A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Time to remember Aaron Wildavsky.....

We are living in an age when we should all do well to remember the challenging work of Aaron Wildavsky (see: Wikipedia, 16 August, 2005). Aaron Wildavsky (1930-1993) was a political scientist. He was most noted for his work on risk. From 1962, until he died, he researched at the University of California, Berkeley.

In Searching for Safety (1988), Wildavsky argues that trial-and-error, rather than the precautionary principle, is the better way to manage risk. He observes that rich, technologically-advanced regions are normally the safest, as measured by life expectancy and quality of life. By contrast, precautionary approaches to technology are irrational, especially because they demand knowledge of safety before we can do any tests that demonstrate the degree of safety, or of dangerousness. In addition, precaution tends to eliminate the benefits of new technology, along with harms. Wildavsky advocated enhancing society's capacity to cope with, and adapt to, the unexpected, rather than trying to prevent catastrophe in advance.

I should particularly like to commend this passage from his 'Essay' entitled: 'Riskless Society' (The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics):

"Why are some people frightened of risks and others not? Surveys of risk perception show that knowledge of the known hazards of a technology does not determine whether or to what degree an individual thinks a given technology is safe or dangerous. This holds true not only for laymen, but also for experts in risk assessment. Thus, the most powerful factors related to how people perceive risk apparently are 'trust in institutions' and 'self-rated liberal and conservative identification.' In other words, these findings suggest strongly that people use a framework involving their opinion of the validity of institutions in order to interpret riskiness.

According to one cultural theory, people choose what to fear as a way to defend their way of life. The theory hypothesizes that adherents of a hierarchical culture will approve of technology, provided it is certified as safe by their experts. Competitive individualists will view risk as opportunity and, hence, be optimistic about technology. And egalitarians will view technology as part of the apparatus by which corporate capitalism maintains inequalities that harm society and the natural environment.

One recent study sought to test this theory by comparing how people rate the risks of technology compared to risks from social deviance (departures, such as criminal behavior, from widely approved norms), war, and economic decline. The results are that egalitarians fear technology immensely but think that social deviance is much less dangerous. Hierarchists, by contrast, think technology is basically good if their experts say so, but that social deviance leads to disaster. And individualists think that risk takers do a lot of good for society and that if deviants don't bother them, they won't bother deviants; but they fear war greatly because it stops trade and leads to conscription. Thus, there is no such thing as a risk-averse or risk-taking personality. People who take or avoid all risks are probably certifiably insane; neither would last long. Think of a protester against, say, nuclear power. She is evidently averse to risks posed by nuclear power, but she also throws her body on the line — i.e., takes risks in opposing it.

Other important literature pursues risk perception through what is known as cognitive psychology. Featuring preeminently the path-breaking work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, using mainly small group experiments in which individuals are given tasks involving gambling, this work demonstrates that individuals are very poor judges of probability. More important, perhaps, is their general conservatism: large proportions of people care more about avoiding loss than they do about making gains. Therefore, they will go to considerable lengths to avoid losses, even in the face of high probabilities of making considerable gains..."

I think it is especially easy to spot The Gloomiad 'environmentalist' in this analysis.

Another key Wildavsky text is But is it true?:

"... Working with his students at a risk analysis center, Wildavsky examined all the evidence behind the charges and countercharges in several controversial cases involving environmental health and public safety. Here he lays out these cases in terms an average citizen can understand, weighs the merits of the claims of various parties, and offers reasoned judgments on the government's response. From Love Canal to Times Beach, from DDT to Agent Orange, acid rain, and global warming, from saccharin to asbestos, nuclear waste, and radon, Wildavsky shows how we can achieve an informed understanding of the contentious environmental issues that confront us daily. The book supports the conclusion Wildavsky reached himself, both as a citizen committed to the welfare of the earth and its inhabitants, and as a social scientist concerned with how public policy is made: though it is bad to be harmed, it is worse to be harmed in the name of health." (Harvard University Press blurb; see also these snippets from selected book reviews: e.g., "Global warming. Acid rain. Ozone holes. Just how much are we really at risk? This careful analysis of the evidence concludes that aside from ozone depletion, claims of imminent catastrophe are 'mostly false, unproven, or negligible.'")

How we inceasingly need Professor Wildavsky's wise perspectives today. Just think of the GM debate in Europe.

Philip, back to the cricket. Has me in creases! Forewarned is..... (sorry, you won't understand this across the pond!). It will have you completely stumped. Tea.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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