Better safe than sorry?

Joe Kaplinsky reports on the RSA/Economist summer fringe debate on science and risk.

Joe Kaplinsky

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In the second in its series of summer fringe debates, the UK Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) together with The Economist magazine hosted ‘Better Safe Than Sorry?’, an assessment of contemporary attitudes to risk and their relationship to science, on 12 July 2001.

On the panel were Professor John Adams (University College London) and Professor Philip Stott (School of Oriental and African Studies) (1). To illustrate the topicality of the debate the chairman, Peter Cotgreave of Save British Science, pointed out that the word ‘risk’ had come up in parliament 13 times the previous day, in different contexts.

John Adams argued that our risk-taking behaviour is governed by a ‘thermostat’ that regulates risk by balancing gains and losses. Institutions like government or big business often lose perspective by only taking into account possible losses. Society today is particularly risk-averse, he said, because the breakdown of socialising between neighbours makes us more likely to sue, and the ever-present spectre of the lawsuit makes everybody more aware of potential risks and dangers.

Philip Stott was more combatitive, pouring scorn on what he called ‘self-indulgent, post-materialist, eco-chondriac, ciabatta-eating’ environmentalists. He claimed that a set of ideas originating primarily in late nineteenth-century German Romanticism has come to dominate our attitudes, displacing traditional religion as a way of understanding the world around us.

Stott sees environmentalism as profoundly dangerous. By trashing GM crops, for example, environmentalists destroy our best hope for coping with the inevitable problems of a changing world, such as climate change and population growth. Turning our backs on new technologies, said Stott, is ‘a risk too far’. Instead, Stott advocates what he calls ‘flexible development’. Different techniques, such as organic farming and GM farming, all have their places, he suggested, and it is only if we have a broad range of technologies available that we will be in a position to thrive.

But while Stott’s rhetoric was strong, I would argue that these points are a bit soft. Even if there is not one best way to farm, surely some are better than others – and organic farming is worse than industrial agriculture.

Stott’s paradigm example was global warming. Here, the extent of this risk is uncertain, and we can do little about it in any case. Yet it obsesses the world’s leaders, distracting attention from those risks that we understand well, and against which we could productively mobilise resources. Stott compared the sophistication of the computerised models on which predictions of global warming are based to the computer game Tomb Raider, and claimed that in any case a coupled non-linear (and, according to Stott, chaotic) system like the climate was inherently unpredictable.

It is certainly true that eco-worriers make some absurd statements about the science of global warming, so it is understandable that Stott should emphasise the uncertainty that surrounds this phenomenon. But you could have come away with the false impression that this problem is so hopelessly difficult that science will never have anything useful to say about it.

Stott’s appeal for an ‘adult debate’ was useful. As a self-proclaimed leftist, he ‘despaired of the Guardian’ and pronounced himself ‘appalled’ by the Independent. Scientists, he said, should wise up, and learn to get their message across more effectively. However, it seems questionable how far his emphasis on semiotics, drawing on the ideas of Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jacques Lacan, will help us in creating this adult debate. How does it account for the fact that one side is right and the other wrong in its assessment of risk, irrespective of the process of ‘legitimation through the social bond’?

The audience was generally sympathetic to the speakers, and seemed almost taken aback that such critical sentiments could be openly expressed in public. There was much nodding in recognition when somebody joked about the risk of losing your job by spending too much time filling out risk-assessment forms. But in general, the contribution from the floor was fairly uncritical. The most useful insight was the suggestion that environmental activists act as a ‘catalyst’ for anxieties in society at all levels, from the top down, rather than as a cause.

The RSA and The Economist have done a good job at finding an interesting set of speakers. But given the scepticism toward environmental scares on the panel at this debate, and the belief in such scares the previous week, the debates could have been more interesting had the two been mixed up, and the sparks let fly.

The RSA/Economist fringe debates continue on Thursday 27 September 2001, looking at education in the twenty-first century, in the RSA Durham Street Auditorium, 8 John Adam Street, London WC2. To reserve a seat in advance, email fringe@rsa-uk.demon.co.uk, or telephone 020 7451 6868. For press information contact RSA press office on +44 (020) 7451 6842 or email media@rsa-uk.demon.co.uk

Read on:

What is expertise?, by Joe Kaplinsky

(1) See Philip Stott’s website, ProBiotech

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