It is a system failure in decision making rather than a failure of individuals

Systematic versus individual errors

When we observe repeated, widespread errors being made, we have to consider it likely that the problem is not merely individual errors, but that the whole sstem is flawed. The implication is that fixing individual errors will not stop them being repeated. Instead we need to change the system.

This idea has already been much discussed, with some examples in the following sections.

The failures in climate policy seem not to be small numbers of isolated failures but interlinked systematic failures in the way that decisions are made.

Nicholas Maxwell

Nicholas Maxwell (philosopher of science) has ben making the case for decades that the same flaws in the system are responsible for many of the world's major problems - namely that science has been very successful in increasing knowledge, but has not developed wisdom in using that knowledge for the benefit of mankind [1][2].
Natural science has been extraordinarily successful in increasing knowledge. This has been of great benefit to humanity. But new knowledge and technological know-how increase our power to act which, without wisdom, may cause human suffering and death as well as human benefit. All our modern global problems have arisen in this way: global warming, the lethal character of modern war and terrorism, vast inequalities of wealth and power round the globe, rapid increase in population, rapid extinction of other species, even the aids epidemic (aids being spread by modern travel). All these have been made possible by modern science dissociated from the rational pursuit of wisdom.

He advocates "a more cooperatively rational" way of making decisions.

W. Edwards Deming

In the business context, W. Edwards Deming (credited with Japan's post-war quality revolution) wrote, in his book Out of Crisis,
Eighty-five percent of the reasons for failure are deficiencies in the systems and process rather than the employee. The role of management is to change the process rather than badgering individuals to do better.

Daniel Kahneman

Nobel Prizewinner Daniel Kahneman has spent a lifetime researching the systematic biases that bedevil decision making [3]. He considers overconfidence to be the worst.

Safe system approach to road safety

The traditional approach to road safety, of deciding which road user should be blamed for a road collision has now largely been replaced by a Safe System approach that assumes that road users are fallible and often do not behave as expected by road engineers.


[1]Nicholas Maxwell (2007) From knowledge to wisdom (second edition)
[2] (viewed 18.1.22)
[3]Daniel Kahneman: ‘What would I eliminate if I had a magic wand? Overconfidence’ (2015)

First published: 16 Jan 2022
Last updated: 20 Jan 2022