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In a scientific age, have we become clever in understanding disasters, but callous in explaining why we suffer?

03 March 2017 Taylor & Francis

In this unique book, Sidney Dekker tackles a largely unexplored dilemma. Our scientific age has equipped us ever better to explain why things go wrong. But this increasing sophistication actually makes it harder to explain why we suffer. Accidents and disasters have become technical problems without inherent purpose. When told of a disaster, we easily feel lost in the steely emptiness of technical languages of engineering or medicine. Or, in our drive to pinpoint the source of suffering, we succumb to the hunt for a scapegoat, possibly inflicting even greater suffering on others around us. How can we satisfactorily deal with suffering when the disaster that caused it is no more than the dispassionate sum of utterly mundane, imperfect human decisions and technical failures? Broad in its historical sweep and ambition, The End of Heaven is also Dekker's most personal book to date.

The science of safety has evolved its explanations of failure and disaster significantly over the past centuries. It has morphed its vocabulary away from individual violations and component breakdown and human error to an increasing understanding of the deep complexity of failure. Paradoxically, our sophisticated ability to explain disaster can actually make it harder to explain why we suffer. In our scientific age, accidents and disasters have become technical problems without inherent purpose. That makes the suffering they produce more difficult to stomach, because it, too, seems meaningless.

So-called man-made disaster theory, for instance, is typical of our scientific age. It puts responsibility for the creation and prevention of catastrophe with humans, no longer with the divine. Disasters in fact arise out of the most banal organizational processes and human activities, it says. Our normal, accepted ways of doing risky business drive frequent successes as well as occasional failures.

How can we satisfactorily deal with suffering when the disaster that caused it is no more than the dispassionate sum of utterly mundane, imperfect human decisions and technical failures? Broad in its historical sweep and ambition, these are the questions 'The End of Heaven' explores and is also Dekker's most personal book to date.

When referencing the book, please include: The End of Heaven, by Sidney Dekker, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).

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