The map is not the territory, the menu is not the meal
Reading the story in today's Chronicle about how Bechtel Corporation has built more than half the country's nuclear power plants took me back to the days of yore, when I was a clerk at that San Francisco-based company during the 1970s. The safety of nuclear power was a controversial issue in California long before Three Mile Island, which scared the shit out of the whole country.
I asked an engineer who worked in the division that designed the power plants, Are they safe? After a long, not-very-reassuring pause, he answered something like this: We design power plants that are perfectly safe, but they might be built by contractors who cut corners, use sub-standard materials, or fail to follow our specifications. And after they are built, the people who operate the plants might be incompetent, drunk on the job, etc. All we can vouch for is the quality of our design.
It was an important point with wide application. Semanticists were telling us something similar: The map is not the territory, the menu is not the meal, and fail-safe specifications for nuclear power plants are not the same as fail-safe nuclear power plants. (And then there's Mother Nature, who can be an awful bitch.)
The moral of story: While the human species can be brilliant and charming, it's not good at constructing perfect systems. We shouldn't even try to do that if the danger from the failure of those systems is as great as it is with nuclear power.