Wednesday, 9 October 2019

A man walks into a room

A man walks into the room. He is extremely handsome and quite tall (at least for his time, about 520 years ago). He is neither fat nor thin. In fact he likes his food and drink, he is fond of convivial dinners with good food and wine. His circle of friends is small but select, much more so than his large circle of enemies and opponents. One of his friends is his neighbour, Lisa Gherardini. She comes from an ancient but penniless Florentine family and lives in rented accommodation in the same street as his father, near Santo Spirito, Oltrearno. She is married to a cloth and silk merchant called Francesco del Giocondo and has five children (her sixth child was stillborn). They live modestly on his earnings from trade and hers from the income of a small farm. Our man likes her for her shy and slightly enigmatic smile. She goes on to outlast him by more than 20 years, and also to outlast her husband, who dies young of bubonic plague. This leaves her no option but to retreat into her preferred nunnery, Saint Ursula (Sant'Orsola), where two of her daughters have already taken orders. When she dies there, she is buried in the central courtyard–until 2016, when her remains are dug up. Why is that? Curiosity... If you are curious too, you can visit Sant'Orsola, which is a massive complex that occupies a whole city block in the centre of Florence. Or rather, you can't visit it without using a pneumatic drill and a sledgehammer, as due to a dispute over ownership, for decades all the doors and windows of the building have been bricked up. It has quite a sinister appearance. Lisa could never know that her smile would become the most famous in the world, roundly outclassing that of Marilyn Monroe.

But I digress. Our man's other friends include Giorgio Vasari, the influential painter, architect, biographer and historian, Andrea del Verrocchio, painter, sculptor and goldsmith, who was his maestro, and a fresh-faced young man with curly hair called Raffaello Sanzio. Raffaello became a well-respected painter (although a remained a thoroughly feeble poet). He could never know that even his preparatory sketches would eventually fetch more than $50 million each at auction.

Our man has long, blond hair–or is it blond? It has a reddish tinge, which leaves him open to much ridicule both in the streets and at fashionable gatherings. His eyes are blue. No, they are not piercing, but his gaze is steady and intelligent, alive with reckoning. Another reason he is often ridiculed and snubbed is that he is illegitimate. In fact, he has no surname. No qualifying appellation links him to a great and noble family. Never could he go straight to heaven, and always must he assume responsibility for a state of life that was in no way of his own making. His father is an accountant and notary, a man who does other people's sums for them, witnesses documents, draws up bills of sale. He owns a small farm in the countryside, in the Alban Hills that cut across the marshy middle Arno valley. It is situated 12 km north of Empoli, the town that marks the half-way point between two old enemies, terrestrial Florence and maritime Pisa. The farm is a mean sort of affair, with simple, Spartan buildings (I have been there). Sir Peter, our man's father, takes a serving girl in the fields one hot day in July and in consequence she falls pregnant. Her name is Catherine Lippi (Caterina). Despite the name, she is of North African origin. Curious that her son should looks so Nordic–an accident of genetics.

The child is taken from her and brought up by its paternal grandfather in the nearby town. Catherine survives the loss and goes on to marry a local farmer. The boy spends his summers exploring the countryside around the farm. Not only is he able at drawing, he is can write equally well both forwards and backwards. The latter he finds comfortable, as he is left-handed. Writing in mirror image will not save him from being despised–and indeed detested–by those who feel keenly that he is more brilliant than they are. This will induce him to be careful to the point of practising elaborate secrecy. Unlike his contemporary, Alessandro Filipepi, nicknamed Botticelli, he was no follower of the violent, revolutionary monk Savonarola. Indeed, he may have heaved a sigh of relief when Girolamo Savonarola was carted into Piazza della Signoria, tied to the stake and incinerated. Bombastically, Savonarola had ridiculed his theories on painting and in the process corrupted Botticelli's technique. The punishment proved that one cannot be too careful if one wants to be a rebel. The defence of the social order is likely to be both vigorous and vicious.

