Drama – the key criterion for assessing volcano ash risk

April 20, 2010

Frank Furedi, the world’s formost sociologist on fear, weighs in on the air travel chaos created by the eruptions from the world’s most unpronouncable volcano — Eyjafjallajokull – on Spiked Online:

“I am not a natural scientist, and I claim no authority to say anything of value about the risks posed by volcanic ash clouds to flying aircraft. However, as a sociologist interested in the process of decision-making, it is evident to me that the reluctance to lift the ban on air traffic in Europe is motivated by worst-case thinking rather than rigorous risk assessment. Risk assessment is based on an attempt to calculate the probability of different outcomes. Worst-case thinking – these days known as ‘precautionary thinking’ – is based on an act of imagination. It imagines the worst-case scenario and then takes action on that basis. In the case of the Icelandic volcano, fears that particles in the ash cloud could cause aeroplane engines to shut down automatically mutated into a conclusion that this would happen. So it seems to me to be the fantasy of the worst-case scenario rather than risk assessment that underpins the current official ban on air traffic.”

Furedi’s criticism might seem, on the face of it, careless: The consequences of an aircraft sucking in volcanic ash are, based on previous incidents, potentially fatal. But in light of an admission by European Union officials that many of the grounded flights would have flown under U.S. rules for dealing with volcanic ash, and that the computer models used to predict the ash cloud were flawed give credence to the complaint that “worst-case thinking”  is bypassing rational, probabilistic,  risk assessment.

This is not, Furedi notes, an isolated phenomenon, but rather the result of a  broad societal amplification of fear as a criterion for dealing with and regulating life. It is a radicalized skepticism which places far greater value on what is unknown, what might happen,  than what can be known about what will happen. And this fear of the unknown demands action — government intervention and regulation on the grounds that it is better to be safe than sorry. For more, read the full article.


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