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Review of "Worst Cases"

By Lee Clarke
University Of Chicago Press, 2005
Review by Kem Crimmins on Nov 14th 2006
Worst Cases

Lee Clarke's Worst Cases: Terror and Catastastrophe in the Popular Imagination is a book with a great deal of promise but at several crucial points fails to live up to its potential. While finding its place within the general industry of terror that has arisen in the US after September 11, 2001, Clarke's book takes a novel approach. Rather than ask why worst cases happen, or even what one can do to prevent them, the book argues that terror and catastrophe are unavoidable elements of modern society, and their impact on the popular imagination is well founded. In itself, that insight is valuable; however, the present reader wishes for a more robust investigation of how worst cases tell us about a society, both in terms of its ability to imagine and how it is structured. Fulfilling those two aims is not only crucial for social psychologists and political philosophers, but also for those in policy making positions who turn to Clarke's writing for some insight on how to proceed after events like September 11th and Hurricane Katrina.

The aim of Clarke's Worst Cases is two-fold: to demonstrate to his readers that worst cases are normal and to convince them that focusing on worst cases is a valuable enterprise. Since his audience is predominantly risk managers and policy makers, Clarke's task is not easy for when resources are finite (as they always are) it seems more practical to focus on those things that one has hope to predict and control. Terror is caused by the impact of catastrophe on the popular imagination, and nothing is more unpredictable and hence more resistant to preparation than catastrophe--such is the general conclusion of the probabilistic thinking, which Clarke claims is the principal style of social planning in modern, technologically advanced societies. With this, something important emerges, namely that beyond the two limited aims of his book, Clarke's argument effectively seeks to challenge an entire way of thinking and shaping society and to replace (or perhaps more modestly, to supplement) that way of thinking with possibilistic, practical reasoning.

As a methodology for analyzing society, probabilistic thinking has its origins in the work of Aldophe Quetelet, a nineteenth-century Belgian sociologist. Having trained under Fourier and Laplace, Quetelet is known for his application of statistics and probability theory to social phenomenon. In his 1835 work, Sur l'homme et le développement de ses facultés, ou essai de physique sociale, Quetelet presented his statistical analyses of criminal patterns in French society and effectively demonstrated that crime rates exhibited a statistically consistency. Though his notion of the "average man" (homme moyen) and the debate it occasioned concerning free will versus social determinism has fallen out of the popular imagination, probabilistic thinking has become a cornerstone for social planning. Pursuing Quetelet's "social physics" meant that governing bodies no longer had to rely on speculation for their policy decisions; rather they could point with mathematical certainty to the most pressing matters that demanded the greatest attention and resources. The method proved so successful that today that the focus on probability finds it place as the defining characteristic for rational social planning, and according to Clarke this is problematic.

The main issue for Clarke is that focusing on probability tends to make most actions seem safe (42). If on average, dying in a plane crash is less likely than being killed in an automobile accident, then one might imagine that flying is safer. And perhaps it is, but notice something interesting about the possible consequences of either event: while it makes sense to ask about survivors of automobile accidents, it does not for plane crashes. There is, in short, no "average" person who will survive a 20,000 feet plummet to the earth. Far from being 'irrational', a person worrying about being in a plane crash is confronting the possibility of a real danger from which nothing can save her. She focuses on the consequences of catastrophe rather than the probability that it will or will not happen. What this example shows is that for catastrophes focusing on probability skews our sense of danger, for such a focus doesn't bring into account the magnitude of an event should it happen. According to Clarke, not only are consequences the crucial issue in much everyday, decision-making, thinking about what might possibly happen encourages us to think about catastrophe in terms of ones and zeros. Doing so puts risk in a new light, for in the case of disasters 'risk' isn't so much about how likely something is to happen, but the death and destruction that occurs when it does. If risk managers and policy makers thought in terms of the aftermath rather than the antecedent calm their interest in worst cases would surely increase.

What difference would such a shift in focus make? One might expect the answer to come from Clarke's chapter "Silver Linings: The Good from the Worst", and in part, it does. It turns out that once we accept that worst cases are important, even regular, events for consideration, we can begin to learn some important things about society. Furthermore, focusing on worst cases will give policy makers a better picture of human nature, and consequently lead to their developing sounder policy--so Clarke claims, but regarding these two central benefits of worst case thinking, I wonder whether the first benefit, namely learning about social structures and inequalities, isn't already covered more adequately through other methodologies and whether the second benefit isn't a nice possibility with low probability.

Take the first benefit: looking at worst cases teaches that catastrophe follows determinate social lines, both horizontally and vertically, and that there are winners and losers in any tragedy. These two insights are presented by Clarke as the real achievement of worst case thinking, but they are rather, it seems to me, the principles upon which worst case thinking gets its real power. Many would not find it surprising that some worst cases (primarily so-called natural disasters) affect the poor more than the wealthy while others (such as plane crashes) will seemingly be more heavily weighted toward the financially well off. Fine, but how then will focusing on worst cases help us to understand society better? There are, it seems to me, at least a couple of possibilities. First of all, a focus on worst cases might make explicit those things we already know about society but choose to overlook. For example, prior to Hurricane Katrina many people 'knew' that New Orleans was a poor town and that many of those impoverished happened to be African American. At least for a time, however, that situation was made explicit to many Americans who otherwise thought little of the situation. Whether they thought seriously about how such a circumstance comes into being is a good question, and that brings me to the second way in which focusing on worst cases might help us to understand a particular society better.

After a catastrophe and its attendant terror, there is a general sense that on the one hand things will never be the same, whereas on the other hand, it is important to return to normalcy as soon as possible. Focusing on how various sectors of a society navigate this conflicting experience might well tell us quite a bit about why worst cases seem so structured in the first place. In other words, focusing on the aftermath, its messiness and the ways in which it fades from public memory can help us to understand why those previously hidden aspects of society revealed during the course of a worst case remain so intransigent in its aftermath.

In part, the intransigence to change even in the wake of a worst case stems from a society's desire to return to normalcy. The desire is natural, and indeed, publicly elected officials occupy much of their time following a disaster reassuring the survivors that the aftermath will be set aright very quickly. The quest for a return to normalcy, however, cuts against the transformative power that allegedly comes from focusing more on worst cases. Indeed, it would seem that if one looks to what happens after a worst case, to how people react and to how policy comes into effect, that Quetelet's "average man" gets the last say, for what we learn about human nature is that the desire for radical societal transformation is rare, even when the opportunity for a 'new' beginning is so conveniently provided by a worst case.


© 2006 Kem Crimmins


Kem Crimmins, Instructor, Rhetoric and Composition, World Campus, The Pennsylvania State University; PhD candidate, Department of Philosophy, Fordham University.

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