Drama – the key criterion for assessing volcano ash risk

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.

6 Responses to Drama – the key criterion for assessing volcano ash risk

  1. C Solberg says:

    Oh, please. What Furedi and you guys seem to take for granted is that non-trivial risks are always and everywhere calculable. That’s an a priori assumption that is in itself irrational, inasmuch as its based on an epistemology where risks can always be expressed in numerical form. Maybe they can, but that translation does not necessarily imply that the resulting numbers have epistemic or normative value for decision-makers.

    • I don’t follow the logic: Because one cannot, a priori, establish that all non-trivial risks are calculable, non trivial risks that are calculable are not necessarily going to have “normative value” to decision makers? The first part of this critique reminds me of the key objection to Karl Popper’s attack on inference: sure, we can’t logically infer from any given number of x events where event y follows that y follows x; but this utterly fails to account for the fact that we can and do predict many things. One might venture that the concept of risk is inseparable from probability – utterly meaningless without quantification – and that according a degree of mathematical probability to risk is a rational and complex process. To dismiss this as a deluded quest for quantification on the basis that some risks will be difficult or possibly impossible to quantify seems to me to be irrational, akin to dismissing the possibility of inference on strict Popperian terms.

  2. C Solberg says:

    Firstly, thanks for the reply. Secondly, apologies if I didn’t entirely make sense.

    To clarify: I propose that Furedi’s argument boils down to saying “non-trivial risks can be reduced to numbers, and these numbers, rather than the vague intuitions and fears of ‘worst case thinking’ should form the basis of risk policy and management”.

    Furedi furthermore proposes that there is a normative and substantive difference between “imagination” and “risk assessment”, and that the former is qualitative, emotive and essentially worthless, while the other is qualitative, rational and essentially the only game in town.

    What I tried, but perhaps failed, to argue (well) in my initial comment is that this presupposes that a) we have good reasons to believe that the consequences of events can be predicted in numerical form, and b) that this quantitative prediction should have normative force over and above that of qualitative (emotive) risk assessment.

    Point a seems to correspond to your defence of prediction, and I don’t have any quarrel with the possibility of prediction per se. My point is that b does not logically follow from a. The step from a to b is motivated by a political or normative commitment to the desirability of such a quantitative risk assessment and management strategy.

    As such, dismissing precautionary policies as based on fantasy or imagination is not logical. It is rational given certain political commitments in the same way that utilitarianism is rational given certain unprovable assumptions about what constitutes a desirable outcomes. To dismiss the role of emotion, imagination and precaution in risk management is pretty much equivalent to assuming that pleasure is a non-problematic given in a utilitarian calculus of ethics.

    Put another way, in the same way that utilitarianism begs the question of “what is good”, quantitative risk management begs the question “how bad is bad enough”. I submit that one cannot answer that question in practical or political terms without taking emotions, imagination and culture into account.

  3. Ken Chicago says:

    We live in a fear mongered blame someone world. The media always seeks blame for a bad event. If a flip of the coin lands tails 5 times in a row, the flipper caused a problem and should be chastised. In such a world math, science, logic, and rational thought cannot be used. Politicians and journalists are not trained in analytical thought, math, science, or health. Ignorance is pushing the world around. For the first time in human history, people are getting dumber! Columbus wouldn’t have been able to sail the oceans today because rock breaks wood and his three craft would eventually near land with rocks! The human race is getting dumber!

  4. C Solberg says:

    Mr. Chicago,

    you, at the very least, seem to have found out who to blame. It’s all these ignorant, anti-scientific, irrational, fear-mongering politicians and journalists. Gods, the irony!

  5. tarpon says:

    Crisis and the hysteria they generate, with a lot of help from the media has uses … politicians and tyrants figured that out long ago.

    And when you look at the current oil spill crisis mania, the responsible party is our very own ‘can never do no wrong’ federal government. They decreed it so, after the Exxon Valdez debacle, a 1989 federal law says the President would assume control of all major oil spills, to laughingly, prevent future disasters.

    Weird, that’s the same responsible party who caused the sub-prime meltdown, with the pursuit of their mythical redlining unicorn — we seem to be looping.

    Apparently trying to do everything just is too overtaxing for our over bearing over weight uncle, who isn’t what he used to be.

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