Volcanic Ash – Crying Wolf Again or Real Threat? 103

There is a danger that the stage has been reached when we automatically disbelieve the government when it warns of a great danger. I believe, for example, that climate change is a great danger. Quite a lot of my friends, however, are dubious partly because the government is pushing it.

Consider the really major government scares of the last few years – things which were supposed to result in the death of millions – which proved to be nothing like the threat alleged. SARS, avian flu and swine flu all come instantly to mind. And what about the most ramped threat of all, the War of Terror, said by Tony Blair to be an “existential threat” and by John Reid to be a threat “On the scale of World War 2”.

There is an absolutely clear history of governmental over-exaggeration of threat, but also that governments have no difficulty in finding backing for this fear-mongering from government scientists and both techincal and inter-governmental international bodies. There are always virologists, vulcanologists and security experts willing to go on TV and tell us we are all doomed (oh, and can they get a bigger research grant to combat the threat).

So when the government promotes a big threat, I am conditioned to scepticism, even before British Airways flew a jumbo jet around for hours yesterday with the Chief Exec on board (after similar incident free test flights by other European airlines).

It turns out that the repeatedly quoted occasion when a BA flight lost power in all four engines due to volcanic dust, was a case of flying right through the plume close to the volcano in Indonesia. When you think about it, the fact that you can do something as extreme as that and nobody be hurt, is comforting rather than worrying.

As for widely dispersed ash, I have been wondering how Indonesia and Hawaii and Sicily ever manage flights. Why was there not a massive whole continent air lockdown after the vastly greater ash flown out by Mount St Helens?

As a society we have become risk averse to an unrealistic degree. We seem to spend our lives in a permanent state of cringe. Perhaps the ash really is too dangerous: but I see no reason to automatically believe the government on the subject.

103 thoughts on “Volcanic Ash – Crying Wolf Again or Real Threat?

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  • alan campbell

    Absolutely right. Scared to death. The “health and safety/paedophiles on every street corner” mentality has won.

  • MJ

    To be fair Craig, it’s not your regular volcanic ash. This is different because the eruption has happened beneath a glacier, causing the ash to contain tiny particles of glass, which is the real problem for jet engines.

    Overall however yes, the whole thing has I’m sure been hugely over-hyped. They like to keep us scared of something or other.

  • Ed

    In this instance, I really have to give the government a pass.

    Firstly, it’s not them, but the air traffic control people who have instructed flights to be grounded. I don’t see where politics entered the equation.

    Secondly, the problem is not specifically that volcanic dust is dangerous – it is that airlines are not equipped to detect when they are flying into the dust. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that small concentrations of the dust is dangerous, it’s that pilots have no way of knowing when they could be approaching areas where there is significantly more dust in the atmosphere.

    At best, you can argue that people have not been creative enough in thinking around this problem, probably because they were hoping that the dust would dissipate soon enough. Whether this was reasonable or not is another matter, but you can understand given the uncertainty why they’d take this approach.

    I quite agree that there are times when as a society we are far too risk averse, but on this one, the cautious approach is pretty understandable. When we fly, we put our safety directly in the hands of numerous individuals whose prime objective is to ensure we arrive safely – and with this situation, it is pretty unclear that they can properly carry out their jobs. In this case, I have no problem for scientists to be given ample time to figure out when it is safe for planes to start flying again. And I would rather it be them than Airline CEOs and politicians making the call.

  • glenn

    Agreed – there is no reason to automatically believe the government, but no reason to automatically disbelieve them either. What is certain is that they usually want to make political capital out of it, whatever the situation, and that increases cynicism. Tax policies such as increasing duty on fuel as a “green tax” is particularly underhand, when we know full well this is punishing motorists who have virtually no other choice. The cost of public transport has gone up hugely at the same time. The “green tax” revenue is not being put into public transport.

    The government will want to amplify a scare because they believe it’s (a) the only way to get people to pay attention, and (b) bolster their role as a big, strong protecting Daddy-figure.

    But the government quite rightly fears a huge backlash from the hate-Mail and other shrill tabloids if the slightest thing goes wrong, anyone is hurt or inconvenienced, and the gov’t did not anticipate and prevent the problem. So they really can’t win – it’s all scare-mongering and a waste of money if a problem is avoided, and hysterics from the “won’t-anyone-think-about-the-children” crowd should anything happen. Blair and “new” Labour’s lies about Iraq are a separate subject altogether, of course.

    But your last point is particularly important – our notion that everything is to be utterly “safe”, that no slightest harm or injury should ever happen to anyone ever, is preposterous. Taking risk is part of life, and we’re all going to die eventually anyway. The notion that something abominable, tragic and totally avoidable has occurred if anyone fails to die of advanced old age is infantilising our population. It’s particularly ludicrous when we consider the death and crippling injuries we accept as commonplace on the roads, with incompetent, stupid and careless drivers regarded as no more than a nuisance.

  • amk

    “There is a danger that the stage has been reached when we automatically disbelieve the government when it warns of a great danger.”

    The reverse is true too. When the government rightly said there was no link between the MMR vaccine and autism many refused to believe it.

  • MJ

    “When the government rightly said there was no link between the MMR vaccine and autism many refused to believe it”.

    I beg to differ. Since the introduction of the vaccine the incidence of autism in the US has leapt from around 1/1000 to 1/100. The only exception to this is among the Amish community, which refuses all vaccines. Their rate of autism remains at 1/1000 or thereabouts.

  • arsalan

    I’ve just been invited to a question and answer event with Jack Straw and two other bastards from the two other parties in it.

    Do any of you have any suggestions of questions that I should ask him, just encase I get picked when I put my hand up at the end?

  • Justin

    Sure, governments over-hype threats. But they only do so when there is something to gain from it. Exaggerating the threat of terrorism is very popular with the xenophobic electorate, and popularity is an end in itself for a politician. Foreign wars can do wonders for an approval rating. Exaggerating the threat of diseases SARS and bird flu allows politicians to look all statesman like on TV. Plus, they can take all the credit when the world doesn’t end!

    The reason I trust in climate change (apart from a healthy respect for scientists) is that it is in no politicians’ interest to actually do anything about climate change. It’s in their interest to do nothing, which is largely what has happened. What kind of idiot would cook up a story like climate change, and then do almost nothing about it? ‘We’re all going to die, and in the meantime, here’s a hike in your power bill’ is not an ideal election pitch. Never trust a politician- but trust his instinct for self-preservation.

    So, ask yourself, who would gain by exaggerating the threat of volcanic ash? I can’t see any benefit in it for the government or the airlines, and there are plenty of downsides. This leads me to believe that the threat is real.

  • arsalan

    Craig if you want to meet your old boss, I’ll give you my ticket, as long as you swear at him.

  • Justin

    MJ, I’m sorry to be blunt but you are talking out of your arse. The claim that the Amish ‘refuse all vaccines’ is completely false. I’m also pretty sure your statistics are made up, although you’re welcome to prove me wrong by sourcing them. There does appear to be a slightly lower rate of autism in Amish communities, but at least some of this can be accounted for by differing rates of diagnosis. If there is a statistical difference beyond this, there is no evidence to support a link to vaccination. In your extensive studies on the subject, how have you controlled for differences in genetic and lifestyle factors?

    I found all this it in about 5 minutes with the aid of google and a critical mind. It’s really not too difficult.

  • Craig


    I don’t thnk the government’s motives for threat hype are always base. It is just excessive nannying in some cases.

  • MJ

    Justin: The search terms “Autism Amish Anomaly” will give you a full range of opinion on the matter. Make your own mind up. Note I did not claim that there is no autism among the Amish, only that it has not increased in the way that it has among the MMR-vaccinated generation.

  • the_leander

    “I beg to differ. Since the introduction of the vaccine the incidence of autism in the US has leapt from around 1/1000 to 1/100.”

    Correlation does not imply causation.

    It also ignores the fact that as more is learned about Autistic Spectrum Disorder more accurate diagnosis is able to take place. Note that Aspergers Syndrome also falls under this umbrella which does account for a great deal of the increase in numbers – Aspergers is an extremely mild form of the disorder – even 5 years ago people afflicted would have simply have been chalked up as simply being a bit challenging.

    If the MMR had any link to Autism, we would have seen a drop in detection rates with the amount of people being given the mercury free doses as well as single part vaccines. There hasn’t been.

  • glenn

    Not wishing to see this thread turned into a MMR debate, but why on earth didn’t the gov’t allow people to have the three inoculations separately, with a week or so between each? This would have satisfied those concerned about MMR on the whole, and avoided all the problems (heavily emphasised officially) about herd immunity and so on.

    The only explanation I heard was that parents might forget or not bother getting the second or third injection. Surely that’s ludicrous, if they were sufficiently concerned at their child’s health to be cautious about MMR in the first place.

    That MMR might overload an immune system in one blast in _some cases_ does not that seem silly to me.

  • the_leander

    Craig I for one would like to see what the state of the insides of that aircrafts engines were like post flying through the dust for a prolonged period.

