Patronising Joe Public

April 12, 1996

The Government's handling of the BSE issue typifies its lack of faith in people's rationality, argues Brian Wynne.

If ever risk assessment experts needed a reminder that what we take as objective problems are always open-ended and interlinked with other cross-cutting issues, BSE is it. Already coursing through the issue are, inter alia: the tortured United Kingdom relationship with the European Union; the over-industrialisation of agriculture and food supply; ideological obsessions with deregulation, and government ministries' scandalous proximity to sponsorship of private industrial interests; fast-eroding public identification with official policy bodies and their pronouncements; and the distinct whiff of political control of science arising from recent changes in UK research and education culture.

It is easy to find scapegoats in this affair, but there are also deeper problems, and challenging lessons to learn. These concern our general understanding of the modern "risk society", especially the deskilling of political responsibility which has accompanied the rise of dependency on scientific expertise as policy culture. This has been seen in the BSE exchanges with ministers claiming innocently to be following scientific advice, when it is clear that this advice has been selectively garnered and shepherded. Both politicians and scientists are confused about the nature of scientific uncertainty and ignorance, and the politicians have absorbed a misconceived and self-destructive idea of the public from the scientists.

Modern risk issues, and the misrepresentation of the nature of public responses that they exhibit, show how modern expert-dependent policy institutions are unwittingly conspiring in the destruction of their own public legitimacy. But the increasingly prominent and influential social theories of the risk society, those of Ulrich Beck, professor of sociology, University of Munich, and Antony Giddens, professor of sociology at Cambridge, are limited and potentially misleading in important respects.

The BSE scare continues a trend. On the face of it, the infamous Department of Health press briefing of March 20, which unleashed the latest and most dire round by announcing the finding of a further ten unusual Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease cases that could not be dissociated from BSE, was an act of gross incompetence. The underpinning research results had not been published, and the papers were not even available. One charitable view would be that DoH attempted to gain the initiative by being able to say that it had informed the public immediately it had been informed. Placing this decision in a wider context offers a yet different view. Only three months ago, after the last BSE scare in December, John Collinge, head of the prion diseases group at St Mary's medical school, London, had a paper set for publication in Nature that appeared to offer some reassurances on the BSE-human connection. Collinge had tried to simulate the human system by inserting the human gene thought to be relevant for the species boundary for spongiform encephalo- pathies into mice, then injecting the mice with BSE and observing the incidence of the CJD equivalent in the "human" mice. He found no extra incidence, which would suggest that the human species-boundary was not permeable to BSE. But he was the first to admit that this attempted simulation of the human system was incomplete, and that his study left us far short of reassurance on this key question.

In rushing to inform the public of disturbing findings on March 20, the DoH may have been mindful of what happened with these earlier findings. Then a senior official in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who had seen a prepublication copy of the Nature paper, leaked it to the press (and swept aside Collinge's severe qualifications of his own results) to try to rescue some public reassurance for the discredited MAFF stance of "problem solved". Perhaps the DoH felt itself on a hiding-to-nothing however it handled the new CJD cases. Perhaps a feeling of insecurity encouraged by the media , and by an unspoken sense of insecurity as to the dishonesty of the official political stance on BSE, as well as mistrust of the behaviour of its government fellows in other agencies, were contributory factors. Here we get a disquieting sense of a breakdown of governance in modern policy cultures, faced with aggressive high-technology, risk-generating and knowledge-concentrating systems.

Whereas Beck and Giddens portray this process as largely brought on by the emergence of genuine global risks for which modern expert institutions were responsible but can no longer control, I argue that this alienation is less grounded in rational calculation around real risks than Beck and Giddens assume. But, since these risks are rarely directly observable by anyone, the basis of risk-anxiety is popular experience of increasing dependency on expert-led institutions which are found to be less and less trustworthy. This breakdown of trust is more to do with the inability of expert institutions to frankly admit ignorance, contingency and lack of control when appropriate, than with the supposed growth of risk per se.

The real risks lie in social dependency, and if those expert actors are less trustworthy, the risks are higher, not just the perceptions of them. Hence the cultural response, where withdrawal of identification with such bodies is not just due to their inability to control (contestable) risks, but to their systematic denial of responsibility and their patronising construction of a public response which is actually based on mistrust, as one based instead on public misunderstanding of the "real" risks and on infantile public expectation of zero risk. These misconstructions of the public, which research has falsified, are patronising, alienating, and wrong. They are an integral part of a deeper UK science-policy culture which needs critical attention and a strong effort at overthrow across a broader front than mad cows, food and agriculture. Key features of this culture include:

* the placing of the burden of proof on the victim, with the so-called lack of evidence of harm (even where such evidence would be impossible to gather) translated into an implied "evidence of lack of harm"

* reductionism in the factors recognised as falling within the framework of risk and policy assessment

* selectivity in the kind of expert accepted as worthy of acting as a government adviser, and marginalisation and discrediting of dissidents

* a Treasury stranglehold on decision making, even influencing expert accounts of the risk

* risk assessment embodying naively optimistic assumptions about the social world, as with the official assertion (against contrary evidence) that rules at slaughterhouses would be followed

* patronization of public responses as irrational and even hysterical, assuming them to be based on misunderstanding of the risks as perceived by the experts when they are, perfectly reasonably, based on an assessment of whether the controlling actors (including the official experts) can be trusted

* under-recognition of the open-ended nature of scientific knowledge, as with the cattle-human species barrier in BSE/CJD.

The last factor is the key to the others, and to the public policy world's mounting disorientation in the face of manifest uncertainty. The scientific community's customary hit and miss, conviction-led and more closed-minded means of advance, seen again in the BSE case is not especially problematic. But in the policy domain it leads to inadvertent and unacknowledged experiments on society. This occurred in the Chernobyl aftermath and has done so in the BSE-CJD case. It also applies to environmental releases of genetically manipulated organisms, chemical pesticides and many other modern environmental and technological risks. This fundamentally misconceived notion of science in society shapes our policy institutions and their relations with others. Rather than seeing science as conditional knowledge, science is allowed to frame what the policy problems are as human problems.

In the case of BSE, the problem of scientific hubris in placing industrial trajectories in the food and agriculture industries so close to the edge that apparently minor changes in rendering conditions in the animal feed industry allowed scrapie to infect cattle fodder was excluded from public debate. So were the general issues of industrial intensification of food, all for marginal and anyway theoretical economic returns. The politicians ignore the issue claiming the experts are handling it, while the experts define a narrow technical area whose limits are not held in focus.

It is now acknowledged that to add animal proteins to cattle feed involved risks which could be controlled if conditions of sterilising infectious agents like BSE prions were met. But it created a risk of whether such conditions would always be met. When in the early 1980s the feed industry changed its rendering conditions for extracting animal proteins for cattle-feed this practice went through its critical risk barrier for BSE (and maybe CJD) enhancement almost unnoticed. Yet it is a moot point which change brought about the end result, the animal-protein/sheep-offal practice, or the change of rendering practices which allowed prion agents to proliferate and infect cattle.

Changes leading to more open debate, a more authentically precautionary culture, a more socially inclusive culture of responsibility for risk-related policy decisions seem a minimal public settlement after this affair. But are these achievable when the most upstream parts of the process, those of research - biomedical, environmental, agricultural and social - are still undergoing erosion of political independence and freedom of thought, and when the new political-corporate "discipline" has overtaken related agents, previously bastions of independence, such as directors of public health?

One of the most chilling aspects of the whole BSE experience is the evidence of "independent" scientific advice having been shaped before it arrived at the policy door, by the scientists' own perceptions of what would be politically digestible. Richard Southwood, former chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and chair of an inquiry in 1988 into the BSE issue, has been criticised for not demanding from the start a ban on the use of cattle offal in human food after the recognition of BSE. He recalled that: "We felt it was a no-goer. MAFF already thought our proposals were pretty revolutionary." He later pressed for the ban, and it was introduced in 1989. But, at the time, the politicians could say that they were following the Southwood Committee's advice that a ban was not necessary on scientific grounds, when the scientists had ruled it out on tacitly political grounds. The excuse that an institutional culture of recognised indeterminacy would frighten the public and induce disorder, is, ironically, the very commitment now inducing a mounting disorder, because the public is more mature about risk and uncertainty than anyone is willing to admit, and experiences far greater risk in the self-delusions and denials of the expert-led institutions on which they know they are dependent.

Brian Wynne is research director at the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, Lancaster University.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs