Since people generally come to failure analysts when they can’t figure things out for themselves, it’s important to have access to reliable facts, know how to recognize them and be able to explain to people why our facts are indeed of the reliable kind!

The first steps in a failure investigation are to collect the engineering prints, material and process certification documents, and find someone with knowledge of manufacturing, maintenance and use procedures. This background information will shed light on the physical facts gleaned from the inspection of the artifacts associated with the “failure.”

One of the key issues that makes an investigation a true failure analysis is that the team makes a concerted effort to look for data that are not consistent with a developing story about what caused the “failure.” If found, these data are not ignored but studied carefully for hints as to what really happened.

Most people do not choose to develop their observation skills. Imagine a feature that would be expected in a given situation by “the knowledgeable person” but is missing in the given evidence. Up to six in seven people may not even notice.[1] What can you do to make sure you’re in the smaller group that tends to notice relevant facts?

English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was not the first person to realize that our sense organs (eyes, ears, fingers, etc.) can fool us. Some of the Golden Age ancient Greek philosophers, especially Plato, were so suspicious of data coming in through the senses that they thought they could only obtain truth through meditating on the “ideal forms” somehow stored in another “realm.” Don’t expect to gain understanding of a horse, they taught, by looking at a horse. Meditate on “horseness.”

Bacon, however, realized that reliable data has to start from our senses. He was the first one to provide a method to help us learn to identify and weed out at least some of our false knowledge.

Just how do we do so? One of the keys to accumulating real knowledge was to make sure that the data originated from as many widely different types of examples as available. Humanity would progress when we learned to extract and classify all the facts we could about goats, sheep, cows, horses, rabbits, carp, catfish, chickens, geese and Guinea fowl before we made blanket statements about farm animals. We would do that best when we studied each individual animal thoroughly enough that we started to notice things that we had previously overlooked.

Bacon understood that the process of comparing and contrasting animals would allow us to reach new insights, which would then allow us to create a powerful theory that would then allow us to find new facts about other examples of whatever category we were studying.

Bacon is widely known by those with even a casual interest in the history of science. His description of “The Four Idols” is remarkably modern, even though he did not apparently have a full grasp of the power of combining inductive, deductive and abductive logic. He may even have rejected the use of deductive logic. But now we do know how to do this, and we are able to build an even more reliable foundation for our sciences.

What are “The Four Idols?” I recently started reading Bacon’s unfinished masterwork Novum Organum, otherwise known as The New Instrumentality, where he presents the concept that while there are divine ideas, humans commonly find themselves with only counterfeit ideas, otherwise known as idols. Let’s look at these idols, which I think of as mental filters.

The Idols of the Tribe are interpretations that our common human mental structure creates automatically without our awareness. One example that Bacon gives is that instead of describing the apparent motion of the fixed stars and planets, and leaving it there, humans told stories about the pictures they saw in the sky. Eventually, humans forgot that they were the ones who spun and wove the tales that were told and gave more credence to the associated fantasies than to the basic facts. This is the origin of astrology.

The Idols of the Cave refers to the ideas within the “cave of the skull” of the individual. These idols vary from person to person based on particular life experiences. The Idols of the Marketplace are based on the limitations of language, and the Idols of the Theater are the falsehoods that persist due to personal interests of those who have created or disseminated them.

In 1948, the great physicist Max Planck made a comment that has been pithily reworded to “Science advances one funeral at a time!” This, sadly, has been shown to be true.[2]

  1. Bruner, J.S., Goodnow, J.J., and Austin, G.A. (1956). A Study of Thinking. Oxford, England: John Wiley and Sons, quoted in and discussed in Chapter 4 of Thompson, Robert (1959), The Psychology of Thinking: Penguin, Edinburgh, Great Britain


Artwork profided by the author