The Tyranny of Expertise in the Ashcloud Crisis

Crisis management is, by definition, exceedingly difficult. The continuing aviation crisis in Europe caused by the volcanic ash-cloud from Iceland is no exception. Initial assertions made by airlines following uneventful weekend test flights that the blanket restrictions on air travel were draconian have been followed by less self-interested questions about the basis in science for regulators’ decisions.

Two pieces in today’s Financial Times sketch out some of the issues:

Claims and counter-claims about the appropriate levels of caution and the uncertainty of risk are obviously not easy to resolve. Yet as many have pointed out, the five-day delay in scheduling European transport ministers for a videoconference is less about the complexities of decision-making than a failure of leadership. Even more telling has been the delay in questioning the science, both chemical and mathematical, used to generate risk models. This is not at all to suggest a repudiation of scientific factors in favor of, say, economic ones in deciding when to close or open skies to flight. Rather, it is to suggest that scientific models and explanations be managed critically — that is, by the standards of evidence and logic of scientific inquiry itself — before adopting them wholesale as the basis of standards or policy.

One of the great temptations of leadership is to succumb to what my colleague, Doug Guthrie, and I call “the tyranny of expertise” (we both teach at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, where I sit today under brilliantly blue if still otherwise mostly empty German skies). Such tyranny exists when leaders defer uncritically or even unthinkingly to purported experts, including scientists but also economists, lawyers and others with specialized knowledge. In many cases, of course, these experts have much to offer and their insights are crucial. However, effective leadership requires that these insights and expertise serve as a means to an end, as in the case of policy-making, instead of an end in itself. Let us hope that European regulators begin to make more judicious use of the science of aviation and ash-clouds they have available and prove themselves better leaders.

1 Comment The Tyranny of Expertise in the Ashcloud Crisis

  1. frank

    Hi Professor Slocum–

    I’m Assistant Editor at Cinema Journal. Our Book Review Editor, Amanda Lotz, has been looking for contact information for you and having some trouble. I’m going to try to reach you through various social networks and your blog, in hopes that you’ll pick up one of the messages soon.

    Amanda is hoping to approach you about writing an article/review for us. I don’t know all of the details, but it has to do with recent work on cinematic representations of violence and terrorism.

    Please respond to one of my messages with contact information so I can get you in touch with Amanda and Heather (Hendershot).

    Thanks for your time.


    Frank Episale
    Assistant Editor
    Cinema Journal


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