“What could go wrong” considered harmful

The retort “What could go wrong” is one of my big pet peeves.

It’s often used in response to a failure of a complex system or operation. Sometimes the system had clearly poor design, making it warranted. But more often these comments reek of hindsight bias and carry an arrogance โ€” as if the speaker could have easily avoided the failure if they were the one in charge.

It’s possible to construct that kind of retort for almost anything if you try hard enough:

  • “Flying massive metal tubes around in the sky filled with hundreds of people, what could go wrong?”
  • “Cementing metal wires into the mouths of children, what could go wrong?”
  • “Shooting lasers into peoples’ eyes, what would go wrong?”

But if you did so, you’d actually be wrong a lot โ€” because there are many complex systems that function correctly for most users, most of the time. They function because many people have poured blood, sweat, and human ingenuity into them to make them reliable. And it’s often not intuitive that they can work.

Even if sometimes people are truly negligent and deserve it, I don’t find the phrase of net benefit to the culture. I consider it harmful because it ups the consequences of failure โ€” a necessity for innovation โ€” in exchange for cheap virtue signaling from bystanders who often have no experience in the domain.

So rather than assuming incompetence, let’s all be a bit more charitable. The world is complex and less intuitive than it looks.

Any thoughts?