The climate change topic has been “heating up” again in the press so it seems to be a good time to offer a few thoughts I have had regarding science and public policy. Part of what got me thinking about this a few weeks ago was reading Anthony Giddens’ exceptional little book Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping our Lives. It as a collection of five lectures Giddens gave on BBC radio in 1999. The second of the five was on the topic of "risk." It is this lecture that I want to highlight for this discussion.
Giddens points out that risk and risk-management are very recent concepts. The idea of risk began to emerge in the Middle Ages in Europe but did not really take hold until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as world exploration by Europeans began in earnest. Future events understood to be beyond human control up to this time. Fate, luck, and “will of the gods” determined the future and the idea that human planning could somehow “manage” risks was largely a foreign concept. (Giddens does not dwell on why this change occurred but I believe it was directly related the Christian notion of an ordered rational universe over which God was sovereign but not enmeshed or intertwined.) The ideas of risk and risk-management were key foundations for rise for capitalism and the rise of the modern world.
Intellectual and technological advances in recent centuries grounded partly in these ideas have been astonishing. These advances have made comprehending our world ever more complex. As human systems and technology have become ever more complex we have increased our reach in affecting the world around us. We have gained ever greater appreciation for the complexity of nature. All of this makes risk assessment exponentially more difficult. Giddens writes:
…Most scientists well versed in the field believe that global warming is occurring and the measures should be taken against it. Yet only in the mid-1970s, orthodox scientific opinion was that the world was in a phase of global cooling. Much the same evidence that was deployed to support the hypothesis of global cooling is no brought into play to bolster that of global warming – heat waves, cold spells, unusual types of weather. Is global warming occurring, and does it have human origins? Probably – be we won’t, and can’t, be completely sure until it is to late.
In these circumstances, there is a new moral climate of politics, marked by push and pull between accusations of scaremongering on the one hand, and of cover-ups on the other. If anyone – government official, scientific expert or researcher – takes a given risk seriously, he or she must proclaim it. It must be widely publicised because people must be persuaded that the risk is real – a fuss must be made about it. Yet if the fuss is indeed created and the risk turns out to be minimal, those involved will be accused of scaremongering.
…Paradoxically, scaremongering may be necessary to reduce risks we face – yet if it is successful, it appears as just that scaremongering. (29-30)
Just prior to this section, Giddens writes about the UK government’s slow response to the BSE episode (Mad-Cow Disease) that led to accusations of a cover-up. Over sell and you are scaremongering. Under sell and you are covering up something . Giddens goes on to write:
We cannot simply ‘accept’ the findings which scientists produce if, only because scientists so frequently disagree with one another, particularly in situations of manufactured risk. And everyone now recognizes the essentially mobile character of science. Whenever someone decides what to eat, what to have for breakfast, whether to drink decaffeinated or ordinary coffee, that person takes a decision in the context of conflicting changeable scientific and technological information….
Some say that the most effective way to cope with the rise of manufactured risk is to limit responsibility by adopting the so-called ‘precautionary principle’. The notion of the precautionary principle first emerged in Germany in the 1980s, in the context of the ecological debates that were carried on there. At its simplest, it proposes that action on environmental issues (and, by inference, other forms of risk) should be taken even through there is insecure scientific evidence about them. Thus in the 1980s, in several European countries, programmes were initiated to counter acid rain, whereas in Britain lack of conclusive evidence was used to justify inactivity about this and other pollution problems too.
Yet the precautionary principle isn’t always helpful or even applicable as a means of coping with problems of risk and responsibility. The percept of ‘staying close to nature’, or of limiting innovation rather than embracing it, can’t always apply. The reason is that the balance of benefits and dangers from scientific and technological advance, and other forms of social change too, is imponderable. … (31-32)
Wrapping up the chapter Giddens writes:
Let me move towards some conclusions and at the same time try to make sure my arguments are clear. Our age is not more dangerous – not more risky – than those of earlier generations, but the balance of risks and dangers has shifted. We live in a world where hazards created by ourselves are as, or more, threatening that those that come from outside. Some of these are genuinely catastrophic, such as global ecological risk, nuclear proliferation or the meltdown of the world economy. Others affect us as individuals much more directly, for instance those involved in diet, medicine or even marriage.
An era such as ours will inevitably breed religious revivalism and diverse New Age philosophies, which turn against a scientific outlook. Some ecological thinkers have become hostile to science, and even to rational thought more generally, because of ecological risks. This isn’t an attitude that makes much sense. We wouldn’t even know about these risks without scientific analysis. However, our relationship to science, for reasons already given, won’t and can’t be the same as in previous times.
We do not currently posess institutions which allow us to monitor technological change, nationally or globally. The BSE debacle in Britain and elsewhere might have been avoided if public dialogue had been established about technological change and its problematic consequences. More public means of engaging with science and technology wouldn’t do away with the quandary of scaremongering versus cover-ups, but might allow us to reduce some of its more damaging consequences.
Finally, there can be no question of merely taking a negative attitude toward risk. Risk always needs to be disciplined, but active risk-taking is a core element of a dynamic economy and an innovative society. Living in a global age means coping with a diversity of new situations of risk. We may need quite often to be bold rather than cautious in supporting scientific innovation or other forms of change. After all, one root of the term ‘risk’ in the original Portuguese means ‘to dare’. (34-35)
I think Giddens has framed many of the issues quite well. I certainly don’t have an easy solutions to the problem but in my next posts I thought I would take a shot at getting a handle on the socio-political-economic issues that often shape the dialog.