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Public Response to Extreme Events—Top 5 Disaster Myths, Resources for the Future

Monica Schoch-Spana
Date posted:
October 05, 2005
Publication type:
Prepared remarks

Paper delivered at the First Wednesday Seminar, Resources for the Future. Washington, DC. October 5, 2005

Available as PDF

. . .  what also struck me was the lack of analytic and empirical rigor that my colleague was applying to the problem of social behavior following a catastrophic event.

This individual, for instance, would hardly resort to understanding the clinical and epidemiological intricacies of a biological attack involving an aerosolized anthrax release, based on dominant media images and/or sporadic news reports issued in the midst of an evolving and chaotic situation. Nor would he or she presume to know the biological “truths,” so to speak, about the course of inhalational anthrax infection and treatment without an empirical inquiry and medical evidence.

Similarly, no team of engineers would argue with certainty that they understood why – from a dynamic process perspective – the World Trade Center Towers crumbled into a toxic, heaping pile of rubble and dust, until they had undertaken a forensic examination of the remaining structure and reviewed the initial building design and materials, among other things.

Some would argue that science of all kinds has had a hard time maintaining its ground in public policy circles now and in the past. BUT, I would argue that the social and behavioral sciences have had the toughest “row to how” in the current environment – particularly in the terrorist and counter-terrorist arena. One finds a strong inclination to act on hunches and unquestioned “common sense” notions about public responses to extreme events.

With a 15 minute talk today, I thought listing the top myths about mass responses to disaster would make the best use of our time and set the stage for discussion. My plan is to relate the key disaster myths, present the facts that call them into question, and illustrate them through specific case studies.



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