Fear of a BlackBerry Planet (redux)

Fear of a BlackBerry Planet

Risk and hazard assessment are integral parts of geography as evidenced by this recent job announcement from the Geography department at Durham University in the UK:

Durham University seeks to appoint SIX, five-year RCUK Fellows to join the newly established Institute for Hazard and Risk Research (IHRR), a major University interdisciplinary research institute led by Durham’s RAE5* Geography Department. The appointments may start on or after 1st November 2006, subject to standard probationary conditions, will be converted into
permanent lectureship positions at the end of the fellowship.

Applicants are invited for fellows in the following fields:
Risk and Technology Risk,
Security and Terror
Volcanic Hazards and Risk
Landslide Hazard and Risk
Hazards and Risks of Climate Change (x2)
As I mentioned in a recent post however it turns out we are bad at assessing risk 1) because it gets politicized, 2) because we're poor odds thinkers , and 3) because governments depend on security threat assessments in order to function.

Here's a follow-up. After the London incident with the threat from liquids, several experts have stated that the threat was over-stated. According to a new essay in Salon:

1. The allegations were "substantially" exaggerated
2. The plot's leaders had been under surveillance for over a year
3. They had not even succeeded in making explosives from the liquids
4. An expert on explosives at the University of Rhode Island observes that the creation of the kinds of liquid bomb sought is extremely difficult and hard to produce on an aircraft (it takes several hours for example and gives off noxious fumes, as well as requiring precise temperature controls). Here's a paper on this, which I don't have the training or background to interpret.

But that's my point. A lot of our view of such matters is based on Hollywood movies and the kinds of car chase scenes that end in an immediate fireball when the cars crash. (When I was a teenager I was a witness to a small motorbike accident--the guy was knocked off and broke his arm. My overriding fear was that the motorbike, lying on its side by the road, would somehow explode, even though it was not on fire.) It's given to very few of us to make an informed interpretation of the odds of this threat, and so we accept what we're told.

With the information now coming out (not just in Salon but in the New York Times and from British officials saying it was all exaggerated) we might reasonably ask why passengers and the American public have not reacted against the new regulations banning toothpaste and causing fear of a a BlackBerry. As Salon asks, where's the outrage? We're flying in basically the five-hour equivalent of a medium-security penitentiary.

The Salon article (by Patrick Smith) is one of the few I've seen that does any kind of critical, independent thinking about these issues. Perhaps the Durham Fellowships, which were posted on a critical geography listserv, can help encourage more of it.

But I'm not sure we can wait that long. We need to take up the issue of security and threat for ourselves, not to mention on November 7.

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