When experiments go wrong

What are we to do when both scientists and politicians refuse to take responsibility for the risks to human life brought about by technological advancement, asks Ulrich Beck
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The Independent Online
The admission by ministers of a possible link between mad cow disease and human death confirms the emergence of a new type of political society: I call it the "risk society".

Neglecting risks is one of the most effective ways of reinforcing them. When politicians are forced, finally, to acknowledge a new risk facing society, their credibility breaks down and the consequences of the original admission explode. That is what is happening now in Britain. The panic the British public is experiencing about the risk of their contracting a strange new disease illustrates the point that behind the wall of ignorance fear of danger runs wild.

The very act of establishing a cause of a risk - such as that between BSE and CJD - throws into relief the role of businesses, scientists and government ministers. It places them in the firing line of public accusation for taking responsibility for what has happened. Where they choose to fix the acceptable levels of risk (should primary schoolchildren eat or not eat beef?) directly influences the number of possible victims of the new threat.

What on the face of it appeared to be unpolitical - how we produce and consume beef - becomes political. Suddenly, politicians extend their rule into the spheres of economics and business. The politics of dealing with risk is the exact opposite of privatisation. In the light of the media exposure, many interest groups have voices that force themselves on to the public agenda: "innocent" farmers worry about collapsing markets for their output and the instant devaluation of the capital of their industry, which now must face tougher, tighter bureaucratic regulation. Consumers worry about their safety but also about how the mammoth costs are to be shouldered.

At the heart of the politics of this risk society is the relationship between politics and science. Politicians can no longer rely on scientific experts to deliver answers. And, if you ask who is responsible for creating and managing risks, the reply is "nobody". We live in a state of organised irresponsibility.

In case of risk conflicts, politicians can no longer rely on experts to adjudicate. Let's take the case of Shell's plans to dispose of the Brent Spar oil platform last summer. There was a tremendous public dispute about which was the more risky option environmentally: to dispose of the platform on land, as the "greens" wanted, or at sea, as the company wanted. An agreement had previously been reached with government, experts and managers to go for dumping at sea, and that was the optimal solution for Shell itself. But when the company tried to implement it, the market for Shell products threatened to collapse, especially in continental Europe, and Greenpeace succeeded in getting Shell to dispose of the rig on land. All the scientific argument in favour of dumping at sea was defeated by a consumer boycott. The lesson is that industries and politicians cannot rely on scientific experts to adjudicate in conflicts over relative risks.

This is because there are always competing and conflicting claims among agents and affected groups, and they each define risks differently. Experts can only supply factual information and are never able to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable risks. That is a job for others, mainly politicians, but not for scientists. If politicians just implement scientific advice, they get caught in the mistakes and shifting stages of scientific knowledge.

So at one moment a minister has to declare that British beef is safe and public concern is "irrational". On another day, when science has changed its view, the same minister has to admit that he exposed the nation to danger. In the risk society, politics and morality must be given priority over shifting scientific reasoning.

The fact is that, other than in the extreme case of nuclear power, the political system does not make direct decisions about the kind of technology we use: not how to produce beef, nor whether to engineer tomatoes genetically, nor how to wrap food. The political system can regulate the workings of industry, but it cannot control them. On the other hand, if anything goes wrong, political institutions are made responsible. Politicians have to take responsibility for threats and consequences they know nothing about.

Business possesses a double advantage in relation to Parliament and the state: it has a virtual monopoly of knowledge about technology and its side effects and it is virtually autonomous in the way it makes investment decisions to apply that technology. That leaves politicians in a bad position. They must struggle to catch up with what is going on in technological development. Most MPs get their information about technological developments through the media. Political influence on the goals of technological development remains secondary, indirect.

No votes are taken in Parliament on the employment and development of microelectronics, genetic technology or the like. This division of power over technology leaves industries with the primary decision-making power but often without taking responsibility for the risks in the public domain. Instead, politicians are assigned the task of democratically legitimising decisions they have not really taken and don't know much about.

Take the Sea Empress as an example. Lord Goschen, the hapless shipping minister, turned up on television and tried to inform the public about what was happening and to take responsibility. But what was his role? He wasn't the harbour master; he wasn't the captain; he wasn't the owner of the ship; he wasn't one of the local victims; he wasn't even the Chinese cook who tried to solve the language problems. He was only presenting second-hand information about decisions he didn't take part in. Why didn't the owner of the tanker show up? Why did nobody ask what his responsibilities were?

In the case of accidents of this kind, politicians have to legitimise and take responsibility for decisions which have been taken elsewhere. This issue of who takes responsibility is important after privatisation. What happens to the safety standards on privatised railways? Does the state ever get rid of its responsibility in the eyes of the public?

We are in danger of creating a situation where alarmingly large risks are nobody's responsibility. Neuro-technologies and genetic engineering are reshaping the laws that govern the human mind and life. Who is doing this? Politicians say they are not in charge; they at most regulate developments. Scientific experts say they are merely creating technological opportunities but not deciding how they are taken up. Businesses say they are just responding to consumer demand.

Risk politics resembles the "nobody's rule" that Hannah Arendt tells us is the most tyrannical of all forms of power because under it nobody can be held responsible. Our society has become a laboratory with nobody responsible for the outcome of the experiment.

The writer is the keynote speaker at an Institute of Public Policy Research Conference today, `Politics of Risk Society'. His book `Risk Society: towards a new modernity' is published by Sage (1992).