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The volcanic ash cloud that appeared over Europe during the middle of April, and which has made a partial return recently, brings into sharp focus the expectations that we as societies have of both experts and expert knowledge. Is it too much to ask that the meteorological authorities can’t provide real-time dynamic concentrations of ash at all altitudes relevant to aircraft? Shouldn’t the aircraft manufacturers know just how much ash will cause their engines to malfunction? Can’t the authorities responsible for regulating use of airspace, and by implication air safety, understand the trade-off, the ‘proportionate response’ that they are being asked for in trading off the risks to people and property against the economic and other consequences of closing airports? When I look at each of these questions I find myself with troubling doubts, not over whether or not the answers to them imply that it is or was safe to fly, but over, quite simply, the assumption that we make regarding the knowability of the world in which we live.
On the one hand, the ash cloud has become an emblematic reminder of just how geographically-globalised our lives have become, as we found our families stuck in faraway places and as the stock of fresh food in our supermarket shelves shifted away from airborne travel. But on the other it reminds us that the benefits of geographical-globalisation are associated with new sorts of risk, ever-present but rarely manifest, that follow from the same technologies that underpin globalisation. When risks like these make themselves felt our natural assumption is to expect that experts are there to provide the answers that we need in order to live with them. The ash cloud created a profound sense of helplessness when such expertise was found to be not forthcoming, when we discovered that experts didn’t know what the safe concentrations of ash were, that forecasters could not produce reliable sub-hourly maps of where it was safe to fly and that decision makers could not easily trade-off the economic consequences of closing air space against the risks of catastrophic engine failure. Read more