The Arrogance of Competence

For the Flow Arts Institute
By Eric “Propfessor” Shibuya, PhD

A discussion arose recently in the fire spinning community over some videos of people burning in non-fire safe clothing. The arguments have taken two main positions:

(1) This is really dangerous and you shouldn’t do it. It hurts the rest of the community if people see stuff like this.
(2) Fire spinning is dangerous no matter what. Yes, these are not fire safe clothes, but if you know what you’re doing, it’s okay.

The heart of position (2) is what I’m calling the “arrogance of competence.” The very idea that our skill overcomes any known deficiencies in safety. It happens often in our community, and it’s dangerous. This hubris translates to others, and can spread the idea that at a certain level of skill, “some” safety precautions can be ignored. This is nonsensical.

The heart of the argument itself, the idea of the arrogance of competence, suggests that with enough skill, no mistakes are made. This misses the point. That’s why “mistakes” are in fact, mistakes. If the argument is that one’s competence is absolute protection from mistakes/accidents, then it follows that the many amazing spinners who have been hurt and even lost their lives to fire mishaps did so because they were incompetent and that you are better than they are. I don’t think I need to go through a list of those we’ve lost in the community, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say, “no, I don’t think you’re as good as some of those we’ve lost.” You can plan to mitigate the impact of mishap (and even then, you might fail), but you can’t plan (or practice) mistakes away completely.

An interesting response has been to accuse those advocating for more safety precautions in this instance (as in, wear fire-safe clothing) of elitism, of “knowing better than the rest of us.” That argument strikes me as paradoxical, as it seems the actual elitist position is a claim that their skill overrides a general, even basic, principle of safety in fire spinning. It’s actually a principle that they themselves acknowledge (you shouldn’t spin in non-fire safe materials), but then claim a level of superiority (YOU shouldn’t, but if you know what you’re doing–like I do–then go ahead). Recognizing a risk but then dismissing it because “I know what I’m doing” is the elitist argument here, not the one advocating that we should ALL practice accepted safety procedures.

Race car drivers are the best in the world, but they still get into cars with roll cages, seatbelts, and wearing all sorts of protective gear. No one says, “Ah, I’m good, I know what I’m doing, take all that stuff out and I can go faster.” Pilots are trained to go through the safety checklist every time, EVERY time before a flight. They don’t just guess. They don’t just go “I’ve been doing this enough times, we’ll just get this plane going.” And they REALLY don’t go “Eh, let’s just skip that one today, okay? I don’t feel like doing it.” Doctors and nurses go through a checklist before and after every surgery, tracking inventory of what goes in to (and out of) a patient, because it’s too easy to think, “I know what I’m doing, there won’t be any mistakes. I won’t forget anything.” Several studies have been conducted about the use of checklists in both surgery and aviation. Checklists produced impressive results in studies in 2007 but replication of those results have been mixed. The general conclusion suggests that it’s not the checklist in and of itself that helps saves lives, it’s their effective implementation. People have to take them seriously and use them properly. In other words, it’s not only knowing about the safety (or oversight) procedures in some abstract form of “I have skills, I know what I’m doing,” you have to implement the procedures.

All of them. Every time.

The Flow Arts Institute has developed a fire safety program on its website. While you should always get trained and practice safety procedures with a more experienced spinner, the web course offers great information and is both a good place to start and a healthy reminder/refresher for more experienced fire spinners.

Safety isn’t an accident. I work for the military, and there’s a tried-and-true saying: “No plan survives first contact.” No matter how much you’ve thought it out, no matter how much you’ve planned for “every” contingency, no matter HOW GOOD YOU ARE, the enemy, and other circumstances, gets a vote. We call it friction. Friction burns, it’s best we pay more attention.

Comments 3

  1. In my experience, people tend to get hurt the most about two years into their growth and training in the fire arts. When they start, they follow safety precautions to a tee. Then, they start feeling like competent badasses (which I totally understand, because spinning and breathing fire makes me feel that way too), and start getting real casual about safety. For fire breathers, in particular, this is when I have seen the highest incidence of pneumonitis and blowbacks (and I was one of those). Then, either you get hurt yourself, or someone you respect gets hurt, and you go back on “alert”, but tend to relax over time again.

    Human nature impels us towards behavior like this. We are, by nature, lazy creatures. Daniel Kahneman (who won the Nobel Prize for his work in decision psychology) wrote a wonderful book called “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, in which he discusses the two systems in our brains that guide our behavior. System 1 is fast, automatic, intuitive, and relies heavily on shortcuts and heuristics. System 2 is rational and conscious, but activating it requires a great deal of effort, which we tend to avoid. In experiment after experiment, people default to System 1 whenever they can, and aren’t even aware of it.

    The bottom line here is simple. Making conscious efforts is hard, and in the long term, is not sustainable. We will always go back to System 1 when we let up on vigilance, and ultimately we always do. The best way to stay safe is to drill the safety bits until they are as automatic as your spinning flow, so that you no longer have to make a conscious effort to follow the safety procedures, it’s just habit (System 1).

    And then sometimes you’ll still toss caution to the wind and do something unsafe… but at least you’ll do so consciously, in full knowledge of the risks.

  2. Post

    “The best way to stay safe is to drill the safety bits until they are as automatic as your spinning flow, so that you no longer have to make a conscious effort to follow the safety procedures, it’s just habit (System 1).”

    Exactly. As you say earlier, people get lazy, though, and drilling proper safety isn’t the same as drilling a move, so we’ve got to figure out how to do vigilance better. The more I think about it, the more I think some kind of “fire safety checklist” would be great to carry around. Is the Fuel Dump Secure? Is the fuel in clearly marked containers that can be sealed? Is the dump clearly separated from the performers and audience? Are you wearing fire safe clothing? Do you have a trained safety? Does the safety have a blanket? Do you have a fire extinguisher? Going down the list, making sure you can check off each one. I don’t think all our safety procedures will ever become System 1 (we use Kahneman in the military too, and while his stuff is good, he glosses over that there are some things that will never go from system 2 to system 1, and we shouldn’t expect them too).

  3. Fire safe clothing isn’t much of a problem in my group (even not flowing anything almost all of us wear fire proof clothing all day anyway), but for the other safety things we tried to keep it as simple and the possible failures as less as possible.
    For example, all the stuff like blankets etc. get into one big box, same goes with fuel and most of the props (no staffs, obviously). Then the props are stored first in the box, so to get to them, you at least have to get blankets, fire extinguisher and all that stuff out first. Carrying the box is also at least really hard to do so alone, so laziness dictates we are at least two people and have all the safety stuff with us, and somewhat ready-ish on the floor, if nothing else.

    Still leaves some place for lazy mistakes, but it forces us to have at least the absolute basics. Well, we still have to inspect our props for failures, but that is done before packing them in there, because after the burn we usually have more time to do so and we try to remind each other of that every time.
    Knowing you are lazy is already half way through to find ways working with it…
    So i’m searching for solutions like that, actually forcing me to take safety precautions. A list would be nice to have for some people, but honestly… time before a show is often really tight, so going through a checklist re-packing all the stuff we might have already handy in a box or such is something that would sure get tossed overboard once in a while. That’s bad, but knowing it is bad can help you find alternatives you can’t avoid so easy.

    It is also helpful to try and calculate the risks. For example the risk of playing staff is way lower (for yourself) than using a fire skirt. Or at least different. So i try to make a habit out of thinking “what could be the worst happening”, depending on location, weather and stuff, and check if i have solutions that go over the top of that. If so, it’s maybe not perfect, but the best i can think of that i know i won’t avoid sometimes.

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