Economists in the City #1 1024 780 Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche

Economists in the City #1

Economists in the City: Reconsidering the History of Urban Policy Expertise

An introduction

When and why did the expertise associated with economics as an academic discipline become so highly valued in the world of public policy? 

We planned a workshop to explore this broad question in relation to the more specific theme of policy-making in relation to cities, and the influence of agglomeration economics upon urban and government policy in countries like the US, France and the UK. And our aim was to examine, in particular, the increasing focus upon cities in the work of an important group of economists since the 1980s, and to explore some of the main lines of criticism of public policies that reflect the logic and value of agglomeration.

Detail from Booth Inquiry into the Life and Labour of People in London. Map Description of London Poverty, 1898-9, West Central District., Public Domain

We anticipated a rich conversation on these issues between historians of economics, economists, urban policy experts and social scientists. The embedding of agglomerationism within the thinking of policy-makers and governmental institutions provides a fascinating example of a broader shift towards the growing impact of economic expertise, and indeed of individual economists, on policy-making.

This focus sits within a wider field of study which is interested in the complex roles that economists have at times played – as public intellectuals, policy experts and academic specialists. How different kinds of analytical tools and a particular style of economic reasoning made their way into the world of elite decision-making is a major theme of interest for many historians and social scientists. So too is the related question of how quantification (testable theoretical hypotheses, measurement technique and indicators, as well as decision-models) has over the last few decades gained ascendancy in policy circles.

As a result of the on-going Covid-19 crisis, we have decided to convert this event into a blogged conference, publishing shortened, online versions of a number of the papers that were due to be presented at the original event, and eliciting comments and responses to these as comments.

We will be publishing the first of these posts on Monday 18 May, and others will appear shortly afterwards. The conference will open with a contribution from Dr Béatrice Cherrier (CNRS, University of Cergy-Pontoise) and Anthony Rebours (University Paris 8), Cities and Space: Towards a History of ‘Urban Economics’, introducing readers to the pre-history of agglomeration economics, and offering reflections on how the field of urban economics in the US provided a crucible for its later development.

Our other contributors include, Professor Diane Coyle (University of Cambridge), Professor Ron Martin (University of Cambridge), Cedric Philadelphe Divry (University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne), Professor Denise Pumain (University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) and Professor Philip McCann (University of Sheffield).

After we have published each of their contributions, we will invite other contributors to comment in response, and will offer our own reflections about some of the key debates and issues.

We would like to thank The Humanities and Social Change International Foundation for supporting the work of the ‘Expertise Under Pressure’ project at Cambridge, which hosts this particular project, as well as colleagues at CRASSH where the project is based, for their intellectual and logistical support for it.

Michael Kenny and Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche

Cambridge, 15 May 2020.


PS: We chose as a visual an detail from a map made for Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of People in London. It is a part of this particular map: Map Description of London Poverty, 1898-9, West Central District, part of a larger enterprise to produce maps for London in which the levels of poverty and wealth fare mapped out street by street.


Disaster Response | Knowledge Domains and Information Flows 1024 683 Hannah Baker

Disaster Response | Knowledge Domains and Information Flows

An Expertise Under Pressure Workshop

11 February 2020

Cripps Court, Magdalene College, Cambridge

Organised by Hannah Baker, Rob Doubleday and Emily So

Cripps Court, Magdalene College

The ‘Disaster Response | Knowledge Domains and Information Flows’ workshop on the 11 February 2020 formed part of the Expertise Under Pressure Project (EuP), specifically the Rapid Decisions Under Risk case study.

The aim of this event was to explore the different knowledge domains and information flows in the context of disaster response situations, such as the immediate aftermath of an earthquake or volcano, or the ongoing response to the coronavirus, which has since become the  global pandemic known as COVID-19. A reflection in light of this is provided at the end of this blog following a description of the workshop’s proceedings. Attendees were from a range of disciplines, including representatives from the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) who have written their own summary of the day.

Workshop questions:

In the context of disaster response:

  1. What type of knowledge is and should be used?
  2. What constitutes as an expert?
  3. How is and should uncertainty be factored into decisions and communicated?
  4. What happens to, and should happen to, knowledge after it is produced and the event has taken place?

Speaker Session 1

Hannah Baker


Hannah Baker is a Research Associate at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge. She opened the day by providing an overview of the EuP project. The relevance of the topic was conveyed through a display of screenshots comprising multiple newspaper headlines referring to the use of experts in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak in, at the time (February 2020), Wuhan China. The headlines were also used to highlight that these experts are not always in agreement with one another, with an example being predictions of when the peak of the infection would be.

A theoretical context for disaster management arguing that there are no ‘natural disasters’ was then provided. There are natural events, such as a volcanic eruption, but these turn into disasters due to social factors that increase the vulnerability of a population. Within the disaster management cycle there are four stages: prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response, and rehabilitation and recovery. Although this workshop focused on the response, the other stages are not mutually exclusive. In the response stage, the decision-making environment is uncertain, under time-pressure and can result in high impacts (Doyle, 2012).

The reasons for referring to 1) ‘Knowledge Domains’ and 2) ‘Information Flows’ in the workshop’s title were then outlined. To address the first part, disaster research regularly discusses the use of scientific expertise in decisions-making, however it is also recognised that information can come from elsewhere. For example, Hannah displayed a newspaper headline referring to the use of ‘indigenous expertise’ in combating the recent Australian Bushfires.

In disaster management literature there is also an emphasis on the need to create networks before an event takes place to establish trust and facilitate the flow of information when that event happens. The concept of information flows can be extended further as the communication of knowledge is not only communicated to and between decision-makers but also the wider public. An issue here being ‘fake news’ and as put by the Director General of the World Health Organisation in response to misinformation about the coronavirus, now is the time for “facts, not rumours”.

Emily So

Is knowledge driving advice or vice versa in the field of natural disaster management?

Emily So is the project lead for the ‘Rapid Decisions Under Risk’ case study, a Reader in the Department of Architecture at the University of Cambridge and a chartered civil engineer. Following the 2015 Nepal Earthquake, Emily was invited by the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to contribute her expertise on earthquake casualty modelling and loss estimations. SAGE provides scientific and technical advice to decision-makers during emergencies in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR). ,

Although casualty models take into account structural vulnerability, seismic hazards and the social resilience, Emily highlighted that the interpretation of these and use for loss estimations is often based on knowledge and experience. She emphasised that those making these interpretations are unlikely to always have experience in the country in which the earthquake has occurred.

Emily’s participation in SAGE led her to question 1) What happens to the gathered advice? 2) What is the process of turning this information into decisions and actions? 3) What if we are wrong? These questions formed the origins of the EuP case study and use of experts in disaster response situations.

Amy Donovan

Thinking holistically about risk and uncertainty

Amy Donovan is a multi-disciplinary geographer, volcanologist and lecturer at the University of Cambridge. During the workshop she presented arguments from her recent paper: ‘Critical Volcanology? Thinking holistically about risk and uncertainty. She reiterated that there are no natural disasters and then moved on to question what creates good knowledge, emphasising that risk in itself is incomplete. For instance, in her paper she states:

 ‘the challenge of volcanic crises increasingly tends to drag scientists beyond Popperian science into subjective probabilityDonovan (2019, p.20)

Historically, the physical sciences have been better accepted as they can be modelled, whilst the social sciences are difficult to measure as they are people studying people and therefore subjective. However, Amy argued that risk is a social construction in itself and that datasets can be interpreted in different ways due to people’s experiences working in different locations around the world. She also affirmed that the social sciences need to be brought in at the start of the decision-making process, rather than at the end (which is commonly the case now and often only for communication purposes). A dialogue needs to be happening before a disaster even happens.

Amy also discussed the impact on the people being consulted as experts in disaster response situations as they can be affected by this as the advice that they give can affect other’s lives. This is why the transfer of knowledge is important as its often difficult for scientists to control which parts of knowledge are taken forward and how that is communicated.

Speaker Session 2

Robert Evans

Nature and use of scientific expertise

Robert Evans is a Professor in Sociology at the Cardiff University School of Social Sciences, specialising in Science and Technology studies. The focus of his presentation built upon previous work on the ‘Third wave of Science Studies: Studies of Expertise and Experience’. Two key concepts within this paper are the notions of contributory and interactional expertise. The former is often the accomplished practitioner who can perform practical tasks and the latter was a new idea based on linguistic socialisation as the expert is able to communicate and speak fluently about practical tasks.

As no one can be an expert in everything, in their paper Collins and Evans state:

‘The job, as we have indicated, is to start to think about how different kinds of expertise should be combined to make decisions in different kinds of science and in different kinds of cultural enterpriseCollins & Evans (2002, p.271)

Robert also spoke about legitimacy and extension, and how legitimacy can increase as more voices are included, yet, poses the question whether the quality of technical advice decreases if ‘non-expert’ inputs are given too much weight. This ties in with the concept of robust evidence. Although Robert spoke before COVID-19 became a global pandemic, this is now as relevant as ever as he put forward questions about how we handle controversial advice and that scientific experts will not always reach a consensus.

Dorothea Hilhorst

Social Domains of disaster knowledge and action

Dorothea Hilhorst is a Professor of Humanitarian Aid & Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Dorothea’s paper, published in 2003, Responding to Disasters: Diversity of Bureaucrats, Technocrats and Local People’ led to us thinking about the use of different knowledge domains in disaster response situations. Dorothea reflected upon this by linking the domains of knowledge to power, and also on how we see a disaster as alliances between the domains, such as science, political authorities, civil society and community groups. Within her paper, she states:

‘Instead of assuming that scientific knowledge is superior to local knowledge, or the other way around, a more open and critical eye needs to be cast on each approach…disaster responses come about through the interaction of science, governance and local practices and they are defined and defended in relation to one anotherHilhorst (2003, p.51)

Like Amy Donovan, Dorothea emphasised that there are ‘no natural disasters’ by referring to the change in disaster paradigms through time and also speaking about the concept of Disaster Risk Creation (DRC). This shift went from an attention to behavioural studies in the 1950s, the entry of vulnerability followed by community to the paradigm in the 1980s, a focus on climate change in the 1990s and then a turn to the concept of resilience in the 2000s. Thea noted that in her own work she focuses on when disasters and conflict happen at the same time whereby the governance is even more complex in these situations.

Speaker Session 3

Ben Taylor

Ben Taylor

Disasters, Evidence and experts: A case Study from Evidence Aid

Benjamin Heaven Taylor is the Chief Executive Officer of Evidence Aid, an international NGO that works to enable evidence-based decision-making in humanitarian settings. Ben opened the discussion by describing the humanitarian ecosystem which includes (but is not limited to) the UN, International NGOs, research bodies, as well as local civil society, private sectors and individuals. He showed a pyramid reflecting the hierarchy of evidence. Due to the time constraints of a disaster response situation, expert evidence is frequently used but there is often a weak research-evidence base, meaning that there is little basis for challenging experts’ views. The research-evidence base is often weak due to it being inaccessible, ‘patchy’ and there being political barriers. However, Ben emphasised that the use of experts isn’t necessarily a bad thing and that…

‘When used properly experts can be a vital mediator between evidence (which can be a blunt instrument) and practice. But experts (including scientists) can be influenced by bias, just like anyoneTaylor (2020) – Workshop presentation

The presentation concluded by referring to Evidence Aid’s theory of change with the overarching idea being that before, during and after disasters, the best available evidence is used to design interventions, strategies and policies to assist those affected or at risk.

Focus Group Discussions

As part of the day, we had three separate focus group discussions. The facilitator for each group opened with some thoughts provided by Emma Doyle, a Senior Lecturer at the Joint Centre for Disaster Research at Massey University, New Zealand (Emma’s answers are provided in a separate blog post). Each group then built upon these initial thoughts and discussed the question. Summaries of discussion topics are provided below.

In the context of disaster response…

What type of knowledge is and should be used?

Initially the conversation separated knowledge domains into two streams – science and indigenous knowledge. However, this separation was critiqued and considered to be a reductionist way of thinking. Although it was acknowledged it is important to be clear where knowledge has come from and the conditions in which it was created, it was suggested that perhaps it is more useful to think about knowledge as a network of clusters that may or may not be talking to one another.

Disaster response is an integrated problem and in a time constrained environment, it’s someone’s job to bring this separate and sometimes conflicting information together. As part of this role, the framing of the initial questions is vital in determining what knowledge is collected. A key issue with the collection of knowledge is credibility and the need to demonstrate trustworthiness. For one engineer in the group, model makers often do not have the ‘luxury’ of choosing data, and if they do, the determination of reliability is often subjective and determined by expert judgment.

How is and should uncertainty be factored into decisions and communicated?

The level of communication for uncertainty impacts the confidence that the public have in decision-makers and consequently the level of trust. The question of how much and how uncertainty is communicated was raised. For example, whether the uncertainty is presented as a number or through graphics is dependent on the type of event and the cultural context. Perhaps there is also a balance to be struck between communicating the full range of possibilities for transparency and not supplying too much information, which can cause cognitive overload.

Examples were given of model makers who are keen to communicate all uncertainties rather than make the decision themselves. Another example is that once a decision is made, if an immediate response is required, people ‘on the ground’ may just prefer to be told what to do and given instructions. A potential way in which the communication of uncertainty can be balanced is a layered approach, which is sometimes used in healthcare. Highlighting the information that needs to be known but then allowing access to more detailed information if a patient wants to see the same level of detail as their clinician. However, it was recognised that in a time pressured situation such as disaster response, this will be more difficult to formulate. Fundamentally, the question of communicating uncertainty was described as a moral and ethical judgment.

What happens to, and should happen to, knowledge after it is produced and the event has taken place?

This focus group began by discussing the initial collection of knowledge and how this is often based on visibility or access to data or individuals. In some cases, ‘experts’ might be selected because of the institution they are from or willingness to interact with the media but this may not make them the most appropriate person to answer the questions at hand. In any case, wherever the knowledge has come from, transparency is key and the group felt that the general public can act out of panic if they do not feel informed. If the release of information to the public is staggered, this can lead to a loss of empowerment. However, this is then balanced against communicating what is necessary. In many cases, the scientific experts should not be expected to communicate directly with the public, often this requires a mediator. If there is not a clear and hard line from the government, fake news and rumours are likely to be a major issue.

Reflections in light of COVID-19 being declared a global Pandemic

Clearly the topics discussed in the workshop are highly relevant to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In the UK, COVID-19 has been declared as a national emergency and at the time of writing I am socially distancing myself under the new strict governmental measures and working from home. COVID-19 is relevant to all the questions posed in our workshop, and to the content of the presentations and focus groups. I will now draw some links with the talks given by each guest speaker, but recognise that there are many more!

Amy talked about the transfer of knowledge and how that can then be out of the expert’s control once imparted. Due to the popularity of social media, there have been widespread issues of miscommunication with platforms such as Twitter trying to direct people towards official information sources and the Government now hosting a daily press briefing.

Robert questioned how we handle controversial advice and that scientific experts are unlikely to reach consensus with the final say being from political actors. Repeatedly, we have heard Boris Johnson and other political actors saying that the decisions are being driven by the science. An important point to make here, which was raised by Professor David Spiegelhalter in the Centre for Science and Policy’s (CSaP) ‘Science, Policy & Pandemics’ Podcast (Episode 2: Communicating Evidence and Uncertainty), is that SAGE is not the decision-maker, they are providing the evidence to inform decisions made by politicians. After calls for transparency, SAGE released the evidence which is guiding decisions and identified the core expert groups who they are consulting. As far as we are aware, this has not happened in such a short time frame for other events that SAGE have provided advice for, but perhaps this is because it is something that is affecting us all rather than a specific geographic location.

One point in Thea’s presentation that stands out is that information/evidence sometimes needs to be simplified for people to understand and act upon. I would be surprised if people in the UK had not now heard the line ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’, which is also on the front page of a booklet circulated nationwide summarising the action that needs to be taken by individuals and includes illustrations on the correct way to wash hands (see figure below).

Over the past few weeks Evidence Aid has been preparing collections of relevant evidence for COVID-19. Their aim has been to provide the best available evidence to help with the response, supporting Ben’s proposal that there needs to be research-evidence based decision-making in disaster response situations.

There is clearly a lot of uncertainty about COVID-19 and as the situation is changing day by day, it is impossible to comment on what the right or wrong approach is, and this approach has differed from country to country. One of the aims of our project is to now establish what evidence and type of experts different countries have relied upon and why the interventions have differed.

Members of the EuP team have also started a blog with opinion pieces about the pandemic including: ‘Are the experts responsible for bad disaster response?‘ and ‘Reading Elizabeth Anderson in the time of COVID-19’.

Text by Hannah Baker (published 23/04/2020)

Photographs within text by Hannah Baker, Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche & Judith Weik

Thumbnail image by JohannHelgason/

Are the experts responsible for bad disaster response? 499 310 Federico Brandmayr

Are the experts responsible for bad disaster response?

A few lessons for the coronavirus outbreak from L’Aquila

~ ~ ~

A few weeks ago, a Facebook group called 3e32 and based in the Italian city of L’Aquila posted a message stating: “whether it is a virus or lack of prevention, science should always protect its independence from the power of those who guarantee the interests of the few at the expense of the many”. The statement was followed by a picture of a rally, showing people marching and carrying a banner which read: “POWER DICTATES, ‘SCIENCE’ OBEYS, JUSTICE ABSOLVES”.

What was that all about? “3e32” refers to the moment in which a deadly earthquake struck L’Aquila on April 6th 2009 (at 3:32 in the Morning). It is now the name of a collective founded shortly after the disaster. The picture was taken on November 13th 2014: a few days earlier, a court of appeals had acquitted six earth scientists of charges of negligence and manslaughter, for which they had previously been sentenced to six years in prison.

Even today, many people believe that scientists were prosecuted and convicted in L’Aquila for “for failing to predict an earthquake”, as a commentator put it in 2012. If this were the case, it would be shocking indeed: earthquake prediction is seen by most seismologists as a hopeless endeavour (to the point that there is a stigma associated to it in the community), and the probabilistic concept of forecast is preferred instead. But, in fact, things are more complicated, as I and others have shown. What prosecutors and plaintiffs claimed was that in a city that had been rattled for months by tremors, where cracks had started to appear on many buildings, where people were frightened and some had started to sleep in their cars, a group of scientists had come to L’Aquila to say that there was no danger and that a strong earthquake was highly unlikely. Prosecutors attributed to the group of experts, some of whom were part of an official body called National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks (CMR), a negative prediction, or, in other terms, they claimed that hat they had inferred “evidence of absence” from “absence of evidence”. This gross mistake was considered a result of the experts submitting to the injunctions of the chief of the civil protection service, Guido Bertolaso, who wanted Aquilani to keep calm and carry on, instead of following the best scientific evidence available. Less than a week after the highly publicised expert meeting, a 6.3 magnitude quake struck the city, killing more than 300 people.

The Facebook post, published at the end of March, suggests a link between the management of disaster in L’Aquila and the response to the covid-19 outbreak. The reminiscence was made all the starker by the fact that, just a couple of weeks before the post, Bertolaso had come once again to the forefront of Italian public life, this time not as chief of the civil protection service but as special advisor to the president of the Lombardy region to fight covid-19. But the analogies are deeper than the simple reappearance of the same characters. As during and after all disasters, attributions of blame are today ubiquitous. Scientists and experts are under the spotlight as they were in L’Aquila. Policymakers and the public expect highly accurate predictions and want them quickly. Depending on how a country is doing in containing the virus, experts will be praised or blamed, sometimes as much as elected representatives.

In Italy, for example, many now ask why the province of Bergamo was not declared “red zone”, meaning that unessential companies were not closed down, in late February, despite clear evidence of uncontrolled outbreaks in several towns in the area (various other towns in Italy had been declared “red zones” since February 23rd). Only on March 8th the national government decided to lock down the whole region of Lombardy, and the rest of the country two days later. The UK government has been similarly accused of complacency in delaying school closures and bans on mass gatherings. Public accusations voiced by journalists, researchers, and members of the public provoked blame games between state agencies, levels of governments, elected representatives, and expert advisors. In Italy, following extensive media coverage of public officials’ omissions and commissions in the crucial weeks between February 21st and March 8th, regional authorities and the national government now blame each other for the delay. In a similar way, the UK government and the Mayor of London have pointed fingers at each other after photos taken during the lockdown showed overcrowded Tube trains in London.

It would be easy to argue, with the benefit of hindsight, that more should have been done, and more promptly, to stop the virus, and not only in terms of long-term prevention or preparedness, but also in terms of immediate response. Immediate response to disaster includes such decisions as country-wide lockdowns to block the spread of a virus (like we are witnessing now), the evacuation of populations from unsafe areas (such as the 1976 Guadeloupe evacuation), the stop of the operation of an industrial facility or transport system (such as the airspace closure in Northern Europe after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2011), or the confinement of hazardous materials (such as the removal of radioactive debris during the Chernobyl disaster). Focusing on this kind of immediate responses, I offer three insights from L’Aquila that seem relevant to understand the pressures expert advisors dealing with the covid-19 are facing today in Britain.

Experts go back to being scientists when things get messy

When decisions informed by scientific experts turn out to be mistaken, experts tend to defend themselves by drawing a thick boundary between science and policy, the same boundary that they eagerly cross in times of plenty to seize the opportunities of being in the situation room. Falling back into the role of scientists, they emphasise the uncertainties and controversies that inevitably affect scientific research.

Although most of the CMR experts in L’Aquila denied that they had made reassuring statements or that they had made a “negative prediction”, after the earthquake, they still had to explain why they were not responsible for what had happened. This was done in several ways. First, the draft minutes of the meeting were revised after the earthquake so as to make the statements less categorical and more probabilistic. Secondly, they emphasised the highly uncertain and tentative nature of seismological knowledge, arguing for example that “at the present stage of our knowledge,” nothing allows us to consider seismic swarms (like the one that was ongoing in L’Aquila before April 6th 2009) as precursors of strong earthquakes, a claim which is disputed within seismology. Finally, the defendants argued that the meeting was not addressed to the population and local authorities of L’Aquila (as several announcements of the civil protection service suggested), but rather to the civil protection service only, who then had to take the opportune measures autonomously. They claimed that scientists only provide advice, and that it is public officials and elected representatives who bear responsibility for any decision taken. This was part of a broader strategy to frame the meeting as a meeting of scientists, while the prosecution tried to frame it as a meeting of civil servants.

In Britain, the main expert body that has provided advice to the government is SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), formed by various subcommittees, such as NERVTAG (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group). These groups, along with the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, have been under intense scrutiny over the past weeks. Questioned by Reuters about why the covid-19 threat level was not increased from “moderate” to “high” at the end of February, when the virus was spreading rapidly and deadly in Italy, a SAGE spokesperson responded that “SAGE and advisers provide advice, while Ministers and the Government make decisions”. When challenged about their advice, British experts also emphasized the uncertainty they faced. They depicted their meetings not as ceremonies in which the scientific solution to the covid-19 problem was revealed to the government, but rather as heated deliberations in which fresh and conflicting information about the virus was constantly being discussed: what Bruno Latour calls “science in the making”, and not what he calls “ready-made science”. For example, on March 17th Vallance stated before the Health and Social Care Select Committee that “If you think SAGE is a cosy consensus of agreeing, you’re very wrong indeed”.

Italian sociologist Luigi Pellizzoni has similarly pointed out an oscillation between the role of the expert demanding full trust from the public and the role of the scientist who, when things go wrong, blames citizens for their pretence of certainty. The result is confusion and suspicion among the public, and a reinforcement of conspiratorial beliefs according to which scientists are hired guns of powerful interests and that science is merely a continuation of politics by other means. In this way, the gulf between those who decry a populist aversion to science, and those who denounce its technocratic perversion cannot but widen, as I suggested in a recent paper.

Epidemiological (like geophysical) expert advice contains sociological and normative assumptions

Expert advice about how to respond to a natural phenomenon, like intense seismic activity or a rapidly spreading virus, will inevitably contain sociological assumptions, i.e. assumptions about how people will behave in relation to the natural phenomenon itself and in relation to what public authorities (and their law enforcers) will do. They also contain normative (or moral) assumptions, about what is the legitimate course of action in response to a disaster. In most cases, these assumptions remain implicit, which can create various problems: certain options that might be valuable are not even considered and the whole process is less transparent, potentially fostering distrust.

In the L’Aquila case, the idea of evacuating the town or of advising the inhabitants to temporarily leave their homes if these had not been retrofitted was simply out of the question. The mayor closed the schools for two days in late March, but most of the experts and decisionmakers involved, especially those who worked at the national level and were not residing in L’Aquila, believed that doing anything more radical would have been utterly excessive at the time. A newspaper condensed the opinion of US seismologist Richard Allen the day after the quake by writing that “it is not possible to evacuate whole cities without precise data” about where and when an earthquake is going to hit. The interview suggested that this impossibility stems from our lack of seismological predictive power, but in fact it is either a normative judgment based on the idea that too much time, money, and wellbeing would be dissipated without clear benefits, or a sociological judgment based on the idea that people would resist evacuation.

The important issue here is not whether a certain form of disaster response is a good or a bad idea, but that judgments of the sort “it is impossible to respond in this way” very often neglect to acknowledge the standards and information on which these are based. And there are good reasons to believe that this rhetorical loop-hole is especially true of judgments that, by decrying certain measures as impossible, simply ratify the status quo and “business as usual”. Our societies rest on a deep grained assumption that “the show must go on”, so that reassuring people is much less problematic than alarming them that something terrible is going to happen. Antonello Ciccozzi, an anthropologist who testified as an expert witness in the L’Aquila trial, expressed this idea by arguing that while the concepts of alarmism and false alarm are well established in ordinary language (and also have a distinctive legal existence, as in the article number 658 of Italian criminal law, which expressly proscribes and punishes false alarm [procurato allarme]), their opposites have no real semantic existence, occupying instead a “symbolic void”. This is why he coined a new term, “reassurism” (rassicurazionismo), to mean a disastrous and negligent reassurance, which he used to interpret the rhetoric of earth scientists and public authorities in 2009 and which he has applied to the current management of the covid-19 crisis.

Pushing the earthquake-virus analogy further, several clues suggest that the scientists that provided advice on covid-19 in Britain limited the range of possible options by a great deal because they were making sociological and normative assumptions. According to Reuters, “the scientific committees that advised Johnson didn’t study, until mid-March, the option of the kind of stringent lockdown adopted early on in China”, on the grounds that Britons would not accept such restrictions. This of course contained all sorts of sociological and moral assumptions about Britain, China, about democracies and autocracies, about political legitimacy and institutional trust. It is hard to establish whether the government explicitly delimited the range of possible policies on which expert advice was required, whether experts shared these assumptions anyway, or whether experts actually influenced the government by excluding certain options from the start. But by and large, these assumptions remained implicit. They were properly questioned only after several European countries started to adopt stringent counter-measures to stop the virus and new studies predicted up to half a million deaths in Britain, forcing the government to reconsider what had previously been deemed a sociological or normative impossibility.

It is true that, in stark contrast to the CMR in L’Aquila, where social science was not represented at all, SAGE has activated its subsection of behavioural science, called SPI-B (Scientific Pandemic Influenza Advisory Committee – Behaviour). Several commentators have argued that this section, by advancing ideas that resonated with broader libertarian paternalistic sensibilities among elite advisors and policymakers, had a significant influence in the early stage of the UK response to covid-19. There is certainly some truth to that, but my bets are that the implicit assumptions of policy-makers and epidemiologists were much more decisive. Briefs of SPI-B meetings in March and February reveal concerns about unintended consequences of and social resistance to measures such as school closures and the isolation of the elderly, but they are far from containing a full-fledged defence of a “laissez faire” approach. The statements reported in the minutes strike for their prudence, emphasising the uncertainties and even disagreements among members of the section. This leads us to consider a third point, i.e. the degree to which experts, along with their implicit or explicit assumptions, managed to exert an influence over policymakers and where able to confront them when they had reasons to do so. 

Speaking truth to power or speaking power to truth?

Scientists gain much from being appointed to expert committees: prestige; the prospect of influencing policy; better working conditions; less frequently they might also have financial incentives. Politicians also gain something: better, more rational decisions that boost their legitimacy; the possibility of justifying predetermined policies on a-political, objective grounds; a scapegoat that they can use in case things go wrong; an easy way to make allies and expand one’s network by distributing benefits. But although both sides gain, they are far from being on an equal footing: expert commissions and groups are established by ministers, not the other way around. This platitude testifies to the deep asymmetry between experts and policymakers. We have good reasons to think that, under certain circumstances, such an asymmetric relation prevents scientific experts to fully voice their opinions on the one hand, and emboldens policymakers into thinking that they should not be given lessons by their subordinates on the other. Thanks to the high popularity of the 2019 television series Chernobyl, many now find the best exemplification of such arrogance and lack of criticism in how the Ukrainian nuclear disaster was managed by both engineers and public officials.

There is little doubt that something of the sort occurred in L’Aquila. Several pieces of evidence show that Bertolaso did not summon the CMR meeting to get a better picture of the earthquake swarm that was occurring in the region. In his own words, the meeting was meant as a “media ploy” to reassure the Aquilani. But how could he be so sure that the situation in L’Aquila did not require his attention? It seems that one of the main reasons is that he had his own seismological theory to make sense of what was going on. Bertolaso believed that seismic swarms do not increase the odds of a strong earthquake, but on the contrary that they decrease such odds because small shocks discharge the total amount of energy contained in the earth. Most seismologists would disagree with this claim: low-intensity tremors technically release energy, but this does not amount to a favourable discharge of energy that decreases the odds of a big quake because magnitudes are based on a logarithmic scale, and a magnitude 4 earthquake releases a negligible quantity of energy compared to that released by a magnitude 6 earthquake (and, more generally, to the energy stored in an active fault zone). But scientists appear to have been much too cautious in confronting him and criticising his flawed theory. Bertolaso testified in court that in the course of a decade he had mentioned the theory of the favourable discharge of energy “dozens of times” to various earth scientists (including some of the defendants) and that “nobody ever raised any objection about that”. Moreover, both Bertolaso’s deputy and a volcanologist who was the most senior member of the CMR alluded to the theory during the meeting and in interviews given to local media in L’Aquila. A seismologist testified that he did not feel like contradicting another member of the commission (and a more senior one at that) in front of an unqualified public and so decided to change the topic instead. Such missed objections created the conditions under which the “discharge of energy” as a “positive phenomenon” became a comforting refrain that circulated first among civil protection officials and policymakers, and then among the Aquilani as well.

Has something similar occurred in the management of the covid-19 crisis in Britain? As no judicial inquiry has taken place there, there is only limited evidence that does not authorize anything other than speculative conjectures. However, there are two main candidate theories that, although lacking proper scientific support, might have guided the actions of the government thanks to their allure of scientificity: “behavioural fatigue” and “herd immunity”. As mentioned above, many think that behavioural fatigue, according to which people would not comply with lockdown restrictions after a certain period of time so that strict measures could be useless or even detrimental, has been the sociological justification of a laissez faire (if not social Darwinist) attitude to the virus. But this account seems to give too much leverage to behavioural scientists who, for the most part, were cautious and divided on the social consequences of a lockdown. This also finds support in the fact that no public official to my knowledge referred to “behavioural fatigue” but rather simply to “fatigue”, without explicit reference to an expert report or an authoritative study (as a matter of fact, none of the SPI-B documents ever mentions “fatigue”). I’d like to propose a different interpretation: instead of being a scientific theory approved by behavioural experts, it was rather a storytelling device with a common-sense allure that allowed it to get a life of its own among policy circles, ending up in official speeches and interviews. The vague notion of “fatigue”, which reassuringly suggested that the country and the economy could go on as usual, might have ended up being accepted with little suspicion by many experts as well, especially those of the non-behavioural kind. The concept could have served both as a reassuring belief for public officials and as an argument that could be used to justify delaying (or avoiding) a lockdown. The circulation of “herd immunity” might have followed a similar pattern. Although a scientifically legitimate concept, there is evidence that, along with similar formulations such as “building some immunity”, it was never a core strategy of the government, but rather part of a communicative repertoire that could be invoked to justify a delay of the lockdown as well as measures directed only at certain sections of the population, such as the elderly. Only on 23 March the government changed track and abandoned these concepts altogether, taking measures similar to other European countries.

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The analogy between how Italian civil protection authorities managed an earthquake swarm in L’Aquila and how the British government responded to covid-19 cannot be pushed too far. Earthquakes and epidemics have different temporalities (a disruptive event limited in space and time on the one hand, a long-lasting process with no strict geographical limits on the other), are subject to different predictive techniques, and demand highly different responses. While a large proportion of Aquilani blamed civil protection authorities immediately after the earthquake, Boris Johnson’s approval rating has improved from March to April 2020. However, what happened in L’Aquila remains, to paraphrase Charles Perrow, a textbook case of a “normal accident” of expertise, i.e. a situation in which expert advice ended up being catastrophically bad for systemic reasons, and notably for how the science-policy interface had developed in the Italian civil protection service. As such, there is much that expert advisors and policymakers can learn from it, whether they are giving advice and responding to earthquakes, nuclear accidents, terrorism, or a global pandemic.

Federico Brandmayr