The Plural of Anecdote Is Not Data

John Michael Greer Abstraction Reflection
John Michael Greer

Abstraction and Reflection

The author John Michael Greer published two interesting and related posts: A Rhetorical Education and The Twilight of Authority. In them he draws a distinction between two ways of thought: Abstraction and Reflection. He explains them as follows.

Abstraction is the belief that the world around us obeys a set of laws that can be known by the human mind . . .

Reflection is rooted in the recognition that ideas are human constructs rather than objective truths about nature, and that the only thing we can be sure of is the blooming, buzzing confusion of everyday life. “What actually happens?” becomes more important than “what is eternally true?”

Greer's argument is that these two ways of thought tend to come and go over the centuries and that, right now, in society in general, we are moving from a period of Abstraction to one of Reflection because, in his view, the models that explain how society should work don’t actually seem to be working all that well in the real world.

For example, the Abstract view of economics is that reducing trade barriers is good and that, overall, everyone benefits. The Reflection point of view is represented by the perception that,

In 1976 an American family with one working class paycheck could generally afford a home, a car, three square meals a day, and all the other amenities of daily life, with maybe a little left over for a luxury now and then. In 2016 an American family with one working class paycheck was probably living on the street.

Greer is exaggerating, but his point is a good one. Regardless of what the experts say, many Americans feel that their personal economic lives are moving in the wrong direction; paychecks are thin, job security non-existent and debt levels are high. So why should they believe the experts and their models of reality?

All this is interesting but what does it have to do with process safety or risk management in industrial facilities?

Process safety management systems are, of course, highly abstract. They create a model of reality by distilling process safety into a dozen or so boxes such as Management of Change, Hazards Analysis and Operating Procedures.

This approach has been successful. But, if we are to build on that success we may need to spend more time on the Reflection side of things. Which is why Safety Moments, and other “real life” anecdotes are so important. It is also why, as discussed in previous Safety Moments, we need to communicate through stories, as well as with reports and presentations.

Organizing Reflection

The Greer posts helped me understand why I felt there was a need for what became our Operational Excellence Assessment system. Recognizing that “the plural of anecdote is not data”, we attempt to capture Reflection insights and understanding in an organized manner. In one of the elements of that system — ‘1. Culture’ — we have a section for ‘Incidents Elsewhere’. It is vital, in my opinion, that everyone who works at an industrial facility should spend time learning about events (including near misses) that have occurred at other facilities.


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