So our man is a painter. In his entire lifetime there will be only 19 extant works, some of which will be painted largely by his assistants. Yet no paintings anywhere by anyone will ever be so highly prized. And the irony is that our man is a hopeless frescoist, quite unable to master the technique. But he has other ambitions. His chief objectives are to write a book to demonstrate that painting needs a scientific technique and to write another on the behaviour of water. He achieved neither aim, but he left 2,500 pages of notes and drawings. He became a scientist long before the concept of science was even devised.

In the modern age we see about 70,000 images a day (and the paper we use, whether it is tangible or 'virtual' is something upon which we place little value). In this manner we cannot possibly appreciate or understand the images. But think back to half a millennium ago, when people saw very few images, and they were highly prized and long remembered, when paper was a scarce, expensive commodity (it came from Fabriano in the Marches).

There is a place called Pisignano in Chianti, where I like to go for walks (I was there shortly before writing this). It extends northwards into the Arno valley along a ridge-top situated in the extreme northwest of the Classic Chianti (DOCG) wine-producing area. The landscape is typical of central Tuscany: an alternation of fields of silver-leaved olive trees and well-regimented vineyards, serried rows of pointy cypresses, occasional pear, peach, fig and walnut trees, four-square farmhouses with honey-coloured stucco, some campaniles and towers with battlements nestling in groves of trees. With the obvious concessions to modernity, it is much as our man would have found it. A sketch housed in the Uffizi Gallery confirms this.

In England, Queen Elizabeth the First conversed fluently with her tutors in Latin. Our man did not have the benefit of a formal education. He knew no Latin or Greek and hence could read no standard texts. It freed him from dogma and gave reign to his great attribute, the ability to think freely and laterally. We, especially in universities, receive much of our reality directly from others. Our man had to construct it for himself, very much the active, not the passive, form of learning. He did so with unparalleled ability. Germaine Greer told a modern audience that his work is hugely overrated. It is not and this throw-away comment diminished her. Thousands of scholars have spent their entire careers seeking to understand his ways of thinking. His mind is labyrinthine. It amply repays study and never does it reveal all its secrets.

The triumph of dogma is at once an ancient phenomenon and a perfectly contemporary one. Our man kept his thoughts to himself. He also moved house far more than was usual in his age. It preserved his life at a time when sudden raids, trials by fire, and opportunistic warfare were the rule, not the exception. But his thoughts–so original, so precious–remained unappreciated for 350 years. This is a remarkably important point in an age in which the 'pathways to impact' are expected to catapult you to your destination in an instant. This is the age of "impact as instant gratification". So his collections of notes, drawings, sketches, maps and diagrams were stuffed into out-of-the-way library shelves. One wonders how many priceless offerings were simply thrown away, burnt on the rubbish dump, unappreciated. But as Groucho Marx memorably said: "Why should I do anything for posterity? What's posterity done for me?"

We live in an age that seems determined to learn nothing at all from history. One thing we could do is to reverse the trend. Rather than courses on how to use technology, or how to get a well-paying job, perhaps we need instruction on how to look, listen and evaluate. Our man struggled to find the deeper meaning in things. He too grappled with technology, much of which he invented from scratch in extraordinary bursts of creativity. The timelessness of his achievement shows that life is about far more than a foreshortened pathway to impact.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Is it Possible to Keep Up with the Literature?

I am the founding editor of the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction (IJDRR), which began publishing in August 2012 with just four papers. Seven years later, the submission rate is equivalent to about 1,500 manuscripts per year (although the rejection rate is over 80 per cent). Two years ago, the journal published its first issue to contain 100 papers.

In 2011, when I was approached by Elsevier about establishing the IJDRR, the first question was, "Is there a need for a new journal in this field?" I replied that, as there are more than 80 dedicated journals in the disasters, risks and hazards fields, and more than 500 others that occasionally publish papers on such themes, no such need existed. However, there was a need for a journal that competed well, that outclassed its competitors in terms of being a reliable, authoritative source of knowledge. On this basis, we went ahead to establish and develop the IJDRR.

