Experiences teaching risk science at university

I have been teaching the three basics of risk science for a long time now:  you have to have energy for damage to occur; the process of damage takes some time and this allows us to understand the anatomy of that process (and this is what good scientists do in other sciences); the process is uncertain and this gives rise to Risk.

It has always fascinated me that in nearly all cases (see comment below) students with no prior exposure to ‘safety’ ideas in industry just accept the whole argument and the theory and have very little trouble applying it.  On the other hand, students who have been exposed to safety programmes in industry struggle greatly to not think in terms of accidents, cause and negligence.  The ease with which they say the Mechanism of an Event was negligence of someone is amazing.  This is despite oft repeated warnings that a Mechanism is not a cause or a failed control measure.

I have also noted what appears to be a cultural influence – people with no prior exposure to the safety field either through study or through industry experience and who are from the Indian sub-continent are often deeply imbued with cause and negligence ideas.  It would be so interesting for a social scientist to explore the origin of these beliefs across different cultures.


  1. bcorden@optusnet.com.au

    “Idiots are always so cocksure, yet the wise are full of doubt” Bertrand Russell

  2. bcorden@optusnet.com.au


    The foundation of Buddhism is the Law of Cause and Effect:


    The Hindu Nazarene Way is underpinned by Karma, which is essentially cause and effect ideology.

  3. Derek Viner (Post author)

    That is true and I have often reflected on it, as Buddhism is my guiding philosophy and I have great regard for it as a philosophy and as a science of the mind. One can, however, also see this as simply a useful colloquial expression of an idea, as I believe it is in the safety field. I don’t see this as at odds with the idea that it is more valuable to understand the process involved in generating the phenomenon of interest. In Buddhism the idea being expressed is Karma – “as you sow, so shall you reap” as Christianity says. So the process is sowing a seed and the end result is the growth of a plant. Does the seed cause the plant to grow? Certainly it is necessary for some plants, but there are other plants that don’t propagate from seeds, so there is more to understanding the general process of reproduction in plants. I don’t understand the process referred to as Karma, but it is simple to explain it as a cause and effect one. As in all cases, this is just a colloquial convenience that avoids the need to explain the actual process in greater detail.

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