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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  • the_leander

    “This has quickly expelled the glass and the plane has then flown normally. Perhaps not the kind of thing one would want passenger jets to do, but it does work.”

    No, it did work, on one occasion. It was sheer luck that the airliner in question was flying much higher then normally, had the aircraft been flying at its normal altitude, it is every bit as likely that they would have ended up as a smear on the ground as landing safely. In the case of the F18’s out of Finland although the engines didn’t pack up, they were damaged so badly that they’re going to have to be replaced outright.

    Leaving this to pure luck with so many peoples lives involved (both those in the air and on the ground) is possibly the most irresponsible thing I have ever heard of.

    Other then that I agree with Richard Robinson.

  • ingo

    Trains still run on time, motorways can be used and those of you close by can come by bike to Blackbunr and help us here deliver a few thousand leaflets.

    I mean it, this campaign has all the chances of success if a few more could be bothered. I know its not Craigs campaign, but it is for the first Muslim candidate here, an Asian barbara castle to be precise.

    As yet I have seen precious little help come from anyone who has spoken out loudly in favour of Independents.

    Sorry for beimng so short , But I have to put some posters up as well next to everything else,.

    we need wo/manpower here,. there is a place to stay, so do come please.

  • MD

    To MJ

    Re:It is the air traffic controllers who have shut down the airspace.

    Yes but who advises them. the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre which is part of the Met Office which in turn is part of the Ministry of Defence. Not political?

  • angrysoba

    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.

    Nobody has to “believe the government”.

    But you give “the government” too much credit in assuming that they really know the truth about what’s going on at all times but that they simply tell lies for mysterious nefarious purposes.

    Of course governments lie but it doesn’t mean they’re smart and it makes no sense to think they’re lying about the volcano. What possible reason would there be for them to say it isn’t safe to fly when they KNOW that it is?

    I met two English travellers in the British Consulate today who were stuck in Japan because of the volcano. They were trying to contact two European airlines to see if they could fly back but were having no luck.

    The point, obviously, is that it is not simply the British government who says something. There is usually a consensus with governments of other countries too. There are still posters up about SARS here in Japan. When bird flu appeared we had people coming to the schools to talk about it. They also have earthquake awareness days. Yes, probably risk-aversion is taken to extremes, but not just in Britain, and they do it because if they didn’t then there would be a mass clamouring of public outrage if someone died from something they weren’t warned about but THE GOVERNMENT HAD BEEN TOLD ABOUT!

    Oh, and Richard Robinson, I did say there was a strong anti-vaccine contingent here. I weren’t lyin’.

  • angrysoba

    Anyway, I am looking at this website which has information on European arrivals and departures from various airports and it looks to me as if ALL THE EUROPEAN GOVERNMENTS ARE LYING.

    Or they’re all taking the same precautions. Please choose the answer that best suits your view of the world.

    I just typed various cities into the box: “Munich”, “Paris”, “Copenhagen”, “Helsinki”, “Moscow” etc… and found there were loads of cancellations for flight arrivals and not just on the British airlines or those coming from Britain.

    http://tinyurl.com/y6ye6el

  • MJ

    “I don’t believe in 911 nutter conspiracy theories, and I don’t believe that MMR causes autism”

    We know that Larry. The problem is that you are rarely able to articulate and substantiate what you do believe. Consequently you are reduced to lobbing hackneyed custard pies at others, which is tedious.

  • Craig

    angrysoba,

    actually I agree with you. My posting points out the consensus of scientific bodies and intergovernmental organisations – just as there was over SARS and Avian flu and swine flu. I don’t in the least believe the proneness to unnecessary alarmism is malicious or an evil conspiracy. It is a result of an excessive nannying attitude by people who feel terribly powerful and paternalistic.

  • Richard Robinson

    the_leander – “Leaving this to pure luck with so many peoples lives involved (both those in the air and on the ground) is possibly the most irresponsible thing I have ever heard of”

    Yes.

    And also, what happens to any airline that makes such a guess off their own bat, and gets it wrong ? Oops, our bad, N hundred grieving relatives bearing lawsuits, armed with examples of other airlines making a different decision … they’re broke, aren’t they ?