The reason for mentioning this example is part of my response to an article that appeared in Times Higher Education (THE 2019). In it, eight academics explained their strategies for keeping up with the literature. The problem can be explained in the following syllogism:
  • In this globalised, digital age, academic publishing has ballooned.
  • All over the world, academics are under great pressure to teach more, do more research, advise students more, apply for more grants, cope with more bureaucracy and participate in more initiatives. Where is the time to read the literature? Where, indeed, is the incentive?
  • It is impossible to keep up with the literature in any given field. Don't even think about it: trying to do it could damage your health, or at least your eyesight.
Fortunately, there are some mitigating factors, for example, the lack of innovation in most published research. How many times has one been asked to review a manuscript for a journal, only to find that one learns nothing new from it? I suggest we (a) make sure we know our field thoroughly (yes, more reading!), and (b) assign an innovation quotient to each new paper with which we come into contact. This could be extend from zero to ten, with one decimal place, so that a highly innovative paper is, perhaps, a 9.2 or an 8.7. The number would symbolise the answer to the question "what did I learn from reading this?" The trouble with this approach is that there might be a paper that contains only one new idea, but that idea is pricelessly good. Unfortunately, searching for such information is very much like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Prior to submitting a work for publication, one must make sure that one has read all the truly pertinent literature. I am amazed at how many authors submit work and do not even seem to have spent those vital two minutes putting the basic key words into Google Scholar. This makes it all the more likely that earlier work will unknowingly be repeated.

When I was a student, it was possible to keep abreast of the literature by reading the major sources, most of which were leading research journals. What one needed was a well-equipped library, perhaps a photocopy machine, and a free afternoon once a week. Even then, there was the lurking sensation that something vital might slip under the radar, but the risks were much smaller.

Nowadays, the technique has to be a very different one. The first part of it is awareness of trends in research, which comes from conducting a broad survey of what is coming out - titles, abstracts and provenance only. The second part is using experience and judgement to know what is worth reading. It can lead one astray, but this is not a frequent occurrence. The third and final part is highly targeted reading. It also helps to speed-read one's way through some of the less important detail in order to get to the fundamental message of a published work. The biggest risk is superficiality in one's understanding of the research and the new developments in one's field. However, the sheer volume of publication makes that risk inevitable, and there are no simple remedies.

Academic publishing continues to mutate at a bewildering rate. The key to managing change is adaptability. However, it is not yet clear how one will have to adapt in order to absorb and cope with the changes that are on the horizon. In the meantime, we need to keep up the campaign to create a core curriculum in disaster studies (see my earlier posts) and not ignore the messages of the fundamental literature of the past 100 years.


THE 2019. How can academics keep up with the literature? Times Higher Education, 22 August 2019, by Verity Archer, Oliver A. H. Jones, Danielle Sands, Rivka Isaacson, Helen Sword, David Sanders, Saikat Majumdar and Christopher H. Hendon.

Monday, 29 July 2019

Disasters: Knowledge and Information in the New Age of Anomie

Bertrand Russell once observed, "Most people would die sooner than think--in fact they do so." Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the common failure of risk estimation and the tendency willingly to take unnecessary risks. However, an understanding of risk requires, not only an ability to think things through, but also enough information with which to make informed decisions. It could be argued that people do not seek the relevant information, or when supplied with knowledge and expertise they wilfully ignore it. However, there is another side to this, one which has parallels with looting.

Quarantelli and Dynes (1970) developed a three-stage model whereby property norms are progressively abandoned as a neighbourhood descends into an outbreak of uncontrolled looting. What was previously forbidden by custom, practice, sanction and retribution becomes possible, even desirable, as the emerging group of looters frees itself from the shackles of normal constraint. Something similar has happened with the Internet and social media. The former has been in widespread use since about 1993, and the latter since around 2009. In a quarter of a century and a decade, respectively, attitudes and customs have changed profoundly. Early views of social media (e.g. Bird et al. 2012) found that the negative aspects, such as the diffusion of unfounded rumour, were self-correcting. Early views of the Internet and disasters (e.g. Gruntfest and Weber 1998) were optimistic and identified its positive attributes. However, by the Haiti earthquake of 2010, a different picture had become to emerge and establish itself (Alexander 2010).

