Conflict overrules consensus

June 25, 2004

The days when we trusted the judgement of a public inquiry are over, argues Kieron O'Hara

Twenty years ago next month, the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, better known as the Warnock report, was published. It was a high point in the effort to explain complex moral and scientific issues and reconcile deeply opposed views to create public consensus. Today, when the trustworthiness of science and technology has never been more prominent on the social and political agenda - BSE, genetically modified foods, the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine - it is worth asking whether similar attempts to create consensus could help and why, when they have been made, they have not been conspicuously successful.

The philosophy behind Warnock was this: given a novel scientific procedure whose effects on society may be large but unpredictable, a problem of public trust arises, which may put pressure on government to regulate. For regulation to inspire public trust - and we must distinguish between the trustworthiness of the procedure and the public's trust of the safeguards - there must be generally held perceptions that the regulations are well crafted, drafted in all stakeholders'

interests and equitably policed, with sanctions properly and fairly applied. In other words, trust requires consensus about the costs and benefits of the procedure and about the regulatory regime.

One method of establishing consensus is to hold an inquiry. The report selects a position, which can be shown to be consensual by the public display of the inquiry process, and, en passant , provides the intellectual justification for marginalising those opinions that cannot be reconciled.

Following this philosophy of public epistemology, the 1984 Warnock report became the basis of a general consensus about the moral issues associated with in vitro fertilisation, and the starting point for the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.

Yet the fascinating thing about the Warnock report is that there was always a substantial body of opinion on the committee and elsewhere opposed to its majority conclusions. For example, Enoch Powell's private member's bill, designed to outlaw precisely what Warnock wished to make legal, had substantial support in the House of Commons.

The report fought for headlines with the miners' strike. At the time, we were hearing the last hurrahs of socialism, paternalist Gladstonian liberalism and authoritarian conservatism, which, despite their differences, agreed that society contained important and hierarchical structures.

By contrast, ideologies fashionable now, such as postmodernism, Rawlsian liberalism and neo-liberalism, all place value on the individual's own idea of the good. The idea that an authoritative consensus can be created from the centre by due reflection and careful study by a trained mind has been undermined by these ideological changes. In the new climate, diversity is celebrated, not unity. We promote difference. If you take my autonomy seriously, then my opinion is as good as Warnock's.

Indeed, the whole idea that there may be a cadre of the great and the good comes under pressure. No 21st-century Warnock would be given the time and the space to make her deliberations. She would have the Daily Mail , the Guardian and sundry crazies on the internet on her back from day one; alternative assessments of the evidence would be floating around long before she could report in depth. Far from creating consensus, such a process is more likely to polarise opinion by crystallising conflict. As, no doubt, Lord Hutton would testify.

Kieron O'Hara is senior research fellow in electronics and computer science at Southampton University, and author of Trust: From Socrates to Spin (Icon Books, 2004). This paper is based on a talk given at the Royal Society of Arts in April.

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