An interview with Roy Boyne
Professor Roy Boyne, one of the participants in the debate
Playing it Safe :
Science and the Risk Society organised by The Great Debate at the
Newcastle Science Festival 2004,
gives his views on Risk. Jon Bryan asks the questions.
Click here for printer friendly version of this interview
1. Why do you think that society is obsessed by risk?
It is difficult to give a complete answer, but important
a) The development of technology
Radioactivity, toxins, pollutants, exotic viral diseases -
invisible dangers that threaten us all. Chernobyl's meltdown and Sellafield's
poisoning of the sea are obvious cases. Bird Flu from China, Mad Cow Disease in
the USA are currently in the news. The suicide bombing terrorist is also
invisible, and could be sitting next to us, on the train, for example. These
risks threaten us (in our minds) on a giant scale. They were the side-effects of
progress, but progress is no longer expected, and promises that we will get it
are mistrusted. Few are surprised that replacement rolling stock on the UK rail
system is reported to be less reliable than what it replaced. The language of
risk and safety and blame has become very important within our general
understanding of the world. The previously compensating language of progress is
less valid now.
b) Our simultaneous reliance upon and
mistrust of experts
John Le Carré wrote, ‘I do not like experts - When the
world is destroyed, it will be destroyed not by its madmen but by the sanity of
its experts and the superior ignorance of its bureaucrats.’ During the 1950s, a
set of gargantuan processes was already in train. They would soon come to frame
the figure of the expert in terms of suspicion rather than confidence. Cold war
rivalries between the USA and USSR led to the creation of surveillance
organizations like the FBI and KGB both of which saw experts as a risk of
defection and betrayal. At another level, population growth, fast
industrialization, and technological innovation would begin to reveal their
environmental consequences; and it would be experts who would begin to blow the
whistle - against themselves, as it were. Nuclear technology, still in its
infancy, but irrevocably associated with the mass destruction at Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, began to be widely demonized as hubristic flirtation with mass
destruction by experts. Additionally, there has been the creation of experts
and fields of expertise by legislation. It too can carry certain negative
meanings. The phenomenon of legally empowered administrative officers in the
areas of family, education, and social welfare has been part of what has been
called the ‘colonization of the lifeworld’, and individual cases of the expert
judgement of such professionals in breaking up families (or failing to do so
with tragic consequences) have been repeated over and over in the news media.
The timing of this process of lifeworld rationalization has been unfortunate.
It created expert worlds of developmental psychologists, social workers and
educational counsellors, together with the professional cadres within the law
and administration to support them, and the dedicated political lobbyists
representing - quite properly - the interests served by all these agents. It
did this, moreover, at a time when confidence in expertise generally was falling
away, and when an enhanced risk-sensitivity was emerging.
c) Increased density of
communication, and corresponding growth in the power of the media
The media directly employ large numbers of specialists. For
example, the larger television companies have scientific correspondents, sports
specialists, health spokespersons, to name but a few. These people are
generally recruited from the relevant professional ranks, which does enable
editorial meetings to comprise representatives from numbers of areas. This is a
recipe for a fast service that is as broad, competent and acute as the
circumstances could possibly allow. There are, however, two structural features
of the editorial process of multi-disciplinarity that must be borne in mind.
The first is that multi-disciplinary communication requires the working out of
discursive compromises between the various participants. This will be difficult
if a former diplomat, a political historian and a skilled interviewer are
planning an interview with a Defence Secretary on the economic and social
justification of an armed intervention. Additionally, many trained
professionals may have very different attitudes to risks which they may regard
as routine (the economist’s view of bankruptcies, or the army General’s view of
casualties, for example) as compared to a typical view within the general
public. It is the editor’s job to see that such different languages and
assumptions are knitted together to create a discourse accessible to the
relevant audience. This general requirement of orienting broadcast output to
the intelligent consumer, added to the compromises, of language and base
assumptions, required by multi-disciplinarity, move us toward the conclusion
that media discussions of risk will not generally be sufficient on which to base
sound judgements. In other words, they should be treated as mere introductions.
But media discussion and reportage of risks is not accompanied by any kind of
health warning (but then nor is the parallel presentation of politicians, and
they also need to be seen as bearing the same 'health warning').
The public appetite for genuine inside knowledge (whether in
relation to the invasion of Iraq, or to the fine detail of the discussions about
cannabis legislation) has been characterised not in terms of a rational demand
for information about risk, but in terms of a desire to feel and express
righteous indignation, a term coined by Ida Tarbell a century ago to describe
the goal of muckraking journalism. Of course, the rational demand for risk
information can and does go together with the desire for opportunities to
express righteous indignation. However the dominance of the latter may help to
explain why most investigative reporting is not primarily about risk, but about
money, power, crime and politics; and the structures of the media organizations
themselves (needing to be 'in the loop'; needing to create an appetite for the
next edition or tomorrow's broadcast) provide a clue as to why the amount of
investigative reporting appears to have dropped.
2. Do you think we should be sceptical of science?
I think we should be wary of the reporting of science - it is
often over-dramatized in order to secure an audience - but not of science
itself. While there may be the extremely rare example of scientific dishonesty
(which will be seized upon by the news organisations), the role of science
within modern society remains valuable. All development will have a distaff
side, but mobile phones can save lives: a 999 call from a remote location on a
dark night. In other words I firmly believe that the development of science and
the extension of understanding is a public good. I would not wish us to go back
to the dark ages. The essence of science is the rigorous accumulation of
evidence, and the practice of transparency. Most social institutions can only
learn from that. An education in science is the route to participating in our
cultures rather than being taken along with them.
3. Why do you think there is so much public discussion about issues such as the risks
involved using mobile phones or the panic around bird flu?
Simply these are spectacular issues which potentially affect
millions of people. We are right to be both interested and concerned. We should
be aware, however, that the decisions which throw these issues into the
limelight, and then strain to keep them there, are structurally motivated by the
need to sell newspapers and airtime. Careful analysis of the evidence is not
the usual mode of treatment (however, when that would be most useful, sometimes
it is prevented for reasons to do with commercial privacy or national
4. What are the aspects of risk society which you consider to be the most important for us to
The key to thinking about risk is to understand that no
situation is risk free, and to demand risk accounting for everything is lunatic.
The risks that get highlighted go toward forming the culture, the way of life of
which we are part. We live in a society where the term 'risk' has become
ubiquitous. This has meant that even if the roads are safer we fit more speed
bumps, because there is a limited understanding that just because risks are
shouted about does not mean that there is a simple fix to make them go down to
an acceptable level (if your child will be killed there is no acceptable level).
What is acceptable for policy makers varies from time to time, and with the
level of public concern; and the amelioration of one apparent risk (speed bumps
to reduce road accidents) may cause an increase in another risk (more fire
deaths due to increased response times).
Roy Boyne is Principal of St Cuthbert’s College and Professor of Sociology,
University of Durham.
He is author of
(Concepts in the Social Sciences),
Subject, Society and Culture
and is co-editor of one of the world’s leading journals of cultural analysis -
Theory, Culture and Society.
He is currently developing research at the
interface of cultural and economic policy and development.
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