Screwy Reasoning and Its Study

Those of us interested in commercial aviation accidents have to deal with a lot of what I shall call screwy reasoning.

Last week, I read a September 2 article in The Times on the crash of AF447 and its aftermath which I felt was somewhat screwy. It suggested that Air France’s attempt to introduce specialised training for the scenario of loss of airspeed data in cruise on A330/340 machines had “provoked anger”. The angered party was unspecified, but the initial paragraph had a “pilot’s union” “accusing” AF of trying to cover up the cause of the AF447 crash.

At the end of the article, the author, Charles Bremner, says that simulator training for “speed problems” at cruising altitude had not previously been offered by Air France, but this is now being done “at the request of all airlines’ unions.”

Assuming the pilots’ union was the party to have been angered, there is an obvious contradiction between a union requesting training, and being provoked to anger by (apparently) the same. So, if not the pilots’ union, it would be good to know who it was who is being angered by Air France’s specialised training.

Not that Air France has much choice in the matter. European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Safety Information Bulletin 2009-17, issued on 9 June,2009, which may be found by searching EASA’s Safety Information Bulletin list, requires inter alia that “familiarisation of flight crews with unreliable airspeed indication procedures should be provided through adequate training.” It is hard to imagine how anger can be provoked through airlines following a regulatory safety directive.

The Times article began by suggesting the the Air France pilots’ union had accused “accident investigators”, by which I take it is meant the BEA-convened AF 447 investigation committee, of “covering up the cause” of the crash of AF447. I doubt this is correct, whatever the union is annoyed about. One can only cover up a cause if one knows what the cause is, and I doubt that any professional thinks the BEA or AF or anyone else knows.

Bremner has written quite a lot on AF447. He is a pilot (a private pilot I take it) and he does have useful information on the negotiations between stakeholders (pilots’ unions, airline, government, manufacturer, investigating agency, maybe even passengers….) to share. However, he seems to do so in a selective way which I often find unhelpful, as in this case, and his phraseology is sometimes unfortunate, also as here.

I wrote some comments on the article and the discussion, which appear in the Commentary section under the article. Colleagues who look at the aviation discussion forums have been amazed at how often the 1988 Habsheim accident comes up whenever anything Airbusy surfaces, and so it does in Commentary to this article. But, in these contributions, it is no longer Habsheim. It is the “Paris Air Show”. One wonders what, if anything, is going on in these people’s heads.

Well, there are partial answers. Sociologists have been studying people’s actual reasoning behavior in detail, but I was always missing a link into the literature. Now I have one, courtesy of the New York Times’s TierneyLab blog, which discusses the issue of who was first to the North Pole. One possible answer: Roald Amundsen in an airship in 1926. On the ground – well, ice – it might well have been Ralph Plaisted in 1968 on snowmobile, and Wally Herbert a year later by dogsled.

Tierney points to research on belief formation and retention, by Steve G. Hoffmann and colleagues, who used the Saddam-9/11 non-link to conduct a survey and then interview some responders, and wrote an article about it in the journal Sociological Inquiry, published in 2009. A number of belief formation and retention mechanisms have been proposed in the literature, and Hoffmann et al consider them. I find the paper very readable and it contains a number of references to related work. So this is a way in to studies of reasoning phenomena, for those of us who might be curious about it.

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