Is Ergonomics a Scientific Discipline? No.

This is taken from the article “Head to head: Is Ergonomics a Scientific Discipline?”, published in The Ergonomist, Newsletter of the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, July 2012. It is a response to an article by the IEHF President Jon Berman in The Ergonomist, June 2012. The ‘Yes’ argument was made by Mark Young MIEHF.

by Steve Shorrock MIEHF

Jon Berman’s article in the June edition of The Ergonomist concerned ‘the research base’ and whether it is important for ergonomics to be a scientific discipline. This raises other questions about the nature of science and science communication, the reality of ergonomics practice, and what else characterises our work.

The problems that many practitioners face on a day-to-day basis are usually not problems of science – they are problems of craft and engineering. Many are socio-political in nature. For practitioners working with complex sociotechnical systems, they might include how to gain management commitment to change, how to gain and utilise end-user involvement and input in projects, how to align HF activities with a system engineering or regulatory context, how to balance a change (e.g. a new shift pattern) with its social effects, or how to integrate new interfaces with multiple legacy controls and displays. Some of these issues rest on some scientific knowledge. But for most practitioner needs, the requisite ‘scientific knowledge’ is already there – and has been for years.

The continual enlargement of the scientific research base serves the needs of researchers far more than the needs of practitioners. If I were to take our own journal Ergonomics, then only 10% of articles (maximum) are, or have ever been, relevant to (part of) my practice in complex systems. The same goes for most other journals in our field. For many practitioners the scientific research has clear relevance to initial training, but subsequently diminishing relevance to practice. Even if the topic is relevant, the practitioner needs to access to the research, then consider the representativeness of the tasks, environment and people, think about multifactorial effects, account for publication bias and duplication of reporting, pick out the key implications, and so on. Scientific research in ergonomics, as published, is not ergonomic: it is not designed for those who can best influence the design of real systems – practitioners and policy makers.

Science informs ergonomics, but does not define it – at least not in isolation. Ergonomics is better described as a design discipline that draws on scientific and experiential knowledge. In practice, factors that seem to relate more closely to the effectiveness of ergonomics include empathy, interpersonal and helping skills, design and systems thinking, and understanding of people, technology, organisations and industry. Relevant and useful science clearly has an important role to play in the research base of ergonomics, but craft and engineering play at least equal roles in defining ergonomics in practice.

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About stevenshorrock

I am a systems ergonomist/human factors specialist and work psychologist with a background in practice and research in safety-critical industries. My main interest is human and system behaviour in the context of safety-related organisations. I seek to enable improvement via a combination of systems thinking, design thinking and humanistic thinking. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock
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