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Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination 1st Edition

6 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 000-0226108597
ISBN-10: 0226108597
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Editorial Reviews


"...gripping thesis and prose…a must-read for any sociologist (nay, for any curious thinker), not just risk or disaster researchers." -- Contemporary Sociology, May 2006, Eugene Rosa, Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor, Washington State University

"Worst Cases is packed with gems for laypeople and scholars alike." Robert A. Stallings, University of Southern California -- Contemporary Sociology, May 2006, Robert Stallings, University of Southern California

"…tour de force… "immersed in sociological tradition, focusing on social and political structures, social organizations, stratification, inequality...important insights..." -- Contemporary Sociology, May 2006, Havidan Rodriquez (Director, Disaster Research Center) University of Delaware, John Barnshaw, Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware

From the Author

I am not an alarmist, but I am alarmed. That’s why I wrote Worst Cases. It is also why my tone and language are non-technical. I am a sociologist but I wrote Worst Cases so that non-sociologists can read it, hopefully profitably.

There are those who say we shouldn’t worry about things that are unlikely to happen. That’s what your pilot means by saying, after a turbulent cross country flight, "you’ve just completed the safest part of your trip." We hear the same thing when officials tell us that the probability of a nuclear power plant melting down is vanishingly small. Or that the likelihood of an asteroid striking the earth is one in a million, billion, or trillion. Chance is in our favor.

In fact, chance is often not in our favor. Disaster and failure are indeed normal, and as a colleague of mine puts it, things that have never happened before happen all the time. A fair number of those things end up being events we call worst cases. When that happens we’re given opportunities to learn things about society, and human nature, that are usually obscured.

Thomas Hardy said that "…if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst." In this book I look at the Worst full in the face. What I see is frightening, but also enlightening. I hold, tenuously, to the idea that knowing a thing permits comfort with that thing. Sometimes the comfort comes from greater control. Sometimes it comes just from knowing the enemy, or the scary thing, which proffers a way forward, toward more safety. There is horror in disaster. But there is much more too, for we can use calamity to glean wisdom, even hope. Just as Hardy said.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 200 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (November 15, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226108597
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226108599
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,487,219 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Lee Clarke, Rutgers University, is author of "Mission Improbable" and "Worst Cases," both from the University of Chicago Press. He is often invited to speak about leadership, culture, disaster, and organizational and technological failures; he consults with corporations, government agencies, and research foundations.

One of Clarke's current projects, with Harvey Molotch of NYU, concerns how scientists negotiate the boundaries of science and politics. The project focuses on scientists whose work foretold, in various ways, the great harm that Katrina would bring to New Orleans.

Clarke has written about the Y2K problem, risk communication, panic, civil defense, evacuation, community response to disaster, organizational failure, and near earth objects. His most recent book is Worst Cases: Terror & Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination .

Dr. Clarke has written for, or been featured in, The Atlantic Monthly, Boston Globe, National Public Radio, the Washington Post, the NY Daily News, among others. He has been featured in the New York Times and the Harvard Business Review. His edited volume, Terrorism and Disaster: New Threats, New Ideas, was published in 2003.

Worst Cases is written in an accessible style, while making important scholarly contributions. It received 3 glowing reviews in Contemporary Sociology. Worst cases are instances of calamity that are beyond imagination. Historical examples are the Hindenburg disaster or the Black Death. More recent examples are Chernobyl, 9/11, and Katrina. Worst Cases was covered in the Chronicle of Higher Education in September 2005: "New Orleans and the Probability Blues."

Clarke was awarded the Rutgers Graduate School Award for Excellence in Teaching and Graduate Research, 1996-1997, and Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools' 1998 Graduate Mentoring Award. In August 2005 he was honored with the Fred Buttel Distinguished Scholarship Award by the Environment and Technology section of the American Sociological Association. During spring 2007 Clarke was the Anschutz Distinguished Scholar at Princeton University.

Clarke served on a National Academy of Science committee whose report, "Reopening Public Facilities After a Biological Attack: A Decision-Making Framework," was published in June 2005.

He has appeared on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, ABC World News Tonight, and National Public Radio's affiliate in Irvine, CA, KUCI. Clarke is currently writing a book about the boundaries between politics and science, focusing on the problem of wetlands loss and the idea of "coastal restoration" off the coast of Louisiana.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Michael Makar on February 16, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Great book for emergency planners. A professor who teaches disaster management once said, "think big, really big". He is right. This book explores the realm of low-probability, high consequence events and realistic planning for them or the futility of planning. Lee Clark talks about critical infrastructure, how it relates to the social fabric of society and once a disaster strikes, critical infrastructure changes, hence, grave diggers, may be very important in the recovery phase. This book is a must in every emergency planners professional library.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Paul James Harper on May 11, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Traditional risk managers have used probabilistic methods when determining which potential disasters to prepare for.

Professor Clarke points out many of those assessing the probabilities have vested interests that 'shrink the ruler' when measuring the likelihood of a particular disaster occurring. They tend to discount the 'irrational' attitudes of the public who often evaluate risks according to 'possiblistic thinking. The Cassandra's are often being proved right these days.

Professor Clarke also points out the value of thinking about the worst cases in a sensible way to improve disaster planning.

Finally his argument for empowering "first responders" during 'worst cases' is compelling. By first responders he means the person next to you in a building on fire, in your business, the teacher in your school, etc. The Police, Fire, Ambulance, Military are"official responders" and they are simply not there in the beginning.

Don't treat the public like mushrooms. Tell them the truth. They will not panic. Given information that the people trust the majority of people will respond rationally in a crisis.

A lot of the views that Clarke put forth are shared by the following Authors:

Looks at improving infrastructure to deal with worst cases.

The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation

The concept of "Intelligence Minutemen" Thomas Jefferson's quote "A Nation's best defense is an educated citizenry" sums up Steele's philosophy.

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Format: Hardcover
Worst Cases pulls readers in two directions. First, it encourages us to embrace worst cases. Hard thinking about worst cases, we are told, opens new possibilties. Envisioning worst case scenarios may allow us to reduce the probability of their emergence, reduce the time to recovery or both. It is the thesis of this book that, even in th is very nervous world, insufficient thought is being given to the possibility of worst cases. Second, in the other direction, this is a book that convinces you that no how matter bad you thought things could get, they can get a lot worse. Professor Clarke does this in two ways. First, he revisits every notable modern historical disaster, sans Katrina. The familiar are all here: the Titanic, 9/11, the San Francisco earthquake and others. Also present are historical catastrophes that have been eclipsed by more recent events, like the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. Second, and this is key, it is not the past but the future that adds to the anxiety. My particular favorite, of which I would otherwise have been blissfully ignorant (thank you Professor Clarke) is the near earth object (asteroids, meteors, and the like). NEOs, Clarke tells us, are tracked by NASA. No easy task since there are hundreds of them! A recent example: XF11, a mile in diamter, it would have released the equivalent of a million megatons of of energy (think nuclear). XF11 drifted safely by ( in the late 90s), but there are more pleny more where it came from; indeed, as Clarke warns, "it may only be a matter of time."

Ultimately, Clarke wants us to think less about probabilities, than possibilities. The former, he claims, misleads us into under-stating worst case possibilities. This argument falls a bit short.
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