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Analyzing Uncertainty

February 17, 2010

Seed on a fingertip.

By Sharon Pound

In the wake of disaster, risk and uncertainty reign. People wonder about the long- and short-term effects on their health. The extent of environmental damage can take years to determine. For Gregory Button, it’s all in a day’s work.

Button, an assistant professor of anthropology, has devoted three decades to researching disaster response and crisis communication, and uncertainty has captured his attention.

Button is currently writing a book on scientific uncertainty in the wake of a disaster, due to be published in spring 2010, which will present a series of case studies and findings from a large theoretical study of the role uncertainty plays in major disasters.

“First, there’s the disaster, then there’s the disaster,” Button explains, noting that disaster response always happens in the context of human culture, social organization, and political and economic domains. “Those are the areas important for social scientists to study,” he contends.

The Nature of Uncertainty

Risk has been heavily researched, while uncertainty has been largely ignored, Button continues. In the academic literature, risk discourse is seen as a way to lessen uncertainty. However, despite the preoccupation with risk, researchers haven’t adequately defined and explored uncertainty, because it doesn’t lend itself to a rational approach. “However, we have to understand uncertainty to make sense of it and mitigate it,” he asserts.

The two terms are notoriously slippery, Button explains. The term “risk” has multidimensional uses and is defined differently in different disciplines; the precise definition of “risk” depends to a great degree on who is using the term.

“Risk” is commonly defined in the dictionary as “the chance of injury, damage, or loss.” “Uncertainty” is frequently defined as “lack of certainty, doubt.”

“To many, uncertainty implies an element of risk,” Button says. “The term has fewer meanings than the term “risk” in academic discourse but is still somewhat elusive, because less scrutiny has been paid to uncertainty in rational discourse. The concept is itself ambiguous, and part of my work is to attempt to make it less so, especially with regard to risk.”

Decades of Disaster Response

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, Button became an environmental reporter specializing in disaster and environmental health. He returned to academe and received his master’s and doctorate in anthropology. In addition to his academic study of uncertainty, Button is also recognized as a national expert on disaster response. He is certified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in crisis communication training.

Gregory Button, right, at the ash spill site with TVA’s Neil Carriker.

Gregory Button, right, at the ash spill site with TVA’s Neil Carriker.

Button consults and teaches courses on disaster recovery, the political economics of disasters, crisis communications, environmental justice, and other disaster-related topics. He was a co-organizer of an innovative panel that convened at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in 2008 to launch an op-ed column in CounterPunch, an online news outlet that aims to shape public debate on national issues.

Button’s current project explores the role of uncertainty after nearly every major disaster in the U.S. since the 1970s. These include 20 years of continuous study of communities affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. He has been involved with disaster response on dozens of incidents, including Hurricane Katrina, the Three Mile Island nuclear scare, the Love Canal toxic waste disaster, the Mount St. Helens volcano eruption, and public health threats involving asbestos, SARS, anthrax, and swine flu.

“After 20 years of researching the long-term recovery from the Exxon Valdez disaster, my major takeaway is the severity of magnitude of the damage, in terms of the economic, psychological, social, and political issues,” Button says. “It clearly demonstrates that a disaster of this magnitude, like that of Hurricane Katrina, takes years for full recovery.”

Button is currently following the disaster response at the Tennessee Valley Authority ash spill in Tennessee’s Roane County.

One factor that seems to play into every disaster is the role of media, Button says. Crises often create a vacuum of information, and many times inaccurate reporting fills that void, contributing to increased uncertainty.

For example, in the days following the TVA ash spill at the Kingston Steam Plant in 2008, a story disseminated by the United Mountain Defense organization said the spill was worse than the Exxon Valdez spill—a hugely inaccurate reference, given that the Exxon Valdez spill affected 1,300 miles of pristine wilderness and 24 communities, killed nearly 400,000 birds, and generated major litigation. The TVA spill, on the other hand, affects 500 acres, and while it had adverse effects on both the environment and many people, it is by no means comparable to the damage inflicted by the Exxon spill, Button asserts.

A house damaged by the TVA ash spill in December 2008.

A house damaged by the TVA ash spill in December 2008.

GQ magazine listed the TVA spill as the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history,” repeating the claim of United Mountain Defense, Button reports. “This manipulation of the media is disturbing and is often done by parties on all sides. These inaccurate reports are so distorted that they take on a life of their own.”

On the other hand, Button observes, culpable parties involved in a disaster often generate doubt and uncertainty in order to cloud public opinion. In the wake of disaster, there is an inevitable period of uncertainty about the real or perceived risks and, usually, incomplete information about the nature and extent of the risk, in the days, weeks, and months that follow.

“The attempts at crisis communication by the parties implicated in the event, as well as other organizations such as the media, public agencies, and environmental and grassroots organizations, are often seen as conflicting and confusing to the victims of the event,” he says.

“In the case of the TVA ash spill, there have been conflicting reports in the media and in public meetings from TVA, the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental groups, grassroots organizations, and outside researchers which have contributed to a climate of confusion and uncertainty.”

Policies Related to Uncertainty

Understanding uncertainty as it relates to disaster response helps policymakers to respond to crises more effectively—to mitigate and understand the aftermath that lingers long after a disaster hits, Button says. Because of society’s collective short attention span, the long-term response and recovery doesn’t grab the headlines, despite the fact that communities are still reeling from the damage.

“The important thing to remember is that science doesn’t have all the answers,” Button says. “Science and technology are often involved in environmental disasters, so people instinctively turn to science for answers.”

Devastation in New Orleans from hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Devastation in New Orleans from hurricane Katrina in 2005.

For example, he explains that the correlation between the toxins identified with the TVA ash spill and the ultimate outcome on the environment and citizens’ health will take a long time to determine. Corporations too often take advantage of doubt and uncertainty to create even more uncertainty.

Further compounding the uncertainty during major crises, hundreds of agencies must interact in a timely fashion. Studying the many cultures is a rich field for anthropological research, Button says. “Tremendous awareness is needed to know how to respond to disasters,” he says. “Communications are very important, especially within pre-established networks.”

He cites numerous examples of inadequate communications. During 9/11, a huge disconnect existed between the FBI and the Department of Justice, among the local police departments and fire departments, and other emergency responders and governmental leaders. In a school system in Michigan, each school had a different emergency protocol, which hindered the effectiveness of emergency responders. Even though people knew the problem existed, he says, personal egos prohibited any changes from being made.

“Many problems exist in the realm of uncertainty that science cannot solve,” Button concludes. “Science can’t solve cultural, social, and political problems generated by an environmental disaster, including the intricacies of risk. Definitions of risk and uncertainty as social issues deal inevitably with values and morality, and discourses about risk and uncertainty are culturally constructed. It is especially important for anthropologists to inform society on a scholastic level, to understand the nature and effect of uncertainty, and to share a body of knowledge that ultimately belongs to society.”

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