    They’re not the right people, the right bodies, to be up in front of this situation. Gathering the information and understanding that they need demands resources that are beyond what they’re equipped to find out, and they need some kind of cover against having to make such guesses – this is not a situation for economic darwinism, let them go to the wall if they guess wrong; because what’s being tested here is beyond their normal business.

    My point being, I think I disagree with Craig (on details) re: paternalism – I’m wondering if they’re being _incompetently_ paternalistic. I think this is, as I suggested before, a case for Big (European-scale) Goverment; it’s better placed and has vastly more resources, including military (no reason why can’t use them, even if it doesn’t involve killing anyone ? Aren’t they to keep us all safe ? maybe they have fancy radar ? planes that could investigate without resking killing hundred of travellers ?). By ‘incompetently’ , I mean the impression that they took a drastic first response and then are sitting back and not doing the rest of the job that needs to be done.

    But that may be a problem of perception / reporting ? That http://glidemet.co.uk/ blog that was posted earlier talks about what is known and where it comes from – and much of that is government bodies. So it may be that only the headline acts (ground everyone) are reported as government doings, while the useful stuff is somehow taken for granted, not mentioned (not headline material) ?

    I would like more of a sense of an organised attempt to get to grips with this. I guess it’ll emerge, one way or another, as the thing goes on. Or where are we, if it’s still smoking this time next year ?

    And me an anarchist. *grin*. I don’t like rulers. We need systems. The only trick is how to prise these two apart …

    – angrysoba, of course other countries are affected, clouds of ash don’t respect national borders. It’s a Europe-wide situation, depending on how the wind blows. Chernobyl without the lingering problems (at least it should be over when it stops ?).

    Oh, and whoever said they object to “swine flu” as an example of overblown panic, I agree. I’ve seen mutterings about over-ordering vaccines, and cui bono stuff, and so on, which may be so, but are details; the wider point is, see the possibility of a problem, take steps to avert it, it doesn’t happen; and what have you got ? It might be sheer magic (I’m worried about herds of white elephants, but so far the practice of not shaving has kept them away from my street), or it might be neat and rational. The difference between the two is one of understanding – defining a real problem and acting out of a working understanding of it.

    So, basically, that has been a rant in favour of Scientists, and a suspicion that we’re confusing what they say with the results of ‘governments acting on scientific advice’. Anyone who takes that link for granted, notice the drugs-advisory thing and what happens when scientific advice doesn’t agree with decisions that have been made for other reasons …

  • Duncan McFarlane

    the post i was correcting doesnt seem to be coming up – what it said was that i’d got an email with what it said was a Lloyd’s List report that the government has suspended laws passed after the Titanic went down in order to allow planes back in the sky despite the continuing risks

  • angrysoba

    Well, okay. But as I say I don’t think this is confined to Britain. In fact, I have a few books on my shelves which essentially say, “The problem with Japan is that its citizens are far too molly-coddled and have to be told what is and isn’t safe.”

    To some extent it is true and many Japanese I know would never travel abroad because of all the bombs and the terrorists and the Hooligans that will run amok at the slightest provocation. And confirmatory evidence can always be found to bear this and almost any theory out.

    But nannying might not be an end in itself. It could also be the fear of massive litigation. I don’t think it takes too much imagination to realize what would happen if a plane went down with all its passengers and “Da Gubmint” hadn’t been proactive enough in preventing the flights in the first place.

  • ScouseBilly

    Craig: “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.”

    May I recomend The Cloud Mystery: the story of Danish scientist, Henrik Svensmark who spoke up for the truth of his convictions and research findings against the prevailing othordox “wisdom”/(agenda). You will, I suspect, feel some empathy for him.

    Having just finished, Murder in Samarkand (hearfelt thank you), I am touched by the parallels (especially when confonted by the British establishment):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKoUwttE0BA

  • angrysoba

    “- angrysoba, of course other countries are affected, clouds of ash don’t respect national borders. It’s a Europe-wide situation, depending on how the wind blows. Chernobyl without the lingering problems (at least it should be over when it stops ?).”

