Thursday, 22 April 2010

Here We Go Again

Computer Models Have a Lot to Answer For

We have been reprised once again of the follies of relying upon computer models. Apparently it was the pesky models which led officials to shut down air traffic throughout Europe as a result of Iceland's volcanoes erupting. The disruption and the costs, of course, are prohibitive. Well worth paying, however, if the risks and dangers were genuine.

According to a recent report in the Financial Times, it was more a case of virtual reality, rather than genuine reality which has shut down air traffic.
The computer models that guided decisions to impose a no-fly zone across most of Europe in recent days are based on incomplete science and limited data, according to European officials. As a result, they may have over-stated the risks to the public, needlessly grounding flights and damaging businesses.

“It is a black box in certain areas,” Matthias Ruete, the EU’s director-general for mobility and transport, said on Monday, noting that many of the assumptions in the computer models were not backed by scientific evidence.

European authorities were not sure about scientific questions, such as what concentration of ash was hazardous for jet engines, or at what rate ash fell from the sky, Mr Ruete said. “It’s one of the elements where, as far as I know, we’re not quite clear about it,” he admitted.
Sound familiar? It's deja vu, all over again, as Yogi Berra would put it.

How can such complete faith be put in virtually nothing, or at least in the profoundly unsubstantiated? What happened to the so-called rigour of hard science? It never existed. But it's even worse when the age becomes deeply superstitious--as ours has become. In a recent article entitled This shutdown is about more than volcanic ash, sociologist Frank Furedi hits the nail on the head.
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’.
We have termed this phenomenon the Culture of Catastrophism. But it is important to realise that this is not just espoused by a few superstitious folk on the lunatic fringe. It is now mainstream. Furedi goes on to explain how it actually works.
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.
Risk assessment has become risk avoidance. The best way to avoid risks is to shut everything down and live in a cocoon. It is to retreat into the safety of the bunker or the cave.
Tragically, this failure of nerve in relation to the volcanic ash is the inevitable outcome of the institutionalisation of worst-case policymaking. This approach, based on the unprecedented sensitivity of contemporary Western society to uncertainty and unknown dangers, has led to a radically new way of perceiving and managing risks. As a result, the traditional association of risk with probabilities is now under fire from a growing body of opinion, which claims that humanity lacks the knowledge to calculate risks in any meaningful way. Sadly, critics of traditional probabilistic risk-assessments have more faith in speculative computer models than they do in science’s capacity to use knowledge to transform uncertainties into calculable risks. The emergence of a speculative approach towards risk is paralleled by the growing influence of ‘possibilistic thinking’ rather than probabilistic thinking, which actively invites speculation about what could possibly go wrong. In today’s culture of fear, frequently ‘what could possibly go wrong’ is confused with ‘what is likely to happen’.
When individuals turn against God they may succeed in going through life with brazen arrogance and ill-founded boldness, being protected by the lawfulness and security of the surrounding culture. When a whole culture turns away from God, fearful superstition is the inevitable outcome. Decisions have to be made about things way beyond control or knowledge. The result is fear of the unknown. Fear of the unknown and the attempt to avoid bad outcomes is the essence of a superstitious mind. Fearful superstition has now become the dominant culture of the day.
Worst-case thinking encourages society to adopt fear as of one of the key principles around which the public, the government and various institutions should organise their lives. It institutionalises insecurity and fosters a mood of confusion and powerlessness. Through popularising the belief that worst cases are normal, it also encourages people to feel defenceless and vulnerable to a wide range of future threats. In all but name, it is an invitation to social paralysis. The eruption of a volcano in Iceland poses technical problems, for which responsible decision-makers should swiftly come up with sensible solutions. But instead, Europe has decided to turn a problem into a drama. In 50 years’ time, historians will be writing about our society’s reluctance to act when practical problems arose. It is no doubt difficult to face up to a natural disaster – but in this case it is the all-too-apparent manmade disaster brought on by indecision and a reluctance to engage with uncertainty that represents the real threat to our future.

Contrast this present condition of our culture of Unbelief with the reasoned calmness of Belief when faced with minatory uncertainty:
Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

When Unbelief dominates a culture--as it does in the West--institutionalised fearful superstition is inevitable. It has always been the case. And so it has come to pass. This, too, will not change until we repent and return to the all wise, all governing God, Who has revealed Himself in Holy Scripture. Only then will our present fearful culture of  superstition dissipate.

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