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.

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