    Yes, yes, yes. But the point Craig made in the OP was that the government made Pronouncement X and suggested that us little people end up having to listen to what they said as if their word is final.

    My point is that it is not just the UK government saying X. Plenty of other countries agree. Not just EU countries either but Russia and Finland too, it seems.

    So, I would conclude, it isn’t simply political and not simply a decision made by the UK government.

  • angrysoba

    Actually, Richard, I have just read what you wrote about the volcanic eruption and agree pretty much with what you say.

    I spoke to my dad just now who worked for the RAF and CIA and who says that the decision to ground all planes was correct and correct on the basis that no one really knows what the consequences could have been from not doing so. But that a blanket ban can’t be sustained for long (and it surely won’t).

    I think that in some ways it should be reassuring (no?) that a government might do all it can (for whatever reason) to minimize the number of deaths from reckless flying.

    We clearly accept a certain amount of nannying (pesky speed limits and seatbelts in cars, guardrails on motorways, no smoking in pubs).

  • Richard Robinson

    “So, I would conclude, it isn’t simply political and not simply a decision made by the UK government”

    Yes. You’re right to point out that it’s not just European government, but apart from that I think we’re mostly agreeing with each other ?

    But, your phrasing of Craig – “the government made Pronouncement X and suggested that us little people end up having to listen to what they said as if their word is final” – I may be missing subtleties of tone-of-voice, I’m not sure whether I’m agreeing or otherwise with either you or Craig, but – the problem is, don’t we have to ? Shouldn’t we ? Their word, in this case, has the best claim to know more than anyone else, they’re best placed to come up with the knowledge (co-ordinate the people & bodies who can, I mean) on which the final word should be based (“final” meaning, I suppose, planes back in the sky with some confidence they won’t be falling out of it). Who else is there, to look to for it ? This is the sort of need that leads us all to put up with governments in the first place.

  • Selma

    At least the grounding of flights has lessened pollution for a short time 🙂

    I, personally, would like to see an end to jet flights (and capitalist, profit-oriented, society)and a move to a more environmentally sustainable form of international and intranational travel!

    C’mon the zeppelins!

  • ScouseBilly

    What happens to Zeppelins when the wind gets up, Selma?

    You should perhaps move to Cuba if capitalism doesn’t work for you ;).

  • angrysoba

    “I spoke to my dad just now who worked for the RAF and CIA”

    Whoops! No one spotted the deliberate mistake which is that he worked for the CAA not CIA. Of course.

  • angrysoba

    “I may be missing subtleties of tone-of-voice, I’m not sure whether I’m agreeing or otherwise with either you or Craig, but – the problem is, don’t we have to ? Shouldn’t we ? Their word, in this case, has the best claim to know more than anyone else, they’re best placed to come up with the knowledge (co-ordinate the people & bodies who can, I mean) on which the final word should be based”

    What I mean is that it is wrong to assume a government, particularly the UK’s, has a monopoly on such knowledge as this. Implicit in what Craig said, I thought, was that we essentially have no choice but to accept the UK government’s voice as authoritative and that we have no independent check on whether they are telling the truth or feeding us lies.

    I say that this is not correct as the UK cannot act alone, especially on this, and that if other European governments decide differently to that of the UK then the UK cannot simply fabricate scientific data wholesale.

    At least, I think so.

    (Just to anticipate a potential counterexample, this is not the same as Iraqi WMDs which wasn’t about studying phenomena that was accessible to all interested scientists or governments but a subject that is potentially far easier to fabricate by all parties involved including Iraq).

  • Mark Golding - Children of Iraq

    “We clearly accept a certain amount of nannying (pesky speed limits and seatbelts in cars, guardrails on motorways, no smoking in pubs).”

    Clearly ‘angrysoba’ these regs are proven life savers to third parties and justified.

    Stealing British passports in a conspiracy to murder, attempting to seduce the British public into war using WMD lies, justifying torture as a valid means of obtaining information necessary to defeat terrorism and telling lies about bombs IN underground trains when “Mark Honingsbaum [sic] recorded several witnesses speaking of explosions under the floor of the train,” and a recent image analysis shows metal projecting upwards in the carriage blast area (Paul Joseph Watson)!

    No wonder the IRA hardened British public are sceptical.

  • Jon

    @MJ – I am not well read on the alleged link between the MMR vaccine and autism. But it is of interest that Private Eye made the same connections you do, and opposed its use for a long period. Just this year, however, they asked their “MD” to review their coverage, who decided that PE had got it wrong (see link).

    I don’t have strong views either way on this, but if there is evidence available that still makes this connection, wouldn’t the coverage review have been different?

  • ScouseBilly

    Jon, I worry about Private Eye – it’s not as independently minded as it used to be.

  • tony_opmoc

    Volcanoes are quite common events, that have never before resulted in restrictions on this scale. However eruptions of this specific type, together with the unusual weather, that has caused a cloud of ash to be spread over an area of normally intense air traffic (such that even I can see dust on my car of a suspicious type), I think the restrictions are reasonable.

    Whilst its tough for thousands of people stranded abroad, and it may cause some problems in some asthmatics, the peace and quiet in for example places like Richmond-on-Thames is great. 30 years ago I used to live in St. Margarets just over Richmond Bridge. The noise every single minute was as bad as a classical music lover would experience on the front row of a Motorhead concert.

    As regards vaccinations and the rise in autism, the links are far from proven on either side of the debate. I agree that many children diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome would 30 years ago, not be labelled as being autistic, but more likely be treated as gifted – and go on to achieve academic brilliance.

    However the rise in autism, as well as respiratory diseases such as asthma is completely dramatic, despite massive improvements in air quality in the UK. Something must have caused this. It may not be due to an enormous increase in the number of vaccinations given, but it hasn’t been proved that this is not the cause.

    I am personally convinced that the pharmaceutical industry is highly corrupt, and that governments and doctors are financially incentivised and propagandised to prescribe medicines on an enormous scale that do more harm than good. The reasons that most people get ill, is because they have an appalling diet and lifestyle and do not do enough exercise. Whilst drugs will lower high blood pressure and cholesterol, they do absolutely nothing to improve life expectancy, and can themselves cause significant problems. They do however generate Billions in Profits. The food industry is also highly corrupt – particularly in the USA.

    The inappropriate use of anti-biotics, both in animals and humans, has both reduced their effectiveness for their originally intended purpose and is heavily responsible for the enormous increase in hospital acquired infections, and the inability to treat them effectively.

    All vaccinations present some risk, but some are very worthwhile. Its a matter of getting the balance right. The Flu Scares and vaccination scandals of recent years have been outrageous.

    This is an extremely good article on the subject – though it is long – and needs some time to be read and understood – which is something many people no longer seem to be capable of.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/11/does-the-vaccine-matter/7723/

    So, off for a long bike ride tomorrow, whilst peace and quiet hopefully still reigns supreme (I haven’t seen the news yet). We actually played tennis this afternoon – for the first time in years. We were crap.

    Tony

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Angrysoba, brilliant typo! CAA it is! Your dad will be relieved, I’m sure.

    Thanks, Glenn, I know exactly what you mean and I also know what I’m doing in relation to our friend. Some say that silence speaks volumes. I am a generous soul, though, prepared to give people the benefit of the doubt and to perceive good where I can – after all, which of us is perfect, certainly not me!

    But the longer the silence, the deeper the doubt.

  • arsalan

    NEWS FLASH: Some Harvard faculty discover advocating Nazism might be wrong

    Condemning Kramer

    04.19.2010 | The Harvard Crimson

    By Lori Allen, Vincent A. Brown, and Ajantha Subramanian

    Published: Monday, April 19, 2010

    Much has been made of Martin Kramer’s suggestion that Palestinians be denied food and medicine in order to weaken their opposition to the Israeli occupation. We, along with a group of 25 other professors, scholars, and Harvard alumni, add our voices to the chorus of condemnation directed towards Dr. Kramer and express our concern that the Weatherhead Center has lent him its credibility. As academics, we question both the ethical and scholarly basis of Dr. Kramer’s public statements. We maintain that this is not a question of protecting Dr. Kramer’s free speech, as was indicated by the Weatherhead Center’s response to criticism. Rather, it is about maintaining appropriate standards of ethical and intellectual conduct; Dr. Kramer’s repellent statements evince a clear failure to meet those standards.

    The speech in question was made at the 10th annual Herzliya conference, the single most important gathering of influential policymakers and commentators in Israel. Kramer’s talk was part of a panel held on Feb. 3, 2010 entitled “Rising to the Challenge of Radical Indoctrination;” his Harvard affiliation was clearly identified in the conference program in connection with the talk. In Kramer’s presentation, he suggested that Israel’s current economic blockade of Gaza, now in its fourth year, represents a successful effort to “break Gaza’s runaway population growth.” He therefore argued against what he called “pro-natal subsidies” of food, medicine, and humanitarian aid that help to reproduce the “constant supply of superfluous young men” demanded by a so-called “culture of martyrdom” in Gaza.

    His argument has little scholarly merit. In the name of state security, it validates demographic strategies of population control that date at least back to Thomas Malthus and have been repeatedly found wanting both intellectually and morally for over two centuries. Also, by attributing to culture what is a political and social phenomenon, Kramer misrepresents the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A willingness to sacrifice oneself is not a desire for martyrdom rooted in Palestinian culture. Rather, as has been shown by scholars of the conflict, Palestinian youth turn to violent means to oppose the dehumanizing effects of the Israeli occupation. In short, Kramer’s remarks are not informed by current scholarship, but are animated by the spirit of early 20th century eugenics.

    Even if the Weatherhead Center were to overlook these scholarly shortcomings, it should at least consider the ethics of Kramer’s interventions. His characterization of young Palestinians as a superfluous population culturally predisposed to violence can only be described as racist. Indeed, his statements are rooted in a polemic that would have been unacceptable in reference to any other population. To quote Weatherhead Center executive committee member Stephen Walt, “What if a prominent academic at Harvard declared that the United States had to make food scarcer for Hispanics so that they would have fewer children? Or what if someone at a prominent think tank noted that black Americans have higher crime rates than some other groups, and therefore it made good sense to put an end to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and other welfare programs, because that would discourage African-Americans from reproducing and thus constitute an effective anti-crime program?” And, finally, what if a similar argument was made with regard to the Jewish people? If the Weatherhead Center would distance itself from such arguments and likely condemn them, why does it defend Kramer when he calls, in effect, for a policy of eugenics against Palestinians?

    As Harvard faculty, alumni, and affiliates, we deplore Dr. Kramer’s statements as morally reprehensible and intellectually indefensible. Furthermore, we encourage the Weatherhead Center to reexamine its procedures for evaluating the scholarly credibility of future affiliates.

    Lori Allen is an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies. Vincent A. Brown is a Professor of History and of African and African American Studies. Ajantha Subramanian is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and of Social Studies.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Good on them. They won’t last long though. AIPAC and the ADL will be after their heads, you’ll see.

    Free expression is not permissible in this thematic area in the USA.

    Just like Avigdor Lieberman, Kramer will become a Cabinet Minister in Israel.

    The idea – so akin to that of the neocons, it’s difficult to tell who is who – is to push the boundaries of the conceivable so that the mainstream Estalishment becomes inured to such extremes and accepts a lesser (yet still extreme) version for a while, until the next extremist pushes out even further… The Thatcher and Major Governments and their spin-machines used this tactic a lot. A little like the actual annexation of Palestinian land, this process represents a gradual and barely perceptible annexation of our minds.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Larry, if you want to create a character that seems real, you first have to give them a soul. This is what is lacking in your posts and makes them stand-out from almost all the others.

    It’s like you have a check-list and are cross-referencing with a view to disruptive riposte but it is clear from the responses that in itself does not convince the recipients of the sources’s three-dimensionality of being.

    Therefore, they do not take your arguments seriously – because unlike those of, say, Alfred, Arsalan or Angrysoba, they are not presented as arguments but as mechanical cross-references, as a distillation of what appears to be someone else’s argumentation codified into a complex list – but a list, nonetheless. This has got nothing to do with whether or not one agrees or disagrees with the particular issues.

    The question then becomes, for how long has the teabag been brewed and are we talking Earl Grey or ‘supermarket savers’.

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