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Error on Trial: Why it's better to admit mistakes

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Photo by Laurent Perren on Unsplash.

Human error is perfectly normal. The way the two words are used together implies that error is a speciality of humans. I read recently that many other species learn faster than humans individually, but humans excel in learning from each other. And how could we learn without mistakes?

We've been enjoying some respite from busy roads during the pandemic. Roads are dangerous, but it's worth remembering why most car journeys don't end in carnage. 10% of drivers may be texting, dozing, pretending to be in a video game, or testing their eyesight. Idiots will be idiots and they're immune to taking responsibility for themselves. But the other 90% are constantly assessing what might go wrong, based on experience of past errors, and their collective learning makes the situation relatively safe.

It's easy to feel surrounded by idiots at the moment. Some are using primitive incendiary devices to cook a few sausages and set fire to acres of moorland. Others are running the country. But as usual, the other 90% of us pick up the pieces, doing the learning because the idiots won't.

About 20 years ago, on an aeroplane, a junior cabin crew member reported a possible fault and was ignored because he wasn't qualified to look for faults. The plane fell out of the sky. After that, all safety concerns on planes have been taken equally seriously, without hierarchy or blame, and the aviation industry's safety record has been transformed as a result. Collective responsibility and collective learning are the antidote to idiocy.

The damage to the public's trust in authority, and in each other, springs from one source: treating fallibility as a weakness. Instead of admitting to mistakes, leaders seem conditioned to cover them up for fear of losing authority. Surely the opposite is true: we can't trust anyone who pretends to be infallible or refuses to take responsibility for errors.

The news is dominated by the minority of people who refuse to learn from mistakes.

Yet this is exactly what Boris Johnson is saying to us: 'You ordinary folks can't handle the truth, so I'm going to hide the truth and you'll just have to trust me to make better decisions than you could make yourselves. Fortunately for you, I have a chief advisor who assures me that his judgement is always right, and he's advised me not to take any notice of anyone who tries to tell me otherwise.'

Human beings are not used to being stalked by predators, so perhaps we have collectively forgotten how to avoid them. I wonder how many other creatures, when under attack from a predator they don't understand, stand around arguing amongst themselves as to how many of their number it's reasonable to sacrifice to appease the hungry, salivating beast? Surely they just get out of the bloody way, don't they? Hide, cover their tracks, wait until it wanders off.

If you watch the news, you will see nothing except two soap operas: one featuring the squabbles and scandals of the idiots who believe themselves to be in charge, and the other featuring the Darwin Award antics of the other idiots, who think shouting "Comeanavvago if yer think yerard enuff!" at the virus will do the trick. The news is dominated by the minority of people who refuse to learn from mistakes.

This is distracting us from what we really need to do, which is to understand our predator. This virus wants each infected person to infect another three, so if we reduce our physical contacts by about three quarters, we starve the predator. We have three possible methods: avoiding other people altogether; putting barriers between us (screens, masks, gloves); and hygiene.

Or, in short, get out of the bloody way. Unless and until we have a vaccine, these are our only tools.

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