Down with catastrophism
by Joe Kaplinsky
Joe Kaplinsky
Speciesism: a beastly concept
by Josie Appleton
Search for
Complementary and alternative medicine
Drugs and health
Plagues of the future?
Human body parts
Fearing the unknown
After Katrina
War on Iraq
War on Terror
Sun, sea
and scaremongering

After 11 September
Global warming
Blood clots
Mad cow panic
Food scares

spiked-risk debates

Sponsored by the Wellcome Trust

(This debate is closed and is a read-only archive.)
There is no simple answer
The problem is how to sort the proverbial wheat from the chaff. The discrimination between levels of risk attached to various technologies requires, first, some grasp of the sciences involved; and second, some grasp of the political and economic forces involved, that might distort the interpretation of the science. This is no easy matter. For the general public, it is very difficult, and relies upon good, accurate communication from informed people in the media, the government and elsewhere.

I know, from my own experience in the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) saga, that it was difficult even for people in government to get a clear picture of the risks involved, let alone the general public. We have a lot to learn from the Phillips Inquiry into BSE. So the question 'are we too risk averse?' has no simple answer. In some cases, probably yes; in others, perhaps we ought to be more risk averse.

There are some guiding principles that may help. One is the aphorism 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'. Another is the principle - very familiar to the insurance industry - that unknown risks should generally be given a higher weighting than known risks. We should also take common sense into account. Most people were appalled to discover that the cows they were eating had been fed upon the meat of other cows. Although it is not always the case, this was one example of the scientists being wrong, while the instinct of the general public was right. Similarly, I have yet to meet a consumer demanding the right to eat genetically modified food.

But to keep things in context, we should remember that in any population, the mortality of individuals is always - given time - 100 percent.

Adrian Holme, journalist and communications consultant, UK

View list of responses

Debate home
The head-to-head
Helene Guldberg
managing editor, spiked
Alan Irwin
professor of sociology, Brunel University
Commissioned responses
John Ryan
Gill Samuels
Jane Gregory
Tony Juniper
Stuart Derbyshire
Arpad Pusztai
View the list of responses

Useful resources
Science, risk and the price of precaution
by Sandy Starr

Risk: Improving government's capability to handle risk and uncertainty
Prime Minister's Strategy Unit

Rio declaration on environment and development
UN Environment Programme

Corrections Terms & Conditions spiked, Signet House, 49-51 Farringdon Road, London, EC1M 3JP
email spiked spiked 2000-2006 All rights reserved.
spiked is not responsible for the content of any third-party websites.