⭐Investigating and Contrasting Ways of Knowing

Continuing the experiment bringing you papers and analysis that are harder to find, so you may not have access to this paper. If you need help getting access to the original, let me know.

Drowning ‘Truths’: Contrasting experiential-experts’ perceptions with official-experts drowning reports on Australia’s hazardous coasts

This is a paper by Peter Kamstra, Brian Cook, David Kennedy, Evelin Rijksen and Shane Daw. Thanks to Gary Klein recommending it during the NDM open house.

There are over 1 million rock fishers in Australia. Rock fishers are people who go fishing off of rocks that just into the ocean. This allows them to reach deeper water and different kinds of fish without requiring a boat.

This carries risk though, as its understood, waves can come up over the rocks and sweep fishers away. The deeper the water that is around the rocks, the better the fishing is. This means the more fishers there are in that area. But the deeper water also means the more danger there is. So fishers can be (inadvertently) attracted to more dangerous areas.

Being near the ocean, waves can sweep fishers off the rocks. There were 164 drownings between 2004 and 2018. As a result the government had a target to reduce this number by 50% over time.

The reason I chose to analyze this paper is because it is a good example of how different are views, and “ways of knowing” can contribute to different solutions.

After examining data from coroners throughout the country, they mandated life jackets for all fishers. While on the surface this might seem like a good solution, further research and investigation shows that this may not be as helpful as first thought.

But how did they arrive at the solution if it might not solve the problem? The government primarily used data from coroners in the National Coronial Information System (NCIS) to gain an understand of these drownings and how the occurred.

So is the data wrong? No, there’s no indication that’s the case. The issue is that the government only really had one way of knowing (and thus understanding) what was going on, and that way was through the lens of these scientific statistics.

So what’s the alternative? Talk to those close to the work, ideally those actually doing it. That’s exactly what these researchers did, they interviewed the fishers. But even better, instead of getting them to come into a conference room or a lab or something, they met them where everything happens, out in the places where they fished. This minimizes how much their presence might change how they do things and allows them to point things out in the environment.

We’re fortunate that in software, this is actually easier in some ways, especially when working remotely. At least some of the context will be the same. Even if you’re on a video call or a chat, you may be able to use the same software, you likely have access to the same tools and resources that you have when doing your normal work, the same dashboards, IDEs, etc…

Ways of knowing

“Ways of knowing” basically just means whatever you (or an organization or institution) respects as the way of learning something. This is what highlights or obscures different forms of expertise.

The government took a look at a lot of data from the deaths of fishers who had drowned. As part of an initiative to reduce drowning deaths, they began mandating life jackets for fishers. On the surface, this sounds good, but as the researchers looked into this, it seems that may not be a particularly effective intervention.

The government only had one way of knowing, only one lens through which they could try and understand what was happening and that was by examining the data from the corners. This also contributed to the way the risk was framed both by them and in the media, which we’ll talk about shortly.

This sort of pattern can occur in our organizations also. Things look a certain way from a distance, you have a bit of data, and some intervention seems to make sense. The issue occurs because the way we imagine work to be and the way it actually takes place can be vastly different.

We’ve talked about this gap before, as it can show up in a number of places, but today we’ll discuss how it can happen when problem solving.

In order to better acknowledge the usefulness and validity of both ways of knowing, I like the terminology the authors came up, they call the government folks the “official experts,” whereas the experienced fishers are the “experiential-experts.”

Combining and contrasting not detracting

Its important to mention that the researchers didn’t start from a position of discarding or dismissing the government data. They sought to supplement it and reveal things that it masked.

That’s what happens when you only have one way of knowing. Whatever way that you give preference to will highlight some things, but obscure others. When you are able to take multiple views and contrast them, more can be revealed.

For example, when talking about what safety gear was most important, some identified their cleats. These spiked rock shoes helped keep fishers from entering the water in the first place, whereas a life jacket could only help after you’ve entered the water of course.

Framing risk

One thing I found especially interesting, was that the government reports talked a lot about experience as a function of years, and while the fishers agreed that experience was important, they talked about it in terms of behavior.

Inexperienced fishers were that because of what they did (or didn’t do). Government or “official experts” mostly frame risk around the physical, the weather and water conditions, the gear or lack of, etc.