In the last decade there has been a massive and utterly profound change in the way that modern, technological channels of information dissemination are used. Although not characterised by loss of control, there has been a change in the way that media, and the information they purvey, are controlled. The change is achieved through apomediation (bypassing information gatekeepers), and control now rests in the information itself, and how it is served up to its consumers (Alexander 2014).

By analogy with the abandonment of property norms, there has been a trend towards forsaking basic ethics and loss of adhesion to the truth. The result is a communication process which has been termed chronic contagion (Pomerantsev 2019). Pronouncements are made on the basis of whim, prejudice and predilection, rather than any solid analysis of evidence or morality. Arbitrary rule is, of course, nothing new, but what is new is the role of networked electronic communication. Vast resources are now devoted to distorting the picture, and all three superpowers are busy utilising them (Druzin and Gordon 2018, Merrin 2019, Rudick and Dannels 2019).

One could argue that this is an inevitable outcome of political ideology and international rivalry, given the new tools that are available forcefully to disseminate views that would not survive any kind of sober, rational analysis. Population growth, migration, proxy wars and environmental change have together generated a current climate of nihilism, sometimes characterised as 'identity politics' and distinguished by a retreat from globalism and a global outlook. In reality, what has evolved is a sort of 'apolitical politics' characterised by the ideology of prejudice, unbridled competition and, often, plain vindictiveness.

To understand this situation, one needs to turn back to the work of the French sociologist David Émile Durkheim (1858-1917). He coined the term anomie, which he defined as a reduction in interaction between social groups leading to a breakdown in mutual understanding, perhaps with a clash of norms, values and ideologies. He attributed it to rapid population growth. Since the late 20th century, the concept of anomie has been reinterpreted (Allan 2005, pp. 128-130). It has also been related to the growth of individualism (Marks 1974, p. 335).

Any attempt to relate the current anomie to disaster risk reduction (DRR) must take account of the 'egg hypothesis'. In this, the factors that directly affect DRR are the yolk, which reposes in the white, which is their political, social, economic and environmental context. Another way of looking at this is that problems caused by disasters cannot be solved in isolation from more general afflictions. For example, if people are poor and their lives are generally precarious, they cannot be made resilient against disasters such as floods and earthquakes unless the problem of vulnerability to life's exigencies in general is reduced. That is where anomie comes in, with a modern interpretation based upon the nihilism and anarchy that has crept into global electronic networked communication. The result, negative as it is, can be seen in Figure 1. Obviously, there are many exceptions to this picture. Its antidotes are thought, reasoning, action, activism, and the application of ethics and morality. People must not allow themselves to be absent from the debate, and they must be willing to learn and reason. Misinformation is successful because of the ability to generate it both forcefully and copiously, but also because of passive acceptance.

                              Figure 1. Anomie and shortage of disaster governance.

There is also a factor associated with official mindsets. In modern disaster risk reduction, problem solvers abound. They vary from individual researchers to major pan-national organisations. One thing they have in common is a tendency to look for the solutions to disaster problems by concentrating on the problem, not its context. This is understandable because in many cases the context is highly complex, subtle and sophisticated. It may pose issues that could well be regarded as intractable. However, the solution often lies in the context, not the problem. For example, great progress has been made in seismology and seismic engineering. However, two analyses (Escaleras et al. 2007, Ambraseys and Bilham 2011) suggest that the principal cause of earthquake disasters is corruption, which weakens or prevents defensive anti-seismic measures. The question then becomes "What is the process whereby a morally neutral threat such as an earthquake is turned into one with strong moral connotations by the spread of corruption?"

