Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Volcanic Ash and Risk Assessment

I don't agree with the hyped up tone of this little essay by Frank Furedi, but I agree that the flight ban is another example of the screwed-up way we assess risks to the public. In our system, any risk that can be used to get news viewers, or to beat one's political opponents, gets exaggerated beyond reason, while we ignore real and present dangers like driving in cars.
Whatever the risks posed by the eruption of a volcano in Iceland, it seems clear that the shutting down of much of Europe’s air space is not just about the threat posed by clouds of ash to flying passengers. We live in an era where problems of uncertainty and risk are continually amplified, and where our fearful imaginations can make these problems seem like existential threats. Consequently, unexpected natural events are rarely treated simply as unexpected natural events – instead they are swiftly dramatised and transformed into ‘threats to human survival’. . . .

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.
Our problems with risk assessment are most apparent in our response to terrorism. Because every political leader knows that a single successful terrorist attack could be the end of his career, and because the voters have somehow been convinced that terrorism is a danger that is both awful and entirely preventable by sufficient toughness, we go to absurd lengths to avoid small risks.

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