Sharing the Responsibility

SGR Conference and AGM 1997

Mary Ward House, London WC1; 15 November 1997

Main presentation:
'A Richter Scale for Risk?' by Prof John Adams, University College London

Workshops: Climate Change - the track to Kyoto; SGR and Grassroots Activity; Non-Lethal Weapons

Summary by Alan Mayne and Philip Webber


A Richter Scale for Risk?
The Scientific Management of Uncertainty versus the Management of Scientific Uncertainty

Main presentation by Professor John Adams, Department of Geography, University College London

John Adams began his presentation by expressing the hope that he could make some connections with the previous session, on the SGR Climate Train and the forthcoming Kyoto Conference on climate change. His presentation was supplemented by a paper, included in the Conference Pack, which gives more extensive details, and contains literature references including his own book "Risk" (1995, UCL Press, London). Risk analysis and assessment are about how to behave scientifically and responsibly in the face of uncertainty. The Royal Society studied risk assessment in 1982, and held a conference on "Science, Policy and Risk" on 17 March 1997 [reported by Tim Foxon in SGR Newsletter (May 1997), No. 15, pp. 4-5. Ed.]. Whereas the 1982 report was confident, the 1997 conference was presented as a contribution to a wide-ranging debate about risk in the scientific community. John Adams himself became involved in the risk debate when Professor Lewis Wolpert of University College London chaired a symposium on BSE.

Some Basic Concepts and Models of Risk

Risk management involves balancing risks and rewards, and Professor Adams outlined a simple model of this process. Everyone has a propensity to take risks, which varies from one individual to another, and is influenced by the potential rewards of risk taking. An individual's perception of risk is influenced by his own and other people's experience of accident losses, which in turn result from risk. The more risks an individual takes, the greater his rewards and losses are on average. Individual risk-taking decisions represent a balancing act, where perceptions of risk are weighed against the propensity to take risks; this phenomenon is called 'the risk thermostat'. When considering how the balancing act is performed, it is helpful to distinguish between three classes of risk: (1) directly perceptible risks, occurring in everyday life; (2) risks perceptible with the aid of science, such as infectious diseases; and (3) virtual risks, such as BSE, which scientists do not know or cannot agree about.

Directly Perceptible Risks

A toddler learning to walk is a conscious risk manager, who does a physical balancing act. The risk thermostat is a conceptual, qualitative model of how our behaviour in risky situations is influenced by our perceptions and attitudes. The following examples show that it explains why certain 'safety precautions' against road accidents sometimes have results contrary to those expected by many 'experts'. Safer brakes were found not to reduce car accidents. The introduction of seat belts in cars, even by legislation making their use compulsory, often has little effect on the rate of fatalities and serious injuries in car crashes. Indices of death by accident and violence in 31 countries show that everyone is his own risk manager, who 'gets round' safety measures by taking more risks. Each person tends to have his own 'acceptable' level of risk. Professor Adams accepted that the reduction in road accidents was correlated with the introduction of anti drink-driving legislation and related action by police forces around the world. He also gave a fascinating insight into the meaning of disaggregating risk assessment. For example, it is on average much more dangerous to drive than to fly by plane for most journeys, but the difference between these risks is dramatically less for a middle-aged, sober male air passenger, taking a short-haul flight, who has a relatively low rate of driving accidents. The message here is that one must beware of simple averages!

Risks Perceptible with the Aid of Science

The literature on risk and safety is overwhelmingly dominated by this class of risk. The 'rational actor paradigm' is central to this literature; here, the advice of risk experts about how to manage risk is based on their judgement about how a rational optimiser would and should act, if possessing all relevant scientific information. They often express their dismay at the inability of ordinary people to use such information sensibly, and seek ways of making their risk-taking decisions more rational and better informed. However, they tend to ignore the action of the risk thermostat. For example, a box diagram of a pharmaceutical company's risk assessment process tends to be an elaborate version of the bottom half of the diagram outlining the operation of the risk thermostat. Attempts to quantify various types of risks led to scientists' and decision makers' demands for a 'Richter Scale for Risk', which would attach quantitative levels to the orders of magnitude the probability of occurrence of well-known types of risk.

Virtual Risks

'Virtual risks' are meanings which we impose on uncertainty, when we are faced with it. The public is confronted by uncertainty whenever scientists disagree about certain specific risks, or confess that they do not know. Whether or not virtual risks are imaginary, they have real consequences, because people act on the meanings that they impose on uncertainty. All of us, including scientists, perceive virtual risks through 'cultural filters'; the cultural filters of scientists are usually called 'paradigms'. Several examples of virtual risks were discussed. The assessment of risks from the vast majority of potential carcinogens, that have not yet been tested, is virtual. Very different dose-response relationships can be derived from the same experimental data, for low levels of exposure to toxins, although the relationship becomes predictable for high levels. Global warming and climate change are typical examples of virtual risks.

A typology of cultural filters has been developed to help account for the different meanings that they impose on uncertainty. This typology reveals four basic types of attitude to risk that people may have, sometimes as dominant approaches, and sometimes in combination. Egalitarians view environmental threats as punishment for technocratic arrogance and failure to obey nature; they urge a retreat to sustainable practices. Individualists consider nature to be robust, and argue that our best protection is the power of science and technology over nature. Hierarchists, typically in government, assure everyone that things are under their control, and commission more research that they hope will prove it. Fatalists are resigned about their lack of power to guide events, and enjoy life 'while the going is good'. Typical quotations of expressions of these attitudes were given. To conclude, science has very effectively reduced some uncertainties, but is much less effective in managing uncertainty. The scientific risk literature says little about virtual risks. There are still some huge uncertainties in today's human situation, about which science cannot yet provide any definite answers.