The tendency in research and policy advice is to assume that everyone in power has a strong desire to reduce hazards and threats. In contrast, we are all too often confronted with a situation that varies along a spectrum which extends from utter indifference to a desire to orchestrate conditions for private gain or personal aggrandisement. To shy away from such situations, especially in times of mass manipulation of the global means of communication, is to miss out on understanding why disasters prove to be such intractable problems. Further study of this essential problem requires that we develop a thorough understanding of how real issues, real developments and real knowledge are affected by anomie and its vital relationship with chronic contagion.


Alexander, D.E. 2010. News reporting of the January 12, 2010, Haiti earthquake: the role of common misconceptions. Journal of Emergency Management 8(6): 15-27.

Alexander, D.E. 2014. Social media in disaster risk reduction and crisis management. Science and Engineering Ethics 20(3): 717-733.

Allan, K. 2005. Explorations in Classical Sociological Theory: Seeing the Social World. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California, 448 pp.

Ambraseys, N. and R. Bilham 2011. Corruption kills. Nature 469: 153-155.

Bird, D., M. Ling and K. Haynes 2012. Flooding Facebook: the use of social media during the Queensland and Victorian floods. Australian Journal of Emergency Management 27(1): 27-33.

Druzin, B. and G.S. Gordon 2018. Authoritarianism and the Internet. Law and Social Inquiry 43(4): 1427-1457.

Escaleras, M., N. Anbarci and C.A. Register 2007. Public sector corruption and major earthquakes: a potentially deadly interaction. Public Choice 132: 209-230.

Gruntfest, E. and Weber, M. 1998. Internet and emergency management: prospects for the future. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 16(1): 55-72.

Marks, S.R. 1974. Durkheim's theory of anomie. American Journal of Sociology 80(2): 329-363.

Merrin, W. 2019. President Troll: Trump, 4Chan and memetic warfare. In C. Happer, A. Hoskins and W. Merrin  (eds) Trump’s Media War. Springer, New York: 201-226.

O'Connor, D. 2009. Apomediation and the significance of online social networking. American Journal of Bioethics 9(6-7): 25-27.

Pomerantsev, P. 2019. This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality. Faber & Faber, London 256 pp.

Quarantelli, E.L. and R.R. Dynes 1970. Property norms and looting: their patterns in community crisis. Phylon 31: 168-182.

Rudick, C.K. and D.P. Dannels 2019. “Yes, and …”: continuing the scholarly conversation about the dark side of social media. Communication Education 68(3): 393-398.

Friday, 5 July 2019

Disaster Risk Reduction is not a Paradigm

In 1973, when I was a young undergraduate, I was taught the rudiments of the philosophy, theory and methodology of science. In the library of the London School of Economics there was an entire shelf that contained 29 well-thumbed copies of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn 1970). This was standard reading on many courses in the social sciences. It was accepted orthodoxy, but was Kuhn's model right?

According to Kuhn, researchers perceive a particular approach or methodology to be promising and productive. It seems to enable them to make progress with their collective enquiries. Gradually, they exhaust its potential. Pioneer researchers discover and propose a new approach that appears to be able to solve problems that the old way could not. Bit by bit, the community of scholars is convinced and progressively abandons the old approach while taking up the new one. Thus a 'scientific revolution' is born. Kuhn's is a model of innovation diffusion, based on observations of the 'model of natural science' (Harvey 1969). It lacks the spatial dimension of the 1960s work of the geographers Torsten Hägerstrand (1968) and his colleagues, but it has all the other components.

Because it is such a well-known, powerful and simple explanation of modern scientific method, the Kuhnian paradigm has elements of self-fulfilling prophesy. The model has been criticised both because it is too simple and because there are rival theories of paradigms. One of the most penetrating criticisms is that in any discipline many parallel paradigms are operating. In other words, there are different ways of seeing a problem and hence different methods of solving it can exist together at any point in time. If there are many paradigms, there is in effect no paradigm. It would be premature to suggest that there is also no discipline, but there is currently a process of combining and recombining forms of knowledge in new ways. Science is reorganising itself to meet the demands of a very difficult century, and the interpretation of the plethora of knowledge so far produced.

