Robust debate

Back in July 2015, I wrote about patterns and how humans engage with them. Artificial intelligence (AI) is replacing humans in identifying patterns, making short and accurate work of sorting through a large amount of data without getting tired or needing tea breaks. This is particularly pertinent with the vast amount of data that we like to collect, just in case! However, some patterns are barely patterns at all: more a thread or even just a series of disparate points, which suddenly coalesce to lead to a new insight. Such sparse patterns may be more suited to human identification than to AI analysis. Let me explain.

Some time ago, when talking to a colleague just before his retirement, I asked him what he had enjoyed about his work as a materials technical expert. His reply caught me by surprise. He said that it was the opportunity to argue technically, logically or philosophically with peers and equals when both or all are trying to get to the same place, but have different views on how to get there. This is not an emotional exchange and there is a challenge for you to articulate your case.

At the time, I immediately thought that this was good material for the basis of an article, but what else could I say alongside it without detracting from it? I am now thinking that maybe the paragraph above is sufficiently thought-provoking that I could have got away with just having that as the full article! I missed a trick there. Luckily, along came another point in the thread. This was a dispute between someone disparaging Winston Churchill and a well-known TV personality who jumped to his defence. Just the opposite, in fact, to different views trying to get to the same place. In itself, this point did not add to my nascent hypothesis, but it did raise a flag so that my attention was caught by another reference to Churchill.

The Rt Rev Graham James, on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, gave a balanced view of the wartime prime minister. He made reference to the journalist Daniel Finkelstein’s opinions, which included the belief that Churchill’s “crowning achievement was to preserve a culture in which robust discussion among free people about what matters most provides the best context for human civilisation to flourish”. So, the pattern coalesces: a culture of robust discussion. Another point from history was highlighted in the book and film about Abraham Lincoln and his team of rivals. Following his election in 1860, Lincoln appointed to his cabinet three of the people who had run against him. He obviously wanted not just those who would agree with him, but competent people who would put forward different views and challenges.

Finally, talking to a family member, a contrast was made between organisational changes that left people working in isolation when they had previously had a team around them from different technical disciplines. This impacts on the individual as well as the organisation. The ability to vocalise concerns, issues and solutions to a colleague, even if that colleague may not be able to offer a detailed technical viewpoint in response, is of substantial benefit to the individual in successfully discharging their responsibilities. In addition, the opportunity to discuss technical issues with peers facilitates learning, aids succession and builds experience. All of this is even before we get into the mental health benefits that accrue from being with colleagues and teams.

In our profession, we are lucky to have many opportunities to engage in robust discussion. The British Institute of Non-Destructive Testing leads the way in this: the various committee meetings, the Branch meetings and the annual conference all provide forums for having your voice heard and hearing alternative viewpoints and robust discussion. Then there are numerous other meetings and seminars, organised by various organisations, which provides similar headroom to think about things other than the minutiae of the day job. We must not become complacent in these assemblies because there is a danger of groupthink. Do we consider alternative 

However, the most important place for sharing robust discussion is in the workplace with our colleagues. Do we give sufficient priority to this? Then there is the potential isolation of the operator who is sent off alone to carry out their particular inspections. Do we allow enough time for feedback discussions after inspections? Experience is key to competence: do we ensure that practical experience regarding observed signals and defect responses is shared 

I am still hopeful of receiving robust comments!

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Wood or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438300; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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