Failure analysis may be viewed as a series of intentionally planned, sequential activities geared to understanding how the subject component came to be unfit for its original purpose.

Failure analysis may be undertaken by people from many different career paths and professions. But for the type of failure analysis where something broke, got deformed, corroded or worn out, materials engineers are often involved. This is because a natural primary question is, “Was there something wrong with the material?” When materials engineers get involved, failure analysis is essentially an engineering process.

Engineering is based on science but is not identical to it. The scientist’s ultimate goal is knowledge sought to soothe their burning curiosity. Engineering is less concerned with ultimate truth and more concerned with using the knowledge that scientists have revealed for practical purposes. The engineer’s goal is making something happen. Engineers happily use empirical knowledge that has been gained in the absence of understanding any theoretical foundations.

The endeavor of science is inherently concerned with understanding how the physical world works – the world of nature, matter and energy. But the human world is part of the physical world. The human experience of consciousness, our ability to perceive the objects of our environment (with or without technological assistance) and human behavior, are all aspects of science. See “Understanding human perception by human-made illusions” by Claus-Christian Carbon here

Higher-quality failure-analysis work results from teams whose members understand the limitations of human cognition. These teams will tend to make fewer mistakes.

We humans enjoy powerful engines of thought. We, like many other living things, often process raw sensory data below the level of conscious awareness. This is helpful to get through the chores of daily life but can be a problem when dealing with an unusual situation. Then we’re better off using our gift of rational thinking.

The word "rational" comes from the word "ratio." We can compare two or more things, whether they are simple physical items or complex theories, with each other by holding both in our minds simultaneously. In other words, we compare and contrast. We look for similarities and differences.

It is this rational thinking skill that allows us to perform critical thinking. The most essential function of critical thinking is the ability to question the context, to frame the situation explicitly, and to state and communicate to others the relevant background. The high-level thinking skills used in performing failure analysis are most successful and useful when they convey all of the relevant data. Then the stakeholders will gain understanding of the factors that allowed the undesirable situation to happen and will lay the groundwork for prevention measures, if required.