I’d like to take a few minutes to remember someone that everyone in R&D should spare a thought for: Roger Boisjoly, If you don’t know the name, you’ll still likely know something about his story: he was one of the Morton Thiokol engineers who tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the Challenger space shuttle launch in 1986.
Here’s more on him from NPR (and from one of their reporters who helped break the inside story of that launch at the time). Boisjoly had realized that cold weather was degrading the O-ring seals on the solid rocket boosters, and as he told NPR, when he blew the whistle:
“We all knew if the seals failed the shuttle would blow up.”
Armed with the data that described that possibility, Boisjoly and his colleagues argued persistently and vigorously for hours. At first, Thiokol managers agreed with them and formally recommended a launch delay. But NASA officials on a conference call challenged that recommendation.
“I am appalled,” said NASA’s George Hardy, according to Boisjoly and our other source in the room. “I am appalled by your recommendation.”
Another shuttle program manager, Lawrence Mulloy, didn’t hide his disdain. “My God, Thiokol,” he said. “When do you want me to launch — next April?”
When NASA overruled the Thiokol engineers, it was with a quote that no one who works with data, on the front lines of a project, should ever forget: “Take off your engineer hat,” they told Boisjoly and the others, “and put your management hat on”. Well, the people behind that recommendation managed their way to seven deaths and a spectacular setback for the US space program. As Richard Feynman said in his famous Appendix F to the Rogers Commission report, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled”.
Not even with our latest management techniques can nature be fooled, no matter how much six-sigma, 4S, and what-have-you gets deployed. Nothing else works, either. Nature does not care where you went to school, what it says on your business cards, how glossy your presentation is, or how expensive your shirt. That’s one of the things I like most about it, and I think that any scientist should know what I’m talking about when I say that. The real world is the real world, and the data are the data.
But it’s up to us to draw the conclusions from those numbers, and to get those conclusions across to everyone else. It may well be true, as Ed Tufte has maintained, that one of the tragedies of the Challenger launch was that the engineers involved weren’t able to do a clear enough presentation of their conclusions. Update: see this account by Boisjoly himself on this point. It might not have been enough in the end; there seem to have been some people who were determined to launch the shuttle and determined to not hear anything that would interfere with that goal. We shouldn’t forget this aspect of the story, though – it’s incumbent on us to get our conclusions across as well as we can.
Well, then, what about Nature not caring about how slick our slide presentations are? That, to me, is the difference between “slick” and “effective”. The former tries to gloss over things; the latter gets them across. If the effort you’re putting into your presentation goes into keeping certain questions from being asked, then it’s veered over to the slick side of the path. To get all Aristolelian about it, the means of persuasion should be heavy on the logos, the argument itself, and you should do the best job you can on that. Steer clear of the pathos, the appeal to the emotions, and you should already be in a position to have the ethos (the trustworthiness of the speaker’s character) working for you, without having to make it a key part of your case.
But today, spend a moment to remember Roger Boisjoly, and everyone who’s ever been in his position. And look out, be very careful indeed, if anyone ever asks you to put your management hat on.