    If nothing else the data accumulated would help everyone to work out more accurate safety guidelines as to how much and more specifically what types of ash cause damage to aircraft engines.

    I wouldn’t be surprised though if, as with aircraft operating in desert environments have found, there was an increased degree of wear and tear as a result of flying through the stuff for prolonged periods in lower concentrations.

  • Larry from St. Louis

    Yep, from Glenn and MJ and others, the same bullshit autism arguments from the likes of Jenny McCarthy and some doctors of ill repute.

    Why does Andrew Wakefield have to be such a con artist?

    Once again, complete parallel between the British nutjob left and the American nutjob right. You people are reading and listening to the same crazy sources.

  • MJ

    “Correlation does not imply causation”.

    Indeed, but the enormous increase in incidents of autism is too great to be a mere statistical blip. Any views on the real cause?

  • Jives

    “We are turning into a nation of whimpering slaves to Fear fear of war, fear of poverty, fear of random terrorism, fear of getting down-sized or fired because of the plunging economy, fear of getting evicted for bad debts or suddenly getting locked up in a military detention camp on vague charges of being a Terrorist sympathizer.”

    Hunter S Thompson.

    Indeed.He was,of course,referring to USA but it’s the same here now.

  • the_leander


    The incidence of kids being diagnosed as Aspergers.

    Like I said, that is an extremely mild form of Autism and so is lumped in as “Autistic” which imho is wrong (the person who discovered it stated that it was at the extreme limits of normal behaviour).

    It also doesn’t help that many kids whose parents are effectively empty uniforms actively push to get such a diagnosis when they utterly refuse to instil discipline into unruly children. Getting such a diagnosis means they don’t have to look at their own failures – all part of the blame culture, something which I would bet good money on doesn’t exist within Amish communities.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Ah! He’s back! Larry returns with a Vaudeville fanfare and and the scent of arsenic…

    Are you on the bus, Larry?

    Btw, unusually, I disagree with MJ on this one – I’m not talking about the volcano, but about the MMR issue, which I knew would be brought-up in the ‘volcano’ context. If Dreoilin were still around on this cyber-planetoid, she would no doubt descend upon me like a thunderbolt’d arrow from the biceps of Artemis.

    Because of the unfounded panic generated extremely irresponsibly around the MMR vaccine, over the past 5 years or so, we have faced a reduction in the herd immunity and consequently an outbreak of mumps in late teens early twenty year-olds, with implications (among others) for fertility in some of the males.

    We’ve also seen a few deaths of children due to measles again – something that was a thing of the past.

    Rubella is extremely dangerous for unborn babies.

    The MMR vaccine has nothing to do with autism and delivering single vaccines to kids renders poorer immunity against all three viruses.

  • MJ

    the_leander: Aspergers may be ‘mild’ compared with other forms of autism but from my experience – and I do have first-hand experience of the syndrome – to describe it as the ‘extreme limits of normal behaviour’ is absurd.

    Is that your response to my question about the cause of the increase in autism; that it is simply parents pushing to get such a diagnosis? Do you know anyone with Aspergers?

  • glenn

    Reading new comments, I thought, “Who’s this stupid, lying sack of sh…” but was cut off mid-thought. Of course, Lame old Larry, who else? Caught on the hop, I accidentally read some of his post. Seems to be on-target for his 100% record of lying and misrepresenting as required for a tea-bagger repug, unless the sorry SOAB has contributed something useful at some point?

  • Larry from St. Louis

    MJ, you really seem like someone who’s never read a response by professionals to your very stupid positions.

    “Do you know anyone with Aspergers?”

    Why would that matter either way? Perhaps your friend does not know anyone with brain cancer, but that doesn’t affect brain cancer incidence.

  • MJ

    “Why would that matter either way?”

    Because it would give you a personal and direct insight into whether the proposition that the syndrome is simply at the ‘extreme limits of normal behaviour’ is a meaningful and accurate one.

  • the_leander

    “to describe it as the ‘extreme limits of normal behaviour’ is absurd.”

    Tell that to the person who discovered it old bean. I’d wager he knows a damn sight more about the subject than you do – he was the person who described it as such.

    “Do you know anyone with Aspergers?”

    I used to work with kids who have full blown Autism (think Rain Man, but without the brilliance, which is as rare as it is in the rest of the population). And I’ve met a great many people who claim to have Aspergers and use it as a justification for poor behaviour.

    Aspergers might be lumped in with Autism, but the two are not the same.

    The explosion in “Autistic” diagnosis recently is largely down to Aspergers.


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