Tuesday 24 January 2012

Risk and Take Shelter

by Colin Young, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University

This excellent film poses some important questions. For instance, is the young man experiencing paranoid delusions, or is he in tune with the premonitions of a forthcoming apocalyptic event? Those of us who appreciate science fiction films, will be aware how often that kind of question is posed.

To me, some fundamental questions are raised in the film:

What’s really going in the world?

What are the threats that we face?

How should we define these?

What should we do about them?

My focus – my perspective – is derived from being a qualified social worker, with over 30 years experience, and having researched risk-based practices in social work, specifically social workers working with vulnerable adults in health settings. Risk assessments are seen as an essential tool for social workers in this field, as in many other areas of social work, and also in many other organisations – the risk –based framework is an all pervasive mechanism of regulation and standard setting. In technical speak – threats are hazards, and the risk is the outcome of the hazard, - the impact should it occur - and the likelihood of it occurring. Risk –management is a cost effective way of managing uncertainty.

So what are the threats? Many writers on risk, e.g. Beck (1992) , talk about the risk society – that life is getting riskier, and that technologies that have been developed to solve life’s problems, for us to have a comfortable existence, carry with them many negative consequences (e.g. nuclear power, global warming due to carbon emissions, pesticides, obesity due to cheap processed food). Some of these threats one may seek to measure statistically – a calculation of risk, and respond accordingly. For example, - New Orleans by the Gulf of Mexico is in a main hurricane runway. The levees were built to withstand a category 3 hurricane – however, sooner or later it is likely that the strongest, a category 5 hurricane will hit – which is what happened with hurricane Katrina in 2005 (actually it passed by slightly, but it was near enough to overwhelm New Orleans’s defences). So statistical measures are useful, but have their limitations. We have recently heard a lot about exceptional weather events in this country – severe flooding, a very cold winter, and been told that these are something like “1 in 200 year” events, - that cannot be planned for – which I suppose is meant to imply that we will be safe for another 200 years from a repeat! But of course it does not work like that! It may come along next year! Providing defences against certain calamitous events costs a lot, and risk management is a way of managing those costs, by considering a statistical assessment of likelihood.

So we live in a very uncertain, unpredictable, and potentially hazardous world. So how should we respond? Statistical assessments are part of the picture, but there are also important social and psychological perspectives on the risks we face. There is a terrorist threat level in this country – which is considered to be severe? – certainly not low. Prime Minister Tony Blair, when the booklets informing us what to do in the event of a terrorist threat, were sent to all households, said words to the effect: “know where the booklet is, and forget about it”. Is that a rational and reasonable way to proceed? Carry on regardless? Should we modify our behaviour in some way. (One has recently become aware of the terrorist threat level here, with the news that during the Olympics more troops are going to be deployed than are currently in Afghanistan!) The link to my research and practice experience of social work here, is that in social work, we tend to encounter, or at least work through in our minds, worse case scenarios - both for planning to support people in very difficult circumstances, but also, it must be said, as back covering! There is a risk that one gets into a state of high alert. This may manifest itself in a number of ways – one of which is to be aware of the limitations of any formalised processes of assessing risk (i.e. the forms and protocols), and look beyond them – be intuitive, look for signs that others may miss. Many risk-based assessments are susceptible, to what Donald Rumsfeld, Defence Secretary in the US, in 2002, at the beginning of the IRAQ war, famously termed “unknown unknowns”. These are things that are happen outside the conceptual framework of the risk assessment. An intuitive sense is something that many professionals will describe, and indeed the late Donald Schon, a Harvard professor of some distinction, who researched many professions, noted similarities in the way that many professionals described trusting their “gut instincts” in problematic, complex situations (Schon 1983). Curtis, the husband in the film, conveys a sense of “high alert” – looking for, and reading intuitively “signs” that other people miss or discount. Interestingly, another dimension to the film, given brief reflection, is the young daughter in the film is Deaf (Deaf spelt with a capital D refers to Deaf Culture). Scenes are shown, where the parents are attending classes, learning sign language. Throughout the film, a strong connection is displayed between Curtis and his daughter, - an intuitive understanding.

So to return to the themes of the film, is someone experiencing apocalyptic visions, tuned in , having real premonitions, or are they experiencing mental illness? There is a fine line between the two I would suggest. I have talked about risk being a statistical thing – a measurement – another dimension is its social construction. Risk perception is also borne out of how people describe the world around them - A famous sociologist –Anthony Giddens (1991), Tony Blair’s guru – describes the importance of perception, when communicating ideas about risk. However, to rely on a consensus of views as a definitive description of what is going on, is problematic – what if most people are wrong? You could say about the banking crisis that there was a group delusion amongst the bankers, and those engaged in the financial system (note the very recent report by the Financial Services Authority into RBS) – few raised their voices, and fewer still did anything about trying to head off the impeding catastrophic collapse. (One can imagine a similar conversation to that in the film, amongst bankers before the crash – “is anyone else seeing this?” – “no stop being negative and depressing share prices! Everything's fine!”A number of people with 20/20 hindsight are now saying they knew – too late!) So the majority view may be a flawed one. In a house full of people, just because only one smells smoke, that does not mean that the house is not on fire! In such a situation, do you take the group view, or check out closely the minority one? Maybe that one person is just more tuned in.

So to conclude – lone voices need to be listened to, sympathetically and may be correct. The key player in the film – an everyman for our time, treads a fine line between alertness and mental illness. Mental illness can be socially constructed by others - e.g. Thomas Szasz (1974) - a writer in the 1970s in a famous book talked about mental illness being entirely socially constructed. We live in a very uncertain world, creating challenges to keep thinking outside the box (thinking reflexively, sociologists call it!). To summarise the risk perspectives, Donald Rumsfeld, when Secretary of State for Defence during the Iraq war came up with the schema:

“Known knowns – things we can agree we know

Known unknowns – things we can agree we don’t know

Unknown unknowns – things we don’t know we don’t know”, and it is these unknown unknowns that to me the film seeks to explore. In some societies – visionaries, prophets, mystics, witch doctors, are seen to have special qualities, gifts, as they tap the unknown unknowns, and we should be cautious about dismissing these perceptions.

This clever film raises many issues and does not fully resolve the question of whether Curtis was experiencing paranoid delusions, or witnessing the forthcoming apocalypse. We are left to make up own conclusions.

Watching the film was a very thought-provoking experience, and very relevant to many of life’s modern day dilemmas!

Dr. Colin Young, Lecturer in Social Work Cardiff University, School of Social Sciences. January 2012.

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