But fishers talked about what they did or didn’t do. They talked about things like what to do when you line gets caught on a rock or what to do when you have an especially large fish on the line. New fishers tend to go to the edge and try and free the line or capture the fish. The “experiential experts” said that instead, fisher should cut their line or get another fisher to help them bring a fish in. That other person would watch for waves and alert them.

The way the risk was framed, of “freak waves” sweeping fishers away, New South Wales made life jackets mandatory.

The different ways of framing risk change what is visible. The same data from the paper, NCIS data, is used to prioritize different safety issues based on statistical analysis.

Because of the way the risk is framed, there are targets to improve the drowning stats and clearly people care about this stuff, but there are “few analyses” of how fishers end up in the ocean.

And there are none that look at how the government perspective matches or contrasts with the fishers. Nor are there any that examine differences between experienced and in experienced fishers.

Critically, neither the experiential-experts’ perceptions or official-experts’ reports are assumed to be ‘The Truth’, nor is either considered to be intrinsically ‘False’ or simply perceptions.

Different framing also revealed how the weather, as reported and understood by there government may not be as useful to fishers. The weather reports are about the area as a whole, but depending on what direction the waves are coming from they may or may not be a threat to fishers.

This can be a problem if you’re a new fisher who puts too much trust in that report, it could say the weather is ok, but you might position yourself in a way that the waves are a risk to you.

Coding official accounts of drowning

These were coded separately the fishers coding and cover 4 data sets:

  • Coroner findings (74)
    • These have the post detail, sometimes even including the circumstances.
  • Autopsy (14)
  • Police reports with eyewitness accounts (53)
  • No documentation at all (23)

In the case of the coroner’s reports, the circumstances or mechanisms are from a medical perspective and we might expect and only include those things “considered relevant to death.” This is different from what fishers would say is relevant. This contrast of perspective is a theme through out the paper and is useful and important.

NCIS data has a coded drowning type and also experience level.

The data from the coroner data helped bring about the life jacket laws. This makes it a great source for “official experts.”

Looking deeper

The authors conducted 52 “semi-structured interviews”. These focused on “how fishers believe that fishers” end up in the water.

They divided the fishers into two groups, experienced/experts and inexperienced. Experienced fishers were defined as those with more than 3 years of experience. This split the groups, roughly in 2, with 28 experts.

These experts then were used to developed categorization of the different events.

We don’t need to bring this level of rigor in order to see whats going on in our organizations, but we can use it to see how we might gain similar insight: talk to the people who do the work, find out how they view it, what makes it difficult from their perspective.

Types of drownings

Looking beyond the idea of freak waves with the experiential experts they were also able the better understand the ways in which people drowned.

22 inexperienced fishers were “assisted” when they drowned. When they investigated this, it seems that inexperienced fishers, when they see someone end up in the water may attempt to help ineffectively.

Experienced fisher say to swim away from rocks and exit the water in a safer place. It can be difficult to exit the water even in less turbulent places, so doing it with the turbulence near the rocks is especially difficult.

This seems to align with sandy beach rip current safety research advice which focuses on “avoidance” first and then the ability to “survive unintentional entry.”

This adds a further way of knowing and looking at these events. The authors make a digram with showing the “collective,” including sandy beach safety.

When asked about the drownings categorized as unknown, fishers said that is often what happens when people fish alone. This again reveals a possible way of addressing the issue, encouraging fishers to not fish alone, perhaps even helping to strengthen clubs or other networks that might pair up beginners with more experienced fishers.

But with only one way of knowing and the framing of “freak waves” these other possible treatments are invisible.


  • Favoring one “way of knowing” over another obscures knowledge that other forms of expertise can bring.
  • The value comes from not just the different experience and view, but from comparing and contrasting them.
  • Government intervention focused on life jackets, but when talking to fishers themselves it seems like they may not help many of the reasons they end up in the water.
    • Fishers, when discussing gear, tended to focus on not prevention, trying not to end up in the water in the first place. They highlighted their spiked cleat like shoes that helped prevent slipping.
  • Much of the ” official expert” data frames risks in terms of the conditions of the fishing area and other physical issues, where fishers tend to frame risk around behaviors.
  • Using the information provided by the fishers helped show some overlap with some strategies around sandy beach safety and approaches that could help prevent drownings, even after fishers end up in the water.
  • The way risk is framed also affects the solutions that are generated.
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