Subjective vs. Objective Evidence

By Bill Burch | Sr. Well Control Engineer

Today, I would like to talk about something a little bit different than the usual technically focused topic. I was recently in a meeting where someone had presented something about the idea of subjective vs. objective evidence. I started thinking how would/does this apply in the oilfield?

How many times have you sat in a meeting or had a discussion on the rig and heard someone make a definitive statement? I know I have lots of times. We all do it – I know I have and I probably don’t even recognize it all the time. Often, it’s subtle – and usually it’s sincere. The person speaking truly believes it’s the truth. Sometimes, it’s easy to call “bullshit” if you have a past history with them (i.e. knowing they stretch the truth or lie through their teeth straight faced like a champion poker player) or know yourself that what’s being said just isn’t correct. But more often than not, it’s hard to decipher. And without actively listening, that opinion becomes heard as “fact” to others. Then, based on those “facts”, we make decisions that can complicate our operations, impact our costs, or worst yet, scare ourselves into a corner where our options are just plain awful. And if the “fact” – although not correct – doesn’t cause a major impact, we assume it’s right until either years down the road we prove with technology that it’s not the case or else there’s a major issue. Hopefully, after an incident investigation, we then realize we were wrong the whole time. But even then, those “facts” are hard to disprove without strong evidence to the contrary (we believed it was true all this time and now you’re telling me I’m wrong?) Worst yet is those who weren’t directly involved the train wreck very well may still think it’s a “fact” or not know the circumstances well enough to understand what is the root cause.

One of the main issues we face in the oil and gas business is that we know so little about what is really happening below our feet. To complicate matters further, we have two different ways of looking at a scenario: on location or in the office. I’ve been on enough rigs to hear the usual grievance which usually goes something like “that ____ doesn’t have a clue what we’re doing out here.” We’re so focused on doing, going, moving, etc. that it seems at times we fail to sit and reflect on what was done and what did we really learn from our past actions. Sure, there’s efforts to try to capture the knowledge or issues but let’s be honest, does your organization really view that as a high-level objective? No, of course not. Even the best companies that spend a lot of time and money to capture knowledge fail miserably at transferring it. It seems that every 10 years, with the inter-company transfers every 2-3 yrs and hiring/retiring cycles we go thru, we have to re-learn the same lessons – but in an environment today that’s full of heightened liability concerns. Therefore, we rely heavily on those “company historians” as I like to call them (“gate keepers” is another term I’ve heard tossed around) to carry those lessons forwards and keep us out of trouble.

In addition, we also foster an environment of self-proclaimed expertise amongst those with little experience. For example, I know several office and field engineers who think they know a whole lot more than they do – and there’s nothing in place to really keep them humble. While they might be very good at a specific area, it doesn’t mean they know everything. Nobody can know the entire drilling and completion process at an expert level. There’s nothing more challenging to deal with than being told by someone who hasn’t been there (or certainly hasn’t spent the time learning and growing into an expert role in that area) that this is what we are going to do. While it’s easy to jump to conclusions that this is a problem with the young 2 year fast-tracking college educated engineers, I’ve seen this with people that have 30+ yrs of experience. And while it may be more pronounced in drilling and completions than anywhere else, there’s a general reliance that those with the most experience are by default experts in all subject matters.

We have a lot of folks who have never been properly trained (whether it is through a university system, independently-run professional level courses, in-house education sessions, or as simple as being mentored by senior staff) and regardless, most of us have learned more through the school of experience than in a classroom. Even though there’s been great leaps in the last 20 years to standardize curriculums, new training service providers teaching all over the world, and a huge push to publicize the vast knowledge databases of SPE, API, and other collectives online, we still don’t seem to have come even close to bridging the gap between knowledge and experience. While there is nothing inherently wrong with learning solely from experience, it can and does foster an environment of errors which can become “facts” – i.e. the infamous “bladder effect” during the 2010 Gulf of Mexico blowout.

The next time you’re sitting in a meeting and hear a fact presented as evidence, think to yourself is this subjective or objective? From a legal perspective, subjective evidence is defined as the testimony of what happened based on the statements of a witness, or subject. The quality of the subjective evidence depends upon the honesty of the witness, and their ability to perceive reality. Unfortunately, subjective views are often inconsistent and biased. People may see what they want to see, or what they expect to see. Often, witnesses of the same event will report contradictory stories. People also may lie. For example, I had a consultant tell me that the kick he took was only 22 bbls – nevermind that casing and drillpipe pressures from the computer model indicated the kick volume had to be at least 122 bbls.

Subjective evidence should only be used to elaborate upon objective evidence. Subjective evidence is not evidence at all, and can never stand alone, without objective evidence. Subjective evidence is a contradiction of terms, which has somehow become part of our vocabulary. It is only the report of what some person or subject has allegedly seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled. It is relying on someone else’s senses, and truthfulness in reporting what was sensed. The team is totally dependent upon the reliability of the subject, in the absence of any object of perception in the room.

Objective evidence is truly deserving of the word “evidence.” Objective evidence does not lie. The interpretation of objective evidence may vary, and that is the purpose of a discussion in the first place! For example, if you project a cylinder onto a wall, as in the image below, we can disagree about the interpretation of the cylinder depending on which way we look at it. However, to say that the cylinder is a square or circle – and not what it is – is not being objective. What can we infer from the objects? Objects are the objects of perception, things that can be seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled. They include videos, pictures, emails, files, old reports, downhole and surface data, tape recordings, phone calls, physical objects such as cuttings, liquids, or gases. Objective evidence does not change, as long as it is not tampered with. It is what it is. It is unbiased. It has no motives. It has no feelings. It does not care what the outcome of the meeting is. It simply speaks the truth.

Objective evidence takes more effort and often times, it uncovers so much of what we don’t really know. It must be retrieved, stored, protected, recorded, and presented. Subjective testimony is easier – just give someone the opportunity to speak in a meeting or discussion and ask some questions. But, if we would remember to return to making decisions only on objective evidence, there would be far fewer opportunities for disastrous mistakes in the oilfield.

The universe is full of possibilities. Evidence is the key to determining in the oilfield what “could have happened” from “what did happen.” We should be learning from what actually happened – not what someone perceives is reality. Let’s stop making decisions without actual evidence or based on who’s the loudest voice in the room.

Please feel free to leave comments below and let’s discuss this further. Please visit our Knowledge Library webpage for more information such as Case Studies or to read about additional well control topics on our blog.

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