Let's beef up the news about mad cows

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Earlier this year I was rung up by Paul Barker, distinguished ex-editor of New Society, who told me that a new version of Gulliver's Travels was being shown on Channel 4 over Easter.

"That's good," I said.

And furthermore, he had been asked to edit a booklet to go along with it, illustrating the way our modern world corresponded to Swift's vision of things.

"Nice one," I said.

So he wanted me to write a short piece on one aspect of Gulliver's Travels. Namely, on Gulliver's discovery, at one of his ports of call, that when a nation has learnt a great deal about the world it lives in, it does not necessarily make them happier about the world.

"I don't quite see..."

Well, explained Barker patiently, we pride ourselves on being knowledgeable in this century, but has it made us more or less frightened of the future? Are we more or less susceptible to scares and panics?

"Ah. You mean...?"

"Yes. That sort of thing."

He did not, as a matter of fact, mean the BSE scare. That had not yet happened. He just meant whatever the last scare was. But he was right. We do tend to use our knowledge to scare ourselves. When I got down to write the piece, I listed all the scares I could think of off-hand. It was an effortless list to write. Salt, butter, rain forests, ozone layer, nuclear accidents, Aids, herpes, Rupert Murdoch, being run over by a police car...

I did, as a matter of fact, write down "Mad Cow disease" on the list, but only as a scare that was now due to pass into history. And I may well have been right. I cannot get out of my mind the voice of one farmer on a Radio 4 phone-in saying that if we were going to have a BSE panic, we should have had it in 1990 when things were at their worst. Things had been improving ever since. He really couldn't see the point of having a BSE panic now.

Actually, the example I raised, in the Channel 4 piece, of the latest scare to hit the public, was that of electricity pylons. Do you remember this early 1996 scare? It was said that people who lived under or near pylons were more liable to contract certain diseases. It was taken quite seriously at the time, though it has faded from the headlines since then. I don't suppose anyone has done any studies of endangered cows and their proximity to pylons in fields, have they? That would make a nice little scare...

(Incidentally, when the rumour about the pylons came out, my wife said, "That's curious". I asked her why. Well, she said, she had worked on a medical video a year or two before, and when she asked the doctors concerned for an example of a madcap idea held by the public, they both pointed to the widespread rural belief that living near pylons affected you and laughed at the very notion...)

What is odd about all this is not that we are afraid of things revealed to us by scientists and statisticians.

The odd thing is that we are NOT afraid of the proven dangers. We know that bad diet gives us cancer. We know that smoking kills us. We know that cars kill us. We know that Chernobyl (as well as certain popular drugs) may have terrible-long term effects. We know all this for sure. Yet we don't have cigarette or car or fried food panics.

In the aftermath of the Dunblane tragedy nobody pointed out that about as many children die every day or two on the roads as are killed in Dunblane once in history; that cars are a far worse killer than guns. We know all this, so we don't panic. It's only the unknown that gives us the real jitters. Aids was far more scary when it was a mystery killler than it is now...

And at the moment BSE is a mystery killer, and we are all scared of it, and we are running around demanding sacrifices, like medieval crowds asking for witches to be burnt. You hear experts every day on the media, saying that the important thing is not to cure BSE or CJD, but to restore public confidence, which can only be done by killing cows, a trick which didn't work for Aaron when Moses was up the mountain getting the Ten Commandments, and won't work now.

If what I say is true, and we only fear the unknown, then the only answer is to prove beyond doubt that BSE CAN affect humans. Then we can all confidently get back to eating beef, as we have got back to smoking, drinking, driving cars and using guns.

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