Demoting the ruler of shaky kingdom

Risk, Uncertainty, and Rational Action - The Government of Risk
June 7, 2002

If you type "risk" into the search engine Google, you will be rewarded with 19 million hits. "Sex", by way of comparison, scores 59 million. So is there anything more to say? Carlo Jaeger et al after 296 pages conclude that we need a debate, "a debate among the proponents of Rap [the Rational Actor Paradigm] and competing approaches". Christopher Hood et al after 186 pages conclude that "the analysis of risk-regulation regimes is in its infancy" and that "we need more debate about alternative ways to capture similarities and differences". Risk may yet overtake sex.

The debates proposed by both sets of authors promise to be interminable because risk is inescapably subjective. It is a word that refers to an uncertain future, which exists only in our imaginations. These books are inviting everyone to join debates about how we should undertake this imagining.

The central question proposed for debate by Jaeger et al is whether our imaginings can be "rational". Their answer is - up to a point. Beyond this lie "competing approaches". The book revisits the debate about the limits of Rap, especially economics - what they call "the monarch" of the shaky kingdom of rationality. Despite all the character defects that they identify in this monarch they cannot bring themselves to reject him. Rather they would demote him from an absolute to a constitutional monarch constrained by the interests of his many and diverse subjects. The book is an account of their inconclusive struggle to draft this constitution.

They want to retain the monarch but they would limit his powers in a way yet to be defined: "Defining rationality for collective action without sacrificing individual freedom and cultural pluralism will be one of the most serious social challenges in the next century." They seek "a platform for developing a consistent but pluralistic view in the era of increasing uncertainty and risk".

The book, by virtue of its wide-ranging coverage of the risk literature, should become a key reference for courses about risk. But it evades the fundamental question that it raises. Is it possible to combine a collective, consistent, mathematically articulated rationality with cultural pluralism? Despite its range and authorship, the book exemplifies a reason to be pessimistic about the possibility of a new paradigm emerging that will unify the field of risk. It has a lengthy bibliography that includes many references to previous works of its authors. But it contains not a single reference to any of the works of Hood et al . And the extensive bibliography in The Government of Risk contains not a single reference to the works of Jaeger et al . The two books are isolated vessels floating on the inchoate ocean of risk.

Hood et al set sail armed with the concept of the "regulatory regime", defined as "the complex of institutional geography, rules, practice and animating ideas that are associated with the regulation of a particular risk or hazard". They concede that it is an elusive concept: "There is... no single correct way of conceiving risk-regulation regimes. No one has ever seen a risk-regulation regime."

But they persist. They justify their pursuit of this elusive creature by asserting that there is a need for a level of understanding intermediate between macroscopic whole-society perspectives on risk and the microscopic perspective of "deep-trench case studies". They offer examples of the sorts of puzzles they hope to shed light on. Why were cyclamates permitted and saccharin banned in Canada, and cyclamates banned and saccharin permitted in the US? Why is the regulation of campsites rigorous in France and relaxed in Greece and Ireland? Why is white asbestos permitted in some jurisdictions and banned in others? And why, in the UK, does the state tolerate high risks associated with radon in the home, while being much more risk averse with respect to much lower risks such as those associated with pesticide residues? The answer by the end of the book seems to be that it is all rather complicated: a regime is an n -dimensional analytic construct, where n can equal infinity.

The case of radon can be used to illustrate their problem. Before they begin to apply their analytic construct to radon, they assume it is a significant risk. They establish this assumption by the following chain of reasoning: (1) "some claim that epidemiological data fails to reveal an association between high radon levels and above-normal incidences of lung cancer"; but (2) "a part government-funded epidemiological study lends support for the orthodox view"; (3) "if that orthodox assessment is accepted, radon is a significant killer"; (4) "radon is said by experts to kill about 2,500 people a year in the UK". They then apply their analytical machinery to the puzzle of why this risk is ignored, ignoring the possibility that the answer may be that it is not a significant risk.

There may yet be a glimmer of hope. Both books land briefly, if distractedly, on the contribution of cultural theory, and then pass on. Both are complimentary but go on to fry other fish, leaving the impression that they see cultural theory as one approach among many. But it does seem to offer solutions to the main problems they raise.

Jaeger et al reach the end of their book not knowing how to reconcile pluralism with a collective rationality. Hood et al reach the end of theirs with an analytical framework that has an infinity of possible dimensions, and offering no confident guidance about how to reduce it to a manageable number. The cultural theory approach that both books compliment en passant offers answers to both problems. It does not reject rationality, it acknowledges plural rationalities; where the science is inconclusive the imagination is liberated to speculate rationally from different starting assumptions. Further, this approach limits the contending risk-regulation regimes to a comprehensible and manageable number. It will not stop us arguing, but if adopted more widely as a navigational aid, more of the small boats on the ocean of risk might communicate with each other and point in the same direction.

John Adams is professor of geography, University College London.

Risk, Uncertainty, and Rational Action

Author - Carlo C. Jaeger, Ortwin Renn, Eugene A. Rosa and Thomas Webler
ISBN - 1 85383 762 8 and 770 9
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - £50.00 and £19.95
Pages - 320

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