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The Great Debate at Newcastle Science Festival

Playing it Safe: Science and the Risk Society
Proceedings by Jon Bryan
edited by Caspar Hewett

Panel Discussion: Wednesday 17th March 2004
International Centre for Life, Newcastle upon Tyne

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Speakers: Lynn Frewer, Phil Macnaghten, John Gillott, Roy Boyne
Chair: David O’Toole

The chair, David O’Toole, gave a short introduction in which he introduced the themes of the debate and what he saw as being two somewhat contrary discussions, those surrounding science and progress and science and risk.

He went on to introduce the speakers:

Lynn FrewerProfessor Lynn Frewer is the Chair of Food Safety and Consumer Behaviour at the Marketing and Consumer Behaviour Group at Wageningen University, Holland. Her research interests include the psychology of risk perception, public reactions to genetic modification and other new technologies.

Phil MacnaghtonDr Phil Macnaghten is a lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change at Lancaster University. Publications include Contested Natures (Theory, Culture and Society) (1998), with John Urry. He has co-ordinated projects in the UK and Latin America on sustainability, environmental politics, forestry, GM foods, environmental politics, the millennium and risk.

John Gillott John Gillott is a mathematician, currently works at the Genetic Interest Group, London and is also on the staff of the online clinical genetics resource Genepool. He is also the co-author of Science and the Retreat from Reason.

Roy Boyne Professor Roy Boyne, Principal of St Cuthbert’s College and Professor of Sociology, University of Durham, is author of Risk (Concepts in the Social Sciences); Subject, Society and Culture; co-edited one of the world’s leading journals of cultural analysis - Theory, Culture and Society, and is currently developing research at the interface of cultural and economic policy and development.

Lynn Frewer spoke about how people talk about food and food risk. She argued that just talking about technical risk and food is not that useful for the public and questioned what was driving consumer perceptions of risk. Giving the example of obesity, she said that it is the government that are concerned about it, not other people. The effect of putting managing risk, assessing risk and the like into the public arena raises the question of how we deal with this uncertainty. Frewer then moved on to look at the psychology of risk perceptions.

Frewer questioned the audience about whether they flew or drove to the venue that evening. She pointed out that, in making the decision about which mode of transport to use on a particular occasion, we look at the benefits of and compare them with the risks. She again engaged the audience, asking who had ever smoked a cigarette. Looking at the psychology of risk she stated that un- natural (technological) risks are perceived to be more threatening than natural ones and pointed to a slide which showed continuums from things that we are either familiar/unfamiliar with and those things that are dreaded/undreaded.

Turning to GM foods, Frewer asked whether the benefits are balanced by the potential risks. She finished by saying that stakeholders (the public) were beginning to challenge the experts a bit more today.

Phil Macnaghten began his speech and presentation by asking the question in the preamble to this debate - "Is there a case for caution caution where the outcome of scientific and technological advances is uncertain? He believes that there is.

Stating that the most important development of the 1990s was the world-wide-web, Macnaghten turned to what he believed were some unhelpful myths:

The myth of anti-Science;
The myth of "pure" information;
The myth of the media; (they do not generate controversies)
The myth of "expert" and "lay";
The myth of absolute trust;

Macnaghten then looked at the idea of "change" - the context of the rise of public risk sensitivities in the UK and discussed two case studies of risk and science. Looking at GM food and crops, Macnaghten discussed the character of public unease and the specifics of the sources of unease which exist in the UK. Macnaghten believed that nanotechnology looked likely to be the next arena where debates over risk are likely to be fought.

His final reflection was his belief that listening to public opinion is essential and there was a need for us to be engaged in what the public actually want.

John Gillott gave his thoughts on risk and science, taking what he described as a bit of a different slant than the previous two speakers. He argued for the need for a historical perspective. Science, he argued, improves humanity, improves jobs, and improves our culture.

Gillott described the progress that came with atomic power after the Second World War and the ideas which were a result of these scientific breakthroughs. Comparing this to the genetics debate in the year 2000, he said that we - the public, politicians and scientists - no longer understand science in the same way that we used to. He argued that around 1999/2000 there was a desire to change by scientists themselves. The idea that scientists should engage in a dialogue with the public became popular.

