Walter Lippmann (1889–1974) was an American writer, reporter, and political commentator, famous for being among the first to introduce the concept of the Cold War, coining the term “stereotype” in today’s modern psychological meaning, and critiquing media and democracy in his newspaper column and several books. In one of his opinion pieces, he made this statement: “The study of error is not only in the highest degree prophylactic [protective], but it serves as a stimulating introduction to the study of truth.”1
It has been proven that errors are often the cause of accidents, and accidents always happen accidentally. But unfortunately, the traditional approach to accident investigation is still fuzzy because of our preoccupation with the root cause. That’s despite the fact that it is now well-known that there is never one thing wholly responsible for an accident.
In other words, there is no one single factor. Accidents are caused by multiple interacting factors, and often even normal, commonly accepted behaviors most can play a role in adverse events. Root cause thinking ignores the complexity of accidents – as well as the many factors that contribute to them.
On top of this and despite the best intentions, there is a tendency for investigations to focus on those individuals close to the event, such as the airplane pilots, bus drivers, ship captains, etc.
But accidents can often arise from the decisions and actions of all actors within the system including regulators, CEOs, managers, supervisors and front-line workers. Often these seemingly unconnected decisions occur years before the event itself. Even in the case of willful violations, there is typically a myriad of interacting factors that enabled the incident to happen.
The responsibility for accident causation is, therefore, shared across the system in which it occurs. Yet, for various reasons, there is often a desire to blame an individual. As a result, we tend to focus on and even punish individuals and fix only parts of the system rather than the system itself. And broken systems invariably fail again and again.
So how can we do accident prevention better? The key lies in gathering and understanding appropriate data about accidents, as well as near-miss events where system failure was prevented. Critically this data needs to describe the actors and contributory factors across the overall system along with the interactions that cause hazardous situations and shape behavior. Organizations need to continuously collect and analyze such data so they can understand what the systemic problems are that create unsafe performance – and they need the right tools to help them do this.
As Lippmann said, study the error in order to find the truth. This requires the need for incident reporting and analysis. This has been well-known for some time now. But the systems adopted are often not underpinned by an understanding of accidents and how they unfold. The data they collect doesn’t tell the whole story. There is an inordinate focus on a root cause or the individual deemed to be responsible, overlooking important factors that play a role. Yes, it is alright to go in search of the error, but not at the expense of finding the truth.
If we find these factors evident in a corporate, societal, national, religious or even a family setting, they must also apply to our personal setting. Just looking for why we made a mistake is incomplete until we examine everything that can lead us to the truth. The Scriptures are very helpful in pointing out where we can begin. Jesus was in the middle of His struggle to stay alive when those he depended on the most were found sleeping. Jesus woke them up and after telling how disappointed He was they could not stay awake for even one hour, He then passed on to them this advice: “Watch and pray so that you will not be tempted. Man’s spirit is willing, but the body does not have the power to make it happen.”2
What Jesus was saying here is that the inward good in us that helps us do what is right is often not strong enough to overcome the outward bad in us that wants to go against what is right. You know that the speed limit is 65 mph, but your foot on the accelerator keep pushing the car forward to 75 mph. So when a deer suddenly crosses the road ahead of us, or the car that we are tailgating throws on its brakes and we are not able to stop in time, we already know who we’re going to blame. When the police come to investigate the accident, we point to the animal or the driver ahead of us, instead of admitting that we saw the warning signs of deer crossing or did not keep sufficient distance between the car ahead of us to give sufficient braking room. What we don’t say is that we got up late and were rushing to our next appointment. And the reason we got up late is that we didn’t set our alarm. We search for a root cause instead of acknowledging the whole truth.
The Apostle Paul was also aware of this tendency. One of the problems he faced were Christians who did not guard themselves against the influence of unconverted friends and were eventually let astray back into their old sinful habits. This must have been the case in Corinth because Paul had to write and tell them not to be fooled by anyone’s persuasive arguments, people who want to do what is wrong will often convince those who want to do right to go along with the crowd.3 When a believer is asked to join their workmates to go out on the town to celebrate their company’s new contract that will result in a pay raise, they let their friends know that they don’t drink alcohol. Their friends are okay with this and that’s enough to make them give in and go.
But during the outing, they are convinced to join in what looks like a harmless game of penny poker. Sure, why not, it’s only pennies. But as the game progresses, it becomes a nickel game, then a dime game, and finally a dollar game. When they all leave the bar, the Christian realizes they have squandered the money meant to pay the rent or buy groceries for their family. So when they confess what happened to their spouses, they blame it all on their friends or the game, when, if they tell the truth, the responsibility rests squarely on them
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews echoes the same truth that Paul espoused. There were those believers who were reluctant to take the time to really study God’s Word and apply themselves to what they were being taught. The author of Hebrews accuses them of wanting to remain babies in their faith, only desiring milk instead of solid food.4 So he tells them that babies are not expected to know all the differences between right and wrong, that is only meant for those who grow and mature. The same is true of a believer if they stay uninformed as to what God’s Word teaches, they’ll be unable to know the difference between what is righteous and what is sinful.
What does that mean? It means that believers who purposely avoid learning more about their faith and what the Gospel teaches, are much more prone to go against God’s Word and sin against Him. But when they are shown the truth, they quickly look for a root cause. Often it’s because of their work schedule, or duties at home, or that they have trouble concentrating. The fact is, they were unwilling to go against their desire to remain as they are so that less will be expected of them. In other words, they are not guilty because of ignorance.
And finally, the Apostle James has a word for the wise in his letter. Apparently, there were some believers who made a big deal out of being holier than thou than others. They chided everyone who did not follow their example in saying prayers, reading devotionals, going to church every Sunday, etc. But James tells them, more or less, they are clouds without rain. They know what God expects of them but they have no interest in pleasing Him, only themselves.5 So when they are confronted with a message or teaching that points out their hypocrisy, they don’t bother to look deeply into why they made such an error because they don’t want to admit the truth.
Lippmann was right. We have to study the error if we want to get to the truth. Until that happens, we will constantly be burdened down with a sense of guilt because we know we are not telling the truth of why we went wrong, why we committed an obvious mistake in spite of all the warnings we may have received. But Jesus gave us a silver bullet to destroy this illusion and mirage that follows us around like a millstone tied to our necks. He was direct when He pointed out that once we accept the truth, the truth will set us free.6 – Dr. Robert R Seyda
1 Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann to Faye Lippmann, Wading River, Long Island, 1921
2 Matthew 26:40-41
3 1 Corinthians 15:33
4 Hebrews 15:14
5 James 4:16-17
6 John 8:32