Normal Accidents of Expertise

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Expertise Homestake mine experiment Normal accidents Tightly coupled systems, Knowledge risk

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Charles Perrow used the term “normal accidents” to characterize a type of catastrophic failure that resulted when complex, tightly coupled production systems encountered a certain kind of anomalous event. These were events in which systems failures interacted with one another in a way that could not be anticipated, and could not be easily understood and corrected. Systems of the production of expert knowledge are increasingly becoming tightly coupled. Unlike classical science, which operated with a long time horizon, many current forms of expert knowledge are directed at immediate solutions to complex problems. These are prone to breakdowns like the kind discussed by Perrow. The example of the Homestake mine experiment shows that even in modern physics complex systems can produce knowledge failures that last for decades. The concept of knowledge risk is introduced, and used to characterize the risk of failure in such systems of knowledge production.

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Minerva, v. 48, issue 3, p. 239-258