the story of the davy lamp and how some safety precautions make systems more dangerous/fragile12 Dec 2016
there’s a section in resilience: why things bounce back that explains how measures to create safety can backfire in the long-run. i’ve been thinking about that effect a lot as we get closer and closer to a full-on trump presidency. the story (pages 192-193) basically goes like this:
in the 1800s, mining was a super dangerous profession. in 1815, sir humphry davy created a lamp that allowed miners to better explore down in the caves. unfortunately, the net effect was that mining as a profession became more dangerous. turns out, the lamp operated below the ignition point of methane. before the davy lamp, miners were more cautious certain caves were just off limits. when the lamp was created, this allowed exploration into more methane-rich areas of caves. these methane-rich areas are more dangerous. in the end, this caused as net increase in injuries and deaths in the mining injuries.
this story brings up two points. the obvious one is that interventions don’t always have the consequences they intend. for me, it reinforces that notion that interventions really need to be designed from a systems lens. narrowly targeted solutions without attention to the system in which they’re being deployed can have catastrophic impacts.
the other point for me was an introduction to the idea of risk tolerance. there is a theory (risk compensation) that individuals, groups, and societies have a threshold level of risk that they equilibrate to. it’s why people started driving faster when seat belts were made mandatory. it’s also why when condoms are present, people engage in riskier sexual activities. this risk tolerance level can be measured within an individual and it seems like a group of individuals can find their by averaging everyone’s in the group.
whether or not this theory holds in all cases, if we started planning societal safety interventions with it in mind, i have a hunch we’d come out a lot better. we’d also probably spend less money on expensive but ultimately ineffective (and sometimes counter-effective) “solutions.”
spell-check, link-finding, & formatting: 9:32