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The Great Debate Interview

Roy Boyne Jon Bryan 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.

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1. Why do you think that society is obsessed by risk?

It is difficult to give a complete answer, but important elements are:

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.

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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 security).

4. What are the aspects of risk society which you consider to be the most important for us to understand?

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).

Risk (Concepts in the Social Sciences) Roy Boyne is Principal of St Cuthbert’s College and Professor of Sociology, University of Durham. He is author of Risk (Concepts in the Social Sciences), and 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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