<![CDATA[Arwen P. Mohun - Risk Cultures Blog]]>Thu, 28 Jan 2016 13:39:57 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Guns: Deja Vu All Over Again]]>Sun, 24 Mar 2013 20:22:17 GMThttp://www.arwenmohun.com/risk-cultures-blog/march-24th-2013 Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s most visible spokesman against gun control, was on the TV news again.  He testified before Congress that expanding background checks and limited access to high powered weapons would unfairly deprive “honest citizens” of their rights.  He thought the government should be doing more to enforce current laws that would keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.  Except for the part about the mentally ill, it was, in the immortal words of baseball coach Yogi Berra, “déjà vu all over again.”

As I learned while researching my book, LaPierre’s line of argument that there are two kinds of gun users, honest citizens and criminals, originated with Karl T. Frederick, a New York attorney, Olympic pistol shooting champion, and NRA spokesperson, who began making the same arguments in front of various legislative bodies and reform groups in the 1920s. 

Beginning in 1934, Frederick gave a series of testimonies in front of Congress that eerily echo LaPierre almost eighty years later. Though few people today know it, Federally-mandated national gun control was part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Agenda.  This former New York governor had come from a state with some of the toughest laws on the books and he and his attorney general, Homer Cummings, were also determined to stem the rising tide of gun homicides and suicides. Frederick was there to convince legislators to rewrite proposed gun control legislation.  In the end, he got most of what he wanted.  Most importantly, regulation of handguns was taken off the table. 

More importantly, the distinction between “criminals” and “honest citizens” stuck, in part because it catered to a fantasy pervasive in our culture now and then of white men whipping out their guns to protect their homes and families. If this topic interests you, check out anthropologist Abigail Kohn’s fascinating study of different gun cultures Shooters.

 Left behind was a different way of thinking about the problem. Beginning in the 1910s city coroners and public health officials began gathering data that showed the presence of guns correlated with increased homicide and suicide for the simple reason that guns made it much easier to kill another human being.  They argued that gun ownership, particularly of concealable handguns, should be limited because the state had an obligation to protect its citizens from endangering the physical well-being of each other. 

This kind of probabilistic thinking has always been a hard sell with the public, particularly when it comes to technologies like guns and automobiles. Most people believe statistics don’t predict their behavior because they are smarter and luckier than the average person.  It did gain traction in some European countries where public health arguments became the basis for stricter gun control.  It’s probably a lost cause in this country because the NRA has its own pro-gun statistics- generating sociologists who are busy compiling data on how many lives were saved by honest citizens with guns.

So, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I think firearms should be much more strictly regulated. The sharp distinction between honest citizen and criminals and the mentally ill is unworkable as a criterion for deciding who should be allowed to have a gun for many reasons.  It is impossible to accurately predict when an honest citizen will become a criminal until they’ve already shot their wife or neighbor or a crowd of innocent people in a post office, school, or movie theater.  But I’m pessimistic that much of anything will change with the latest round of calls for better gun control.  When the president and vice-president feel compelled to assert that they are gun guys too, it’s clear that this is not a rational conversation.  The male fantasy—now equal opportunity—will prevail as it has for most of the 20th century.

<![CDATA[The Dangerous Sea]]>Wed, 20 Mar 2013 20:56:29 GMThttp://www.arwenmohun.com/risk-cultures-blog/the-dangerous-sea This spring, one of my classes is reading Richard Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast.  If you haven’t read it, you’ve missed out.  The narrative follows Dana’s trip to California in the 1840s as a crew member on a sailing ship but the book is really about a lot of other things.  It’s a coming of age story.  It’s about cultural meetings.  It’s about power and social structure in the small world of the ship.  And it’s about risk.  Dana describes in harrowing detail the dangers of sailing: clinging to the rigging during an icy storm in the Straits of Magellan; sliding down a cliff in California to rescue a stranded cow hide and then being chided by his fellow sailors for taking unnecessary risks; and, of course, the question of why anyone would choose to be a sailor given the hardships and the dangers of the profession in the 19th century.

I didn’t have much to say about ships in my book.  It wasn’t because I wasn’t interested. But, to tell you the truth, many aspects of the history of risk-management with regard to sailing would have complicated my overall timeline and some of my generalizations.  Shipping is one of the first activities to be commercially ensured.  Two hundred years before anyone ensured an automobile, merchants routinely bought insurance for their cargoes.  The availability of ship insurance influenced the design of ships and created a problem called “moral hazard” because it tempted unscrupulous or desperate shipowners to scuttle their ships and collect the cargo. 

Because labor relations onboard ships were governed by a different body of law than railroads or factories, employer liability functioned differently.  After Dana returned to Boston, he wrote another book called The Seaman’s Friend to inform sailors about their legal rights as workers. Captains also share risk with their subordinates in a very direct way.  The manager of a steel mill is unlikely to be killed in his own plant.

 The culture of risk also works in a familiar but also distinct way on ships because the careless or ignorant or malicious actions of a single individual can endanger everyone else on board.  Ships are pre-modern complex socio-technological systems (to use the jargon of historians of technology) subject to cascading systems failures of the type described by Charles Perrow in Normal Risks. However, long after safety experts began to infiltrate risk management in other high-risk technologically intensive workplaces, ships continued to be managed through deeply vernacular means.

Or at least, I think so.  I’d love to see someone else do the research or maybe point me towards work that’s already been done.  Yes, I know about The Outlaw Sea and that TV show about commercial fisherman.  But what about the centuries of sailing before the present? 

<![CDATA[Risky Weather Ahead]]>Fri, 01 Mar 2013 17:03:26 GMThttp://www.arwenmohun.com/risk-cultures-blog/risky-weather-ahead Apparently, the storm of the century is on its way.  How do I know? Not by looking out my window.  It’s a grey, rainy day in February—a little warmer than yesterday, but otherwise pretty typical of the winter weather in my part of the eastern United States.

 I know because I heard it on the local news blaring across my chiropractor’s waiting room yesterday.  An excited meteorologist was pointing to a map illustrating two fronts converging on the East Coast.  The report was confirmed by the New York Times this morning, which added the important piece of information that scientists don’t yet know whether the total snowfall on New England will be 17 or 27 inches, the latter a record breaker. Risk prevention is already in full swing.  Flights have been cancelled, roads salted, and people with long commutes have called in sick to work.  “Sniff, sniff” a lady in the chiropractor’s office pantomimed with a knowing smile.

For most of human history, being able to predict the weather with this much certainty was little more than a fantasy.  Imagine setting off on a long journey by foot or in a ship with no knowledge about whether a snowstorm or a hurricane was just a day or two away.  Into the 20th century, hundreds and perhaps thousands of people died each year of exposure, drowning, and other weather-related accidents because they didn’t know what was coming.

Not for lack of trying. European immigrants to the New World brought with them a robust tradition of trying to predict the weather via “weather signs.”  In the age of satellite-based meteorology, these linger in our culture as quaint sayings such as “red sky at morning, sailor take warning.”  It’s fun to tell small children that furry caterpillars predict a hard winter, though nobody’s going to book an expensive skiing vacation on the relative hirsuteness of the local invertebrates. 

The most sophisticated pre-modern weather prediction goes all the way back to the Greeks.  They figured out that they could predict the movement of moon, stars, and planets.  From there, they made a powerful causal and as it turns out, wrong, leap.  Heavenly bodies influence the weather.  We can predict the movement of the heavens.  Therefore we should be able to predict the weather.  The Old Farmer’s Almanac is the last vestige of an astronomically-based weather prediction system that had a powerful hold on the imaginations of our ancestors.  Harvard divinity students did the math to construct “tables of ephemerides” for weather almanacs and savvy entrepreneurs like Benjamin Franklin made lots of money from publishing predictions.

By Franklin’s time, sophisticated people (including Ben himself) were pretty sure that the stars didn’t cause the weather.  They suspected the existence of what we would now call “weather systems” but could describe the patterns only after the fact.

So what made modern weather forecasting possible? In a word, telegraphy. Telegraphs, introduced in the 1840s, could move information faster than storms.  Modern communications technologies combined with increasingly sophisticated ideas about weather systems, it gradually became possible to predict the weather with reasonable accuracy.