The weekly Reflektion Week 36/2019

This week’s Reflektion is inspired by the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon and his theory on ‘observation and experimentation’.

What is the practicable purpose of the knowledge you have? How do you assess the uncertainty of the knowledge you have?

Sir Francis Bacon is often regarded as the first to promote the scientific method and advocate the idea of technological ‘progress’. By progress Bacon meant, a steady and cumulative advance in applied scientific knowledge. He considered knowledge from a pragmatic and utilitarian perspective. Bacon maintained that knowledge had no intrinsic value in itself but derived its value from the practical purposes that it could be used for. He rejected the Aristotelian view that knowledge was an object of contemplation and that its value was determined from the liberation of the human soul. In summary Bacons view was that any knowledge that furthers our understanding of the world is of no or limited value if not applied to some practical purpose.   

Bacon described an empirical methodology of gaining knowledge including addressing the uncertainty of that knowledge. He also recognized that gaining knowledge was an effort and wrote.

..which by slow and faithful toil gathers information from things and brings it into understanding’.

Bacon considered the uncertainty of the knowledge available. He was aware of the dangers of confirmation bias and the tendency to search for confirming instances rather than collecting information and methodically trying to understand it. He anticipated the falsification ideas of Karl Popper by proposing experiments deliberately set up to disprove the ideas being proposed. (Karl Popper was an Austrian-born British philosopher and professor. Popper claimed that, if a theory is falsifiable, then it is scientific.)

The application of knowledge and the consideration of the uncertainty of this knowledge, are key factors in the assessment of the risks associated with our activities. That is one of the reasons that the concept of uncertainty has been introduced into the definition of risk in standards and regulations, e.g. ISO 31000 (Risk is the effect of uncertainty on objectives), Norwegian Petroleum Safety Authority (risk means the consequences of the activities, with associated uncertainty).

A methodical and reflective approach to knowledge is required in risk assessments. Do we have the knowledge we need to make the required assessments on risk? How confident are we in the knowledge we have? Do we need to challenge the premise for this knowledge and try to disprove its basis? Does everyone agreeing with the knowledge base and the conclusions from the assessment of risks give us comfort or does it make us suspicious that confirmation bias is setting in? Are we confident that the knowledge we have is actually being applied correctly? As Francis Bacon may have asked, are we gaining ‘utility’ from the knowledge we have, or is it merely an intellectual exercise that provides mental comfort to the risk assessment team? 

There is an African proverb that says’ ‘Not to know is bad, not to wish to know is worse’.

The risks associated with the Petroleum industry are significant and we have a duty to ‘know’ how to mitigate these risks. We also have a duty to recognize the limitations of the knowledge we have and to ‘wish’ to know more. 

Reflekt AS