Lead and Follow in the ash cloud controversy of 2010

Wiki tells us that “In partner dancing, the two dance partners are never equal. One must be the Lead and the other will be the Follow.”

Someone from STS will write, within a couple of years, the “icelandic volcano controversy” of 2010 (since the Eyjafjallajökull controversy would not be a usable title). This person will write on how the UK Met office collaborated with the aviation authorities to close off European air space in face of an Ulrich Beck type of risk. And then how the Met office, after four days of stranded passengers, hungry, sleepless, penniless, was pressured to review its authoritative claims about air safety. The scholarly account might examine the credibility of the weather model that was used to predict the location and concentration of the volcanic ash. The story might include a Dutch hero, the head of KLM who sent out a plane, and out to the real world above the clouds with a mission to find the ash and measure. Private interests doing battle with the model’s claims. The Met office’s plane which was also stranded, for repairs, would follow the Dutch example as air space began to open.

In such an account we will read contextual claims about the “obvious” economics of airlines. The rich uncertainty of the lava spewing natural world will lead. The comparatively certain world of Mr. Moneybags, counting and subtracting coins, will follow. The danger is that the lead partner of the dance objectifies and caricatures the follow.

Let’s discount the influence upon the story of losing, for nearly 5 days, the fastest means to move freight (if not the only means for fresh produce), and consider only the calculations and the knowledge producing practices of the airline industry. The airline business is generally know as the most hazardous business around. It is hard to keep a profit, and an expensive gamble to guess petrol prices, negotiate airport costs, prevent industrial action, always under the vigilant pressure of new entrants who want a piece of the glamorous business. The airline industry has equipped itself with practices of continued discovery and modeling of its own sort. The story of the ash of 2010 is also a story of airlines knowledge producing practices of ash and how the event might have changed airlines’ views on their business, on how to liaison with air control authorities, on how to prepare for the future.

I want to suggest to that anonymous STS scholar writing about the “ash cloud controversy of 2010”, that she/he really needs to collaborate with an historian or sociologist of economics to get any handle on the events (possibly someone from this blog). Although wiki’s entry on dancing condemns it, some occasional “lead stealing” might make for the best kind of partnership.

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6 thoughts on “Lead and Follow in the ash cloud controversy of 2010

  1. The good news is that STS scholars are themselves becoming historians and sociologists of economics! See Callon’s “The Laws of the Markets”, MacKenzie et al’s “Do Economists Make Markets?” and MacKenzie’s “An Engine, Not a Camera” and “Material Markets”…

    Not that this STS-influence sociologist of economics wouldn’t be happy to collaborate with folks. Though, I don’t think I’ll be writing about this particular controversy anytime soon.

  2. The curse of being a regulator is that if you take precautionary means to protect the public you will be castigated for unnecessary action as no-one is hurt – an immediate effect of the action. And if you take no action and someone is hurt, you are equally castigated, and then probably sacked.

    Consider that this time, one of the few U.S. F-16’s flying, discovered glass and ash on their engines [1]. Last time we had a similar eruption, in 1982, only one plane flew across the recent eruption, and that plane lost all its engine power – twice – nearly crashing, with ash found in the engines afterwards [2]. What are the odds that a similar ash-cloud affecting 95,000 planes over 5 days would crash at least one plane? What are the odds for a hundred? One suspects the regulators acted in the best interest of both the public and their jobs. And as for the most hazardous industry, rumour has it that airline travel is the safest form of transportation, while mining and construction are the most hazardous industries in the US and UK, while banking looks a little high risk these days. I would suggest that caution is sometimes the better part of valour, particularly when it comes to regulating about potentially dangerous, but badly understood, phenomena: Especially if you consider the lives of 149 passengers in 95,000 planes, or 14,155,000 million people…

    [1] http://in.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idINIndia-47809620100419
    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Airways_Flight_9 or the quite good, if sensationally titled documentary “Volcanic Ash: Flight of Terror”

  3. It is quite funny that you posted that. While waiting for our flight at the JFK airport with Loic, I was justly saying the exact same thing, that a STS-like paper on the ash cloud controversy would be written in a few years (months?). Loic suggested that I write it, under the title: “Belief, science and why I spent twelve hours at the JFK airport”. Isn’t it pretty?

  4. A very late reply to Dan Hirschman, for a side note on sociologists of science tackling economic topics. I must say my big disappointment at Knorr Cetina’s performance at the ESHET keynote in Amsterdam, which addressed the sociology of financial markets.
    It is not the first time that I noticed that sociologists of science and also cultural historians, even though doing a very good job at other things, just screw up badly when they address economics. So Tiago’s proposal for partnership seems a very valuable one.
    Or alternatively: HET scholars could also get a training in sociology and do the sociologists’s job for economics.

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