Spring Break Potpourri

There were a few things that happened while I was away that I wanted to talk about.

1.  Bill Stuntz, who passed away last week, was a fantastic scholar and a terrific teacher.  I was his student in a seminar on Policing, and it was one of the best classes that I ever took.  And talk about a brave person.  His blog about his illness stands as an incredible memorial to the man.

2.  The Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor leak demonstrate some important problems in risk analysis.  One common comment that you hear about the quake is that it was one of the strongest ever recorded.  The problem is that reliable records only go back about one hundred years.  We just don’t have enough data to determine how likely a 9.0 earthquake is in any given place (the same can be said about large volcanic eruptions, Category Five hurricanes, and other large disasters.) This makes sounds safety decisions about catastrophic events very difficult.

Moreover, unfamiliar risks cause more concern than familiar ones even when they are far less dangerous.  More people die every year from falling in the bathtub than from radiation exposure.  Nevertheless, the mere prospect of the latter causes panic (I was particularly perplexed by the people in the USA who were stocking up on iodine.  For what purpose?) that is itself quite harmful.

Finally, people always focus on what happened rather than what did not happen.  (A kind of availability heuristic). The most accurate headline about what happened is “Excellent Planning and Building Codes Limited the Death Toll to only 15,000.”  You won’t see that on the front page though.

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7 Responses

  1. Dave Hoffman says:

    How do you know it is the most accurate headline? It seems like we really don’t know (yet) whether planning limited deaths, or encouraged false confidence, or what. I do agree that unfamiliar risks are perceived as dangerous (though I’d be perhaps a little less categorical than you about whether those risks are seen the same way by everyone in the population).

    Also, not to be very picky, but that exact headline did appear in the Times. Not sure about the front page – but who buys dead tree papers anyway? http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/12/world/asia/12codes.html?_r=2&hp

  2. Gerard Magliocca says:

    Well, I agree that there is no universal perception of risk — it’s just an average. As for the Times story, I stand corrected.

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    If you’re talking about Japan, in principle we can certainly get an idea of whether planning limited deaths, because we can compare rates and causes of death in inland areas of the worst-affected prefectures (Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima) with those in the parts reached by the tsunami. For example, the inland city of Morioka, capital of Iwate Prefecture, experienced nearly the strongest level of ground shaking (similar to epicenter at the 1995 Hanshin Earthquake, which saw 6,000 fatalities, no tsunami), but there weren’t any fatalities.

    Anecdotally, we here haven’t heard any media reports of deaths outside of the tsunami-affected areas that resulted from collapsed buildings. From my personal experience, the shaking and duration of the earthquake, as well as the displacements of buildings, hundreds of miles from the epicenter were far more violent than anything I experienced during 24 years living near the San Andreas, Santa Monica and numerous other California faults. And I experienced it on one of the geologically strongest pieces of bedrock in the Kanto plain, a couple of blocks from the Self-Defense Agency in the Tokyo neighborhood of Ichigaya. Estimated durations of this quake were up to 6 minutes; compare the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in California, which lasted 15 seconds, or the Kobe-Hanshin earthquake of 1995, which lasted approximately 20 seconds.

    In addition, geological records can give some idea about previous earthquakes and tsunami. Media here reported that the last time a tsunami of comparable magnitude hit the Sendai area was more than 1,100 years ago, ca. 830 C.E.

  4. Gerard Magliocca says:

    Glad you’re OK AJ.

  5. Dave,

    We have very, very reliable evidence that social and economic conditions, including governance structures, are profoundly powerful mediators of the scope of death, deprivation, and suffering that follow natural disasters. This is one of the central insights of Sen’s work on poverty and famines — that neighboring regions in sub-Saharan Africa had wildly different experiences with famine following the severe droughts of the 1970s, which Sen attributes (correctly, to my mind) to the social and political characteristics of these communities (especially their form of government).

    There are certainly a number of factors that go into producing the results of deprivation and death following a major natural catastrophe, but I am aware of few who would seriously challenge the idea that the social, economic, and political structures of the particular society in question 30 seconds prior to the event occurring are not a powerful determinant of what happens to its people during and after the event itself.

    In a very real sense, natural disasters are human disasters; or, at least, the scope of a natural disaster is robustly mediated by human preparation and responses to that disaster, which activities go far beyond disaster preparedness in itself (i.e., one reason Japan could be so well prepared is because of its wealth. It is not as if people in Haiti or Indonesia are ignorant of their seismological/volcanic risk).

  6. A.J. Sutter says:

    Daniel, I don’t disagree with you. But one should beware of a certain reductionism. The US is by most economists’ measures wealthier than Japan. And the government of Japan, especially under the current prime minister, is much weaker than the US federal government, to say nothing of the fact that prefectures in Japan are far weaker than US states. Yet the behavior of citizens in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was a far cry from the solidarity being exhibited after the Touhoku quake and tsunami.

  7. Hi A.J.,

    Absolutely, I agree that economic reductionism is a serious danger here. The operative concept, I think, is social capital, which includes but is not remotely reducible to wealth. For a variety of reasons, the social capital in Japanese society is significantly higher than in the U.S. Not coincidentally, I and many others think, Japanese people generally live longer and are much, much healthier than Americans.