Monthly Archives: November 2010

Historical bias in disasters

I have recently read a fascinating account of the yellow fever epidemic which killed a significant percenatge of Philadelphia’s (and surrounding area) population in 1793. The book is entitled “Bring Out Your Dead” by J.H. Powell (originally published in 1949 by University of Pennsylvania Press, and reissued by Time Life Books in 1965). While this is an account of a natural disaster (with important human factors — especially bias-related errors made in determining the likely cause of the plague and the best treatment methods), many of the author’s observations can be applied to issues of bias in the human causes and study of any disaster. The following quote I found especially relevant:
“Facts do not make tradition; they are swept away as it forms. But tradition makes history in its own terms, and gives each disaster such place in knowledge as men can know and use. This process begins as soon as disaster is over, and as soon as those who survive begin to forget a part of their experience, and devote the unforgettable remnant to some use. Afterwards, disaster is tortured by reason, tragedy averted by the simple persistance of living.”
While the author referred to the yellow fever epidemic, and how the key actions of the doctors and others involved were viewed by history, we can see how this might apply to bias in the analysis of more recent engineering disasters.