Disaster book club: What you need to read to understand the crash of Air France 447

Right now, I'm reading a book about why catastrophic technological failures happen and what, if anything, we can actually do about them. It's called Normal Accidents by Charles Perrow, a Yale sociologist.

I've not finished this book yet, but I've gotten far enough into it that I think I get Perrow's basic thesis. (People with more Perrow-reading experience, feel free to correct me, here.) Essentially, it's this: When there is inherent risk in using a technology, we try to build systems that take into account obvious, single-point failures and prevent them. The more single-point failures we try to prevent through system design, however, the more complex the systems become. Eventually, you have a system where the interactions between different fail-safes can, ironically, cause bigger failures that are harder to predict, and harder to spot as they're happening. Because of this, we have to make our decisions about technology from the position that we can never, truly, make technology risk-free.

I couldn't help think of Charles Perrow this morning, while reading Popular Mechanics' gripping account of what really happened on Air France 447, the jetliner that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 2009.

As writer Jeff Wise works his way through the transcript of the doomed plane's cockpit voice recorder, what we see, on the surface, looks like human error. Dumb pilots. But there's more going on than that. That's one of the other things I'm picking up from Perrow. What we call human error is often a mixture of simple mistakes, and the confusion inherent in working with complex systems. Read the rest

How autistic adults can contribute to science

The downside to having a brain disorder: Your brain works differently than the majority of humans'. That can make it difficult to participate in society. It puts people at risk for poverty, abuse, and exclusion.

The benefit to having a brain disorder: Your brain works differently than the majority of humans'. That means that you could have something really valuable to contribute to society, if society will make a space for you.

Back in September, Amy Harmon wrote a great long feature for the New York Times Magazine about efforts to integrate autistic adults into the larger community. Now, the journal Nature has published an interesting commentary about how autistic adults can aide the cause of science as researchers. A commentary is basically like an editorial. In this case, a scientist combined several published research papers and his own experience to make a point. The Canadian Globe and Mail had this to say:

Over the past seven years, eight people with autism have been associated with Laurent Mottron’s research group, including Michelle Dawson, who has become a close collaborator. Some of the team members have exceptional memories, while others have an ability to see patterns in data, or other skills, and contribute because of their autism, not despite it, Dr. Mottron said.

... Individuals with autism tend to fare poorly on a standard IQ tests that require verbal instructions, but can do much better on non-verbal tests that measure reasoning and creative problem-solving. They are faster on these kinds of tests than normal volunteers and use a different part of the brain to solve the problems.

Read the rest