The Myth of the Clearly Correctable Mistake
by Chris Bell (email)
Contributed 08/31/2004 Responses: 0
Several times a year I receive a request that I repost an essay I first posted to the usenet newsgroup rec.boats.paddle in 1999. In the interest of stimulating a continuing conversation in a (hopefully) permanent forum, I'm reposting it here.
The essay began in response to a post that was part of a much longer thread. In it Anthony Belcher wrote:
There is a fairly simple concept at work here. If you do an activity that has, for example, a 1% chance of death and if thousands of people do it hundreds of thousands of times several people will die. You death obsessed individuals are wasting everyones time dealing with deaths such as these. Spend time only on deaths where the kayaker made a clearly correctable mistake and then you will save lives.
To which I responded:
I think part of what we see in this news group is different people realizing at different times that what we are doing for fun really does have a deadly element to it. I mean really, truly realize it -- even the newest newbie will generally tell you "paddling can be dangerous," but unfortunately I think it often takes the death or serious injury of someone close to us for the light really to go on.
The light goes on for different people at different times, and when it does, we want it to go on for everyone else, too.
Part of the light going on, I think, is the realization that sometimes deaths occur in situations in which the paddler has not made "a clearly correctable mistake." If folks are making decisions based on the belief that they will only get in trouble if they make clearly correctable mistakes, they can benefit at least as much from evidence to the contrary as they can from discussion of things that could have been done differently.
A bit off topic, but I'm even a little suspicious of the notion of the "clearly correctable mistake." Take this argument to its limit: in an environment in which one can die even if one does everything right, even putting on is a "clearly correctable mistake," is it not? Don't like taking arguments to their limits? Fine. Consider this.
Paddling is a sport in which part of the allure is placing oneself in an environment in which many decisions with consequences have to be made. What should I wear today? What river should I paddle and what level is it likely to be? Am I putting on early enough to complete the run without rushing? Which boat should I paddle? What equipment should I bring? What is the best line through the first rapid? Am I good enough to hit this line? If I miss it, what are my options? Am I comfortable with these options? Should I eddy out and scout first or just run it? Should I wait until by buddy has eddied out or should I just follow her down? Opps, I screwed up, should I stay in my boat and keep trying to roll or should I punch out? Answering these and the many additional questions we confront every time we put on requires judgement, skill and unusual self-knowledge.
In a situation in which so many decisions with consequences have to be made, we are sometimes going to make choices that, in retrospect, look like mistakes. Usually it won't matter -- the river may be a harsh mistress but she is usually quite forgiving. But sometimes it does matter. In retrospect we may say,"hey, there's a mistake she made, she died because of it, so if I can learn from it I will avoid her fate."
I don't think it is quite this easy. I think that as humans choosing to put ourselves in an environment in which many decisions with consequences have to be made we have to recognize that sometimes (perhaps often) we are going to make decisions that, in retrospect, look like mistakes.
Are these really "clearly correctable mistakes" from which we can make ourself save through discussion, or are they just an intrinsic part of the part of the environment we are placing ourselves in the same way a deadly log hidden in a drop is?
My suspicion is that the number of deaths from "clearly correctable mistakes" in the sense that most competent paddlers wouldn't have made the same choice in the same situation are relatively few. I can think of many situations, not all hypothetical for me, unfortunately, in which it would be difficult if not impossible to say whether the death or serious injury was the result of an unambigously "clearly correctable mistake."
Unable to distinguish with confidence the "clearly correctable mistakes," and believing strongly both in our right to make our own choices and our responsibility to be fully informed when we make those choices, I think the discussions of accidents on this newsgroup both healthy and important. Fully considering such issues is an integral part of being a boater. They are at least as important as discussions of the relative merits of various boats, the finer points of technique, hints for avoiding speeding tickets in West Virginia, and beautiful places to boat and to look after.