Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Swiss Cheese Theory

You put several blocks of swiss cheese in a row and you can’t see through them, unless the holes line up. Maybe a couple of holes will and you can see through a couple, but it’s not until all of them do that you can pass an object from one side to the other.

Pilots use that analogy to describe the causes of airplane crashes. There’s never just one cause, they will tell you; there are many and very often, more than we think. There are holes present. but it’s not until all the holes line up that we have an incident.

The National Geographic Channel’s “Seconds to Disaster” is good at explaining this. Had one link been missing in the chain of events, there would have been no disaster.

The I-35W Bridge collapsed last night in Minneapolis. CNN found a bridge inspector and asked him what he thought the cause was. Basically, he said, “I haven’t the faintest idea. I’ve never seen anything like this type of collapse.” When pressed for his speculation on what it might have been, he said, “We don’t even know what caused the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to fall [and that was in 1940]. There are theories, but we don’t know. There are many causes for any accident, not just one, and it will take years to figure out.”

Bit by bit, they will find the holes in the swiss cheese and see which ones line up. It will take a long time. By tomorrow, the tv news anchors will have all the answers and when the actual causes are discovered, only The Daily Show will run their “shoot from the hip” reports along with the actual causes. The newsmen sure won’t.


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