As an example of the consequences of this Gillott drew attention to the report which came out about mobile phones which said there is no known risk. Despite this policy changes were introduced that assumed that there is a risk associated with mobile phone use. Similarly, in the debate around genetics there is an assumption that it needs to be regulated regardless of the risk. Gillott argued that this all leads to:

less investigation and experimentation;
a rejection of evidence;
an increase in fear and vulnerability;

Gillott was critical of what he sees as a paternalistic message coming out. When we look at the panic over things like MMR, the chickens have come home to roost. This has also led to a debate which becomes protracted, unnecessary and unsatisfactory. We still get rapid technological change, he stated, but in an unsatisfactory way.

Roy Boyne then began his speech and outlined that he was going to look at Risk and Culture, as opposed to Risk and Science. He stated that, individually, we negotiate risks all the time. This ranges from throwing away food which is out-of-date, to looking both ways when we cross the road.

Boyne argued that there are five dimensions to this debate:

  1. We don’t have perfect information;
  2. We may be dealing with situations involving many people, e.g. the risk of setting up Israel, the risks workers face in a factory;
  3. You can be faced with multiple risks;
  4. Experts are divided on these issues - whether to invade Iraq; whether to join the Euro;
  5. The media has a large part to play in this. The want to get your attention, but they also have to tell the truth;

He then recommended some rules:

  • How we think about risk is determined by the culture in which we live;
  • The news media will only ever (at best) provide an introduction to risk;
  • Going beyond the introduction and getting "the informed view" will not help individuals make better decisions;
  • When experts fall out, it is likely that other matters need our attention. It will not be that big a deal - it has usually been exaggerated.

The discussion which followed saw the speakers make a few initial points: John Gillott pointed out that there was an exaggerated sense of the power of genetics; Phil Macnaghten said that we should not see risk as technical and that there is a sense of political correctness around the precautionary principle; Roy Boyne emphasised the change that has taken place in contemporary culture and risks.

The questions from the audience varied but showed insight and knowledge of the contemporary discussions.

A question about what was an acceptable risk was answered by Phil Macnaghten who stated that it was a social thing - shared norms decided it. John Gillott said that we have always taken big risks at different times - Emigration providing one obvious example. There is not a straight choice between taking risks and doing nothing. The dis-benefits of doing nothing are not always obvious. If someone is NOT experimenting in the NHS, who loses? Noone obvious, because we do not know what the potential gains are.

Another question was why there seemed to be a difference between attitudes in North America and Western Europe. Lynn Frewer stated that she did not think that there was, but perhaps that the amount of countryside had something to do with it. Phil Macnaghten stated that we had to remember that the UK has always had a romantic notion of protecting the countryside. John Gillott thought that the defensiveness of the government and scientists meant that NGOs were able to argue about things like BSE "messing with nature". Roy Boyne thought that it was a myth that the US are in favour of GM.

A further question asked about the role of the state and the individual asking what we have to do came from the audience. Frewer asked whether it was right for us to bring "moral" judgements into this debate. Macnaghten pointed out that some organisations have abdicated their responsibility in relation to risk. Gillott took an ‘old-fashioned view’ saying that he is in favour of people doing what they like. He said that he went climbing and ate what he wanted to. Some things need a judgement if, for example, it is a collective thing like global warming.

Further questions asked about the myth of anti-science and whether the debate about risk was something only for The West.

Lynn Frewer spoke about how in the 1970s, there was a big discussion about getting people interested in science. That did not work. People do not trust the regulators because the public is asked for their opinion and then not listened to. She said that we also need to be cynical. Roy Boyne pointed out that the debate around risk meant that there were fewer entrepreneurs setting up businesses. Phil Macnaghten stated that he did not think that risk was something which existed because we were comfortable in The West. Lots of things in the developing world have a risk background. John Gillott said that risk can overlay disputes. There is a growth of fear - people distrust things, even when all the evidence points the other way. Being cynical can be an expression of fear and atomisation. Gillott was also critical of scientists for not saying what they think. He argued that there is an element of anti-science because people do not trust that it new discoveries will not be misused. For example, people are crticising nanotechnology and viewing it in a fearful way while it is in a very embryonic state.

Final comments included Roy Boyne saying that if the public understanding of risk was improved, then that would be good. Phil Macnaghten felt that there was a need for scientists to understand the public. Scientists are governed by the funding - there is a need to introduce democracy and accountability to their work.

The chair thanked the speakers and audience for their contributions. In closing he thanked the Centre for Life for hosting The Great Debate at Newcastle Science Festival 2004.

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