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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Systematic over-reaction

The volcanic ash panic is just the latest example of risk misjudgment

I am no expert on jet engines, but my suspicions from the very beginning that the European authorities were over-reacting to Iceland's ash cloud are hardening with every day. Of course flying into an actual ash plume is dangerous, but that does not make a well dispersed haze of ash dangerous.

It now turns out Europe's reaction was more extreme than America's would have been. And airlines are increasingly calling the bluff of the aviation authorities by doing test flights. Politicians have been characteristically slow and useless. See here:

The International Air Transport Association...expressed its "dissatisfaction with how governments have managed it, with no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination, and no leadership"

Like all civil servants the aviation authorities are tasked with looking at only one risk in isolation. Yet as always there is a balance of risk. The risk of aeroplanes failing is balanced every normal day against the risk of not having imported food, imported medical supplies, a job, a chance to visit friends abroad or whatever. That flying a plane carries risks does not mean that you do not fly planes. How big a risk?

As Richard North diagnoses, there's a computer model fetish at work here, too:

Once again, therefore, it looks as if ministers have been asleep on the job, letting the techies play with their computer models, without adequate supervision. But the real fault goes back to 2009 when the disastrously inadequate IACO contingency plan was agreed, lacking precisely the "risk assessment" that Bisignani is now calling for. The reliance on this and the Met Office with its computer models has produced a mix far more toxic and damaging than any volcanic cloud, seemingly beyond the reach of ministers. As with global warming, and Foot & Mouth in 2001, they appear to be besotted with computer models, rejecting real-world experience for the allure of glitzy graphics and animations.

And this is now a systematic problem. Every scare is magnified, every inconvenience and hardship from the over-reaction is ignored. Not a single bureaucrat has been taken to task for the grotesque over-reaction to swine flu last year. There's an attempt to blame it on the pharmaceutical industry. But where Big Pharma could not believe its luck, it was the WHO bureaucrats and their national poodles who ordered the vaccines and the one-sided press briefings.

For an aviation bureaucrat there is simply no down side to closing down a country's air space. That's the trouble with command and control systems. Let the airlines decide whether it is safe to fly.