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Critique of scientific risk research

One must ask how rationality originates in society, noting the oppositions and entanglements of social and scientific concepts of assessments of risk.

The gateway to the social recognition of modernisation risks is always blocked by a scientifically corroborated false diagnosis (p97).

Beck points to a collective professional error of believing that the causes of suffering due to risk are to be perceived in the immediate vicinity of the sufferers, and that this region is somehow at fault.

This is the systematic and diligent falsifying into individual and local problems., shifted onto the affected. Effect is turned into its own causation.

The production of wealth which increases productivity, turns a blind eye to risk. This blindness has established its own structure with names such as "over-specialisation in the division of labour" and "productivity orientation".

In the field of risk research, the scientific intervention and imposition of "high" scientific standards and criteria actually creates a situation where the intensification and increase in risks can easily occur. Strict scientific standards allow or even promote the existence of life threatening entities. The higher the criterion of validity for proof of causality, the less risks noticed, and the more risks go unnoticed. This is a highly effective, legitimate dam to control the flood of modernisation risks.

[Germany vs japan cases]. Modernisation risks can never be given a strict cause-effect relationship.

Also, scientific risk management operates with the credo that

in cases of doubt the endangered poison must be protected from the hand of man (p98).

Threshold Values - (dis)order

The relationship of acceptable risk to risk distribution can be compared to the relationship of the performance principle to the unequal distribution of wealth. Acceptable limits to pollution is virtual acquiescence to polluting which also legitimises the act of pollution (within the limits).

Values, including acceptable limits, were once upon a time not a matter of chemistry but of ethics.

Acceptable limits removes the question of whether or not it is good to poison anyone, and replaces it with the assumed "small amount" which it is OK to poison someone by. It implicitly states that it is utopian to try and remove all poisoning in the process of industrialisation, production, wealth accumulation etc.

3 false conclusions of the "acceptable level of trick" of the "modern chemical magicians":

* Acceptable links are defined individually, with no regard to combinatorial effects.

The planet is reservoir to countless toxins due to the regulation of acceptable risk. Threat to individuals principally lies in the danger of overall threat. There is little or no information on combinations of risks which may have deadly cumulative effect. So regulation of individual substances is a (deadly) joke.

In times when there was a general belief in progress it can be understood how this mistake was committed (p99).

* Vivisection fallacies.

A disservice to animals and humans. No proof of safety or danger. Variability of animal physiological traits. (See Hans Reusch, Slaughter of The Innocent.)

* The human reactions are not registered.

The sick must prove their sickness and what caused it. "We are living under the conditions of a long term experiment". In response to the sick, the pretentious "rationality of science" holds up the "acceptable limits placard" to invalidate sickness and fear, and any causative suspicions that might be had.

"Public risk consciousness: "Non-experience at second-hand" "

Science maintains ultimate credibility. Risks not scientifically recognised do not exist. Those seeking elimination, treatment or compensation for risks must rely on science to press their point. Then, a crisis of scientific authority can favour ongoing obscuration of risk factors. Criticism of science ends up being counter productive in exposing risks.

That which evades perception, "Non-experience at second-hand", becomes an integral part of everyday thinking. This risk consciousness has anthropological significance. The modern civilisation risk consciousness has an imperceptible, yet ubiquitous latent causality. There is unlimited space for risks to cause harm.

It is easier to redirect insecurities/fears attached to risks than it is to quell needs for hunger or warmth or other needs. Displacement of social conflict, thinking and acting is easier. Scapegoats - different points and symbolic places, can be pointed to.

In risk societies there is an immanent tendency to seek scapegoats because threat occurs as a result of political inactivity. Then the dangers are not the principle threat, but rather those that point them out. They are confronted with the scapegoating and the hostility instead.

Thesis Five

Socially Recognised Risks have potentially explosive political implications. The unpolitical became political: elimination of causes in the process of modernisation and industrialisation itself.

Thus the debate on definitions of risks is about not only consequences for the health of man and nature but also social, economic and political results. It can be seen how critical it is.

Beck lists potential results of risk:

Collapse of markets, devaluation of capital, bureaucratic control of operational decisions, opening up of new markets, enormous expenses, legal processes, loss of face.

So in the risk society the political potential for catastrophes comes in bursts of varying degrees. Power and responsibility may be reorganised in the process of gaining protection from and control of these dangers. The risk society becomes a catastrophe society where exceptional circumstances are under threat of becoming normality.

Wherever modernisation risks are recognised, the world order changes. Barriers of specialised responsibilities fall. The public sphere gets involved to the level of technical details and businesses are attacked. Markets collapse, the cost of making goods increase, prohibitions and legal threats abound, pressures to renew the technology and it’s system arise. A new light is shone on technological and economic details.

Under such pressure a "politics of state emergency is engendered which draws its competencies and wider possibilities of interference" from the threats.

Wherever danger becomes normality it takes on a lasting, institutionalised form. Modernisation risks thus prepare the way for a redistribution of power--partly by retaining the formal responsibilities, partly by explicitly changing them (p102).

The more threatening and potentially impacting the modernisation risk is, the more core values are threatened, and the more the network of power, division of labour, and the relationship between public / private economy and politics is shaken. Under this sort of threat it is more likely that responsibilities and competencies to act are redefined/centralised. Here, processes of modernisation might be overlaid with bureaucratic controls and plans.

Emergency actions become legitimate and normal. The unthinkable becomes self evident. Completely new challenges to democracy arise.

[Dangers to the often illusory democracy that we have - dangers to those thin threads of political justice that stop western descent into a totalitarian state].

Thus the modernisation risks of the new industrial society may also bear the risks of legitimation of authoritarian/totalitarian controls. These would serve to defend against all dangers, and in claiming to prevent the worst becomes in itself another form of the worst.

The alternative is to capitulate in the face of the risks. Thus a dilemma is presented by risk. Overcoming it, towards the apparent self evidently desirable end, will be a principle, if not the principle goal of democratic thinking and action.

Further Discussion

Beck first presents an effective critique of "post" as a prefix in sociological terminology, depicting it as "the expression of mental laziness". In attempting to again pick up the "social-theoretical thread", Beck gives us five theses of what he terms the "Risk society".

The Risk Society has as its immediate antecedent, what Beck calls "phase one" of the industrial society. Phase one was characterised, amongst other things, as revolving around the (needs driven) question of how socially produced wealth can be distributed "unequally but nevertheless ‘legitimately’ in society". Phase two is the new paradigm of the Risk Society, in which (through fear) it is asked "how is risk to be prevented / made harmless / dramatised and directed / channelled away".

Beck’s five theses cover the importance of knowledge and knowledge bearers ("experts"); the fundamental difference between risk, as opposed to wealth or resources; the ability of risks to uproot the established order of both markets and knowledge disciplines; the potential universality of risks and (opposing this) the new inequalities that risk may create; and the danger of risks to freedom (in both its potential to absorb the power of war and the possible threat of a constant ‘state of emergency’ - a totalitarianism imposed by the threat of risks).

Beck views the Risk Society as being dependent upon knowledge. Knowledge gives us a reason to fear certain things, if it defines risk as being somehow material within those things. The status of knowledge and knowledge bearers become central in the risk society for this reason, and significant power is accorded to them. They have the power to create and destroy markets. The scientific risk researcher strives to be at the helm of expertise, despite her being condemned by history as being the least competent person for the task. Scientific risk research in a position of authority is a further negative, as science and it’s high criteria of proof may serve to paradoxically maximise risk occurrence.

Threats posed by risk are at once both an opportunity and a threat for dominant interests, who must strive to control risk. For these interests, risk is always to be controlled, and never removed. Control is gained by placing limits upon risk. This limitation is an act of condoning risk, and in this, absolving risk from blame. A merely placatory device, it is often at odds with empirical observations, such as combinatorial effects of risks, or the delayed reactions of the threatened. (Vivisection is another placatory and highly unpredictive device in this regard.) The blame due to real risk can often be offset to another place and time, safely away from real causative factors. Those that attempt to highlight real risk are potentially destabilising to the new status quo formed around risks, and are perceived as threats.

For those who attempt to control and even harness risk, this can be a risky game (so to speak), as in one way risk knows no class boundaries. As Beck succinctly puts it, "Wealth is hierarchical, smog is democratic". Risk brings dominant interests closer to the precipice, which is situated at the other side of the elevated socio-economic plateau upon which they stand. Harnessing risk can be a delicate balancing act for dominant interests. Legal action and enormous expenses (Eg for ‘clean-ups’) may threaten: decline of property values, goodwill and ‘face’, and even the collapse of whole markets (not to mention health) can occur when risk becomes socially recognised.

The threat of a constant state of emergency imposed by risk and risk bureaucratisation may be one of the most threatening situations posed for democracy.

In Beck’s book, I have two minor reservations.

One is a minor criticism that I have of Beck’s rhetoric. Where Beck outlines the potential reaction to those who threaten the new establishment by highlighting real, or potentially real risk, he states:

Isn’t there always visible wealth to hold against invisible risks? Isn’t the whole thing an intellectual chimera, the product of intellectual scaremongers, the stage manager of risk? It is the DDR spies, the communists, the Jews, the Arabs, the women, the men, the Turks, the refugees who are behind it all.

The very intangibility of the threat and helplessness to counter it favours the development of radical and fanatical reactions and political currents.(p101-102)

To me, it seems simplistic, and perhaps irrelevant, to tie in risk dismissal with the ‘conspiracy’ category.

It is a reasonable assumption that if political inaction causes risk, then the beneficiaries of that inaction would be the immediate parties threatened by the portrayal of risk. (Second at risk might be those in positions of responsibility who, by their inaction, allowed the risk to occur.) Thus these parties are the ones who are likely to concoct the ‘risk displacement’ or conspiracy stories, as alluded to by Beck. Their stories have the likely intentions of moving the blame for fear from ‘at fault’ parties. An easy scapegoat for this displacement comes with redirecting the blame to parties who might stand to gain somehow from the real ‘at fault’ party's cessation of activities.

Beck’s delving into the realms of generalisation is not acceptable in an analysis which attempts to be symmetrical. I construe a "conspiracy theory" - as Beck alludes here - as a theory which is guilty of imparting unnecessary complexity to a story, whilst oversimplistically interpreting the relevant parties intentions. If Beck wants to say this legitimately, then he must make the point in specific regard to the issue, both directly and substantially.

There are no reasonable analytical grounds upon which issues should be placed into the derogatory category of "conspiratorial" without substantiation: the analyses should be dealt with on a case by case basis. Such vacuous ridicule is a product of either equally void arguments or mental laziness, (a criticism Beck attributes to "post"). Beck does himself a disservice by reducing himself to this kind of rhetoric, as he may well have a point here, behind the rhetoric.

Chomsky deals with the problem in Manufacturing Consent, in his comments of those that find his work on the media to be a "conspiracy theory". He notes that this act of labelling is nothing but an evasive tactic that does not address the issues at hand. The engendering of such attitudes is a common trend, and a smokescreen that serves to deny and defame without evidence or argument.

Another reservation that I have with Beck is on the matter of whether Beck’s Risk Society does indeed constitute a paradigmatic change.

I believe that the Risk Society could constitute a paradigmatic change, for all the reasons given in Beck’s argument. He has, however, not firmly elaborated upon the variation between the idea of society having "absorbed, generalised and normalised the destructive power of war", and the presence of war during "phase one" of the industrial society. It is not presumptuous to say that war has been around for a long time, and that this in itself presents its own version of boundless, infinite risks for the individual. So in this context, there is a problem with redefining phase two of the industrial revolution on the basis of boundless risks, which is one of Beck’s criteria. What is needed here is the elaboration of a clear distinction between the use of war as a device for the subversion of the proletariat and preservation and expansion of dominant interest groups, as opposed to the infusing of risk into everyday life, with all of its market and psychological/anthropological consequences.

I believe that there is such a distinction to be had, and just that it has not been satisfactorily articulated in the paper. (Again, Beck may have done so in his major work). Hence the assumption on my part, that the problem is only of minor significance. The pertinence of Beck’s observations far outweigh any such reservations: the reorganising and even revolutionary potential of risk seems to give it weight as a true paradigmatic change.

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