BSE, Risk and the Communication of Uncertainty: A Review of Lord Phillips' Report from the BSE Inquiry (UK). (Review Essay/Revue Critique)

By Jones, Kevin E. | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

BSE, Risk and the Communication of Uncertainty: A Review of Lord Phillips' Report from the BSE Inquiry (UK). (Review Essay/Revue Critique)


Jones, Kevin E., