In search of perfect foresight

The failure to foresee the catastrophic earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident of 2011 was seen by many as a fundamental shortcoming of disaster risk science in Japan. In light of this, the use of scientific knowledge came under renewed scrutiny. Debates continue over an appropriate role of ‘evidence-based policy’ in earthquake and tsunami risk reduction.

IIASA researchers reviewed publicly available documents on expert committee discussions and scientific articles, to identify continuities and changes observed with regard to the use of scientific knowledge in Japan’s disaster risk management.

They found that, while diverse professional opinions on the root causes of their failures were expressed, these generally converge into two interpretations.

The first interpretation—which the researchers call ‘the failure of science’ perspective—primarily perceived the heart of the issue to be the lack of scientific capacity. According to this view, scientific understanding of the underlying hazards was insufficient, and the disaster risk management (DRM) system, which was designed based on limited knowledge, led to catastrophic failures. Accordingly, options feeding into solutions prescribed by this perspective were also technical and scientific in nature.

The second interpretation—which they termed ‘the failure of science-policy institutions’ perspective—contended that the root causes stemmed more fundamentally from issues of science-policy processes. In other words, how the country’s earthquake and tsunami scientific research agendas were formulated to provide solutions to the threats posed by these hazards. According to this perspective, the sense of urgency created by an imminent threat of major earthquakes and tsunamis, together with unfounded faith in the ability of science to deliver solutions, led to the silencing of open debate and constructive skepticism. The outcome was an eventual misapplication of science in the formulation of DRM policy. The solution prescribed included a major rethink and further engagement of the scientific community in DRM policymaking in the country.

According to the researchers, in general, the prior influence of cognitive biases, such as an over-reliance on documented risks, has been largely recognized, and increased attention is now being paid to the incorporation of less documented, but known risks. This has led to upward adjustments in estimated damages from future risks, and recognition of the need for further strengthening DRM policy. Simultaneously, there remains significant continuity in the way scientific knowledge is perceived to provide sufficient and justifiable grounds for the development and implementation of disaster risk management policy.

The study concludes that the emphasis on ‘evidence-based policy’ in earthquake and tsunami risk reduction measures continues, despite the critical reflections of a group of scientists who advocate for a major rethink of the country’s science-policy set-up, going beyond the limitations of the current state-of-science.

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