologer Ed Helin, a man who clearly places the decision with the President. (Cook was a key government whistle-blower in the Challenger case and assembled evidence over many years.) Even without Helin’s accusation, it is important to understand that risks are often taken to please bosses, or at least not to disappoint them, even when the bosses do not give the order that puts people in harms way.

Although it is a heavy burden, all leaders must to be concerned about the unintended consequences of their behavior and the actions undertaken in their name, even when misguided. That President Reagan was apparently devastated by this decision taken on his behalf, even if not necessarily by his order, makes the Challenger disaster all the more tragic.


The analysis of the Challenger disaster appears in chapter 4 of Flirting With Disaster.

We’re on Coast to Coast AM Tuesday Night!

Hi all,

Daniel Ellsberg, Michael Ellsberg and I will all be on George Noory’s Coast to Coast AM Tuesday night/Wednesday early morning, June 10/11. The show has an audience of 16 million and provides a great opportunity for us to talk through the issues raised in our book in detail, since we’ll be on for several hours. If you’re not a late night person, you can subscribe to the show’s feed, or arrange to record the program’s internet stream from one of its many affiliates. If you’re up late, join us for the conversation.


Getting Started

Hi all,

As the first post to this blog about accidents, disasters, and related matters, I should say a bit about what will appear here and why this forum might be useful.

Flirting With Disaster: Why Accidents Are Rarely Accidental has just been officially released, and is available at fine bookstores worldwide. I’m really pleased about this milestone, since it’s been a long time coming. From the initial reaction, people seem engaged by the topic, especially the idea that many of the accidents I describe might be a lot more preventable than is generally assumed.

Before I could even get the book finished, however, even bigger “bad things” happened than some of those I had described. In August 2007, the subprime crisis emerged, and more recently the Chinese earthquake has become a fixture in the news. Both of these events fit my criteria for “preventable accidents,” although it is obvious that I don’t mean that we could have kept the ground from shaking in China. (For the moment, I’m going to leave out the cyclone in Burma, since it deserves special attention in my “When the Leaders Are the Problem” department.)

If you’ve been following the earthquake story, you know that the Chinese government has known for some time that Sichuan Province was vulnerable to earthquakes. Extensive development occurred anyway, a great deal of it employing building codes a number of China’s scientists felt were unsafe.

I’ll save the details of this story for a more thorough analysis, but my point is that it makes sense to have a place to discuss such events, and this is it. While the best thing would be if I had little to write about, the way the world seems to be going, this seems unlikely.

So come here often, ask questions, make comments, and join in the conversation.

Perhaps together, we can make the world a little safer.