Climate Change - The Track to Kyoto

Workshop led by Dr Tim Foxon and Dani Kaye, National Co-ordinating Committee, SGR

This workshop was attended by about one dozen members of the Conference. Before discussing SGR's position with regard to Climate Change, its participants asked to hear about the publicity surrounding the Climate Train, which had by that time arrived in Novosibirsk and been in touch with the Conference by phone earlier in the day. Dani Kaye briefly outlined the massive press and media interest which had been generated by this project, and the work done in the past half-year to generate and 'feed' this interest. A separate booklet will provide more detailed coverage of the Climate Train and of some of the press releases generated in relation to it.

The discussion then turned to the draft 'Position Statement', presented by Tim Foxon for consideration and amendment, before being issued as the official SGR position on Climate Change and on COP3. There was a great deal of debate concerning the contents and 'tone' of the statement - whether it was too technical or not technical enough, for example - and SGR's support for 'Contraction and Convergence' model of the Global Commons Institute (GCI). Some members of the group felt very strongly that we should not be supporting Contraction and Convergence, but the majority opinion was in favour of the GCI position. Some of the data cited were questioned, and the format of the statement was also examined.

It was finally decided that members of the workshop  group would send  suggestions on the paper to Tim within one week of the conference, and that there should be a 'resume' section, which would outline the main points of the paper and serve as a simplified press release. Dr Stuart Parkinson offered to help with the drafting.

One valuable item to emerge from the session was the revelation that students, wishing to find data and references on various scientific topics, were very keen to use SGR as a 'mentor' in this respect. They were advised that they were welcome to tap the advice service in specific scientific topics that we offer the media and press. However, it was also pointed out that, as science students, they should not expect to find ready-made, cut-and-dried 'facts' in science, rather that they should be aware of the received wisdom of the moment, particularly in such rapidly developing topics as climate change, since mutability is the heart of science, particularly in areas which are still being actively researched and debated. This implies that every serious student should also be prepared to do a great deal of spadework and research for himself or herself. A very interesting discussion about the distinction between facts and data occupied a fair amount of our time.


SGR and Grassroots Activity

Workshop led by Dr Philip Webber, Chair, SGR

After a round of mutual introductions, this workshop explored the relationship between SGR and the grassroots activity of its members and of related groups. There was a wide-ranging discussion of these issues and of the most effective role of SGR in helping us to pursue them. This confirmed that members felt that it was very worthwhile to have an organisation, such as SGR, where people felt that they could speak the 'unspeakable', for example by challenging the commonly held views or biases which they experienced at work, and where they were likely to be able to talk to or be in touch with a like minded group of people. It was felt that it would be useful to develop SGR's role in this regard, for example by means of e-mail discussion groups which would mean that people could discuss issues without having to meet at the same time or to make long journeys. It was felt that the newsletter was a highly useful means for members to keep in touch with what was going on in the organisation. There was a discussion about whether the newsletter should be more of a general interest publication, aimed at those outside SGR, but on the whole members felt that it was most useful as an internal document for members. Additional specific publications - especially information briefings - were also thought to be of use, both for members and as a source of information for arguments or letters.

Philip Webber drew attention to Euratom Directive 96/29, which will permit radioactive materials to be incorporated into consumer goods. This Directive is based on the concept of an 'allowable' radiation dose for each of us, and classifies as 'non-toxic' some substances previously classified as 'radioactive'. Rose Tilly outlined her recent investigations of background radiation levels at the edge of London Docklands, where she lives, which showed unacceptably high levels in a variety of source samples. She demonstrated this point with a scintillation meter, which showed that gamma radiation in smoke detectors in that area exceeded 400 counts per second. She had not yet received a reply to her inquiry to the National Radiological Protection Board, asking why a certain sample should have high radioactivity. Several points were made in the discussion, including the difficulty and complexity of measuring various forms of background radiation.


Non-Lethal Weapons - The Revolution in Flexible Tools of Political Control

Workshop led by Dr Steve Wright, The Omega Foundation

The workshop examined some recent developments in 'non-lethal' weapons, coming out of the US nuclear weapons laboratories of Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge. These weapons are not actually non-lethal, only less lethal. Their technology lays people open to be  killed after being restrained. Steve Wright works for Omega, linked to Amnesty International. He analysed some human rights implications of 'non-lethal' weapons and refuted the argument that they only provide modern tools for law enforcement. Using US and British cases, he discussed the flawed research on which some of these weapons were based, and the role of 'white-collar mercenaries' in business and universities in advancing a new science and technology of suppression. The main users of the weapons were the police and military. It was dangerous that they would be very easy to obtain, and be produced by organisations not directly controlled by governments. Someone in the workshop related a very traumatic experience of attack by one of the weapons. Steve can provide information about them, via the SGR Office. He said that a technical document was available to the European Parliament. There was an interesting discussion about the issues raised in the workshop, in the final plenary session of the conference.

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