The 1970s were a period in which Kuhn's ideas were vigorously debated by people who were much more knowledgeable in the philosophy of science than I will ever be (Meiland 1974, Nickles 2003, Scheffler 1972). However, my point here is not to bring in the heavyweight models of that discipline, but to make a simple point about the misuse of terms. In fact, 'paradigm' is one of the most misused words in the scientific lexicon. It is used lazily for any common thread in scientific endeavour.

So do we have a paradigm in disaster studies? If we do, is it going to be overthrown by a scientific revolution (or a social scientific one)? Some researchers evidently think so (Ismail-Zadeh et al. 2017), but to answer the question properly, we have to ask another. Is our field (may I call it a discipline? - perhaps not!) susceptible to fads and fashions instead of true paradigms? To begin with, let us introduce some rigour: a vaguely defined way of doing things, or thinking about them, does not constitute a true paradigm. Secondly, a paradigm should involve parallel but independent investigations upon similar lines, and many of them. By contrast, a fad or fashion involves imitation rather than strictly parallel endeavour (a fad is a more pejorative version of a fashion). Imitation involves adapting other people's reasoning to a new set of data or circumstances. It does not require careful reasoning to choose the right tools for the job, or exactly the right question to ask in order to obtain the most productive answer.

Consider the notorious case of René Thom's catastrophe theory (Zeeman 1979). The name was attractive, although highly misleading, as it was not a theory about catastrophes. It was instead a mathematical interpretation of discontinuities (singularities) in state space. Only the lowest level of singularity could be used to model any physical reality. This severely limited the applicability of the theory. Its use in earth sciences (Henley 1976) produced few interpretable results and did almost nothing to shed new light on the problems to which it was applied. It was soon dropped, despite having been hailed as the start of a new paradigm. In reality it was a fad.

Such examples illustrate a rather shallow idea of what represents the 'cutting edge' in any discipline. Sadly, a follow-the-herd mentality all too easily develops among researchers. The residual question is how to liberate and encourage creativity. Like any field of study, disaster risk reduction needs lateral thinking. In other words, it needs diverse entities to be linked in new and productive ways. A paradigm is a concerted attack on a problem by many researchers with similar aims and parallel but diverse perspectives. DRR is now a large enough field to generate this. Indeed, will cascading disasters be a paradigm? Time will tell - or scepticism will dismiss the idea! Fads and fashions are far too imitative to be efficient, effective ways of addressing our problems. A non-paradigm approach might simply bring widely different perspectives to play, thus generating a more pluralistic approach. This is probably what is happening. It is a healthy sign in a field that draws upon more than 40 disciplines for its knowledge (Alexander 2013). My only reservation about this is that we may need the impact of a recognisable paradigm in order to gain the recognition that the field needs.


Alexander, D.E. 2013. Approaches to emergency management teaching at the Master's level. Journal of Emergency Management 13(1): 59-72.

Hagerstrand, T. 1968. Innovation Diffusion As A Spatial Process. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 334 pp.

Harvey, D. 1969. Scientific explanation: the model of natural science. Ch. 4. Explanation in Geography. Edward Arnold, London: 30-43.

Henley, S. 1976. Catastrophe theory models in geology. Journal of the International Association for Mathematical Geology 8(6): 649-655.

Ismail-Zadeh, A.T., S.L. Cutter, K. Takeuchi and D. Paton 2017. Forging a paradigm shift in disaster science. Natural Hazards 86: 969-988.

Kuhn, T.S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (first edition 1962). University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 222 pp.

Meiland, J.W. 1974. Kuhn, Scheffler, and objectivity in science. Philosophy of Science 41(2): 179-187.

Nickles, T. (ed.) 2003. Thomas Kuhn. Contemporary Philosophy in Focus. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 314 pp.

Scheffler, I. 1972. Vision and revolution: a postscript on Kuhn. Philosophy of Science 39(3): 366-374.

Zeeman, C. 1979. Catastrophe theory. In W. Güttinger and H. Eikemeier (eds), Structural Stability in Physics. Springer-Verlag, Heidelberg: 12-22.