Risk: A Study of its Origins, History and Politics, by Matthias Beck and Beth Kewell

Theories abound but Omar Malik wishes that more of them had been submitted to the test of reality

March 13, 2014

Risk is a utilitarian issue, a practical problem that faces every sentient being. Get it right, happiness. Get it wrong, misery. Get it badly wrong, bye-bye. As with all abstract concepts, the definition of risk is elusive, a will-o’-the-wisp. Catch it, bottle it; open the bottle to inspect it, and poof, gone. So briskly adopt a useful definition and move on. The proposition that risk may be either good or bad is plain daft. To maximise the good and minimise the bad, it is essential first to distinguish them.

On first reading, much of the prose of Risk: A Study, which is described as “a detailed study of key turning points in the evolution of society’s understanding of risk” focusing on “the history and politics” of the subject, appeared impenetrable. Second reading taught that such perseverance could be enlightening; a useful lesson. However, there are many scholarly books that are both excellent in content and well-written. Life is too short to read them all. Therefore, other than in the hands of fettered reviewers or penitent students, painful prose is likely to prompt ballistic entry into the nearest bin. This is poor reward for the authors’ mighty labours. Matthias Beck and Beth Kewell could reasonably submit that this work has been written by social scientists for social scientists, and that such readers will understand their prose and their references. However, its potential value to a wider readership is further undermined by the absence of editorial discipline and a price that suggests the publisher has confined its sales ambitions to a tiny captive audience, that of social science libraries.

Most of the faults of the book are forgivable. But the persistent anti-capitalist tone and derogatory terms with which the authors describe those with whom they disagree are not. Phrases such as “pseudo-scientific”, “purportedly academic”, “masculine archetype”, “racist”, “xenophobic” and “falsely contrived” erase the presumption of scholarly impartiality. The authors’ analysis of the major powers’ nuclear standoff in the 1960s, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, is disappointingly limited to consistent, weakly argued criticism of the US and its leaders. One of Henry Kissinger’s works, they argue, is not “underpinned by data analysis”. What useful data are there to underpin nuclear strategy? Nikita Khrushchev’s emotional letter to John F. Kennedy in October 1962 at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is probably the most fruitful insight into the reality beneath the public posturing, receives only a footnote. The consequent Washington-Moscow intra-government hotline, which was arguably the biggest single contribution to the continued avoidance of war, is not mentioned. Nor is the later net of lower-level hotlines, a further powerful safeguard against nuclear blunders. The US is criticised for claiming credit for its management of the Cuban Missile Crisis. What is wrong or surprising about that claim? Did the authors establish that the Soviets did not make a similar claim? We were not vaporised, all credit to both sides.

Practitioners in the field looking to broaden their reading may find limited value in this study of the changing concepts and theories of risk. Few index entries relate to risk subjects or to events; most references are academics or theoreticians. The unfortunate impression is that the authors are content to live in a world of theory. You may wish that they would get out more. If they submitted such theories to the test of reality, and did so objectively and not through a woolly ideological prism, the resultant insights might be better grounded and might contribute to our understanding of a very important subject. Incidentally, if you read this book, be sure not to rest it in your lap. The authors’ political agenda includes de-masculinisation.

Risk: A Study of its Origins, History and Politics

By Matthias Beck and Beth Kewell
World Scientific, 380pp, £86.00 and £65.00
ISBN 9789814383202 and 4579292  (e-book)
Published 31 March 2014

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