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(This debate is closed and is a read-only archive.)
There is no simple answer
[2-Feb-2004]
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

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Helene Guldberg
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Alan Irwin
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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


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