UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Close encounters

THE RISK FACTORS OF SCIENCE

I REGARD most dinner parties as detention for good behaviour, and it was with some surprise, and initial alarm, that I found myself sitting opposite someone I'd always regarded as an intellectual enemy. Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist, is famous for his book Risk Society which contains statements like "science has become the protector of a global contamination of people and nature" and "science has just lost the truth - as a school-boy loses his milk money". The key features of Beck's version of modernity are the uncertainty generated by risk and the fact that "new" knowledge only provides access to more uncertainties. I wanted to know how he had come to these conclusions.

Beck studied philosophy as he was interest ed in the nature of truth. Although he did not find the answers the work of the German philosopher Fichte and later, Marx, made him, as he put it, "a thinker", by showing how hard some philosophical problems are.

Disappointed with philosophy, he concentrated on the social sciences and eventually joined an occupational sociology unit to study a neglected subject: what does labour mean to the individual? What are our attitudes to our occupations and what are the factors that make us choose one rather than another? Money is important, but individuals try to maximise their interests both within and outside the workplace. People are very sensitive as to how their occupation is perceived by others.

Beck was concerned that the way sociologists construct their theories neglects people's real experiences. For example, the idea of class no longer has any resonance with individuals, their behaviour no longer fits with any definition of class, but is much more complex. Their responses to particular situations could not be predicted; knowing their "class" did not help.

It was this concept of individualisation that lead him to his ideas. Everyone in an industrialised society is forced to make choices; one cannot choose not to. And choices involve risk (a relatively modern concept, he says, that came about around the 15th century with the opening of trade routes to the East - sending out ships was risky and expensive and required some form of insurance, so institutions evolved to fill that need).

Beck is not against technological advance and knows how unreasonable our initial fears of it may be. He quotes the case of the early conviction, supported by the medical profession, that travelling in a train at faster than 25 miles an hour would make one ill. Modern institutions are not, in his view, suitable for dealing with the risk inherent in an industrialised society. For example, the safety preparations for an accident at Chernobyl related only to the immediate environment, with no thought to the possible effects hundreds of miles away. We live in an age of side-effects - so all technology impacts on our lives and has risks. One needs, he thinks, criteria for distinguishing between controllable and uncontrollable risks. One possibility is to see whether it's possible to insure against the risk. (There is, for example, no private insurance for atomic energy plants.)

But Beck does not give enough credit to science for enabling us to know what risks there are. If it were not for science we would be ignorant of an enormous number of the risks that beset us, like smoking and radiation. He is, however, not against science and admits that in his book he did not draw a distinction that is fundamental to my own thinking, namely the difference between science and its applications technology. We both came away rather uneasy about how much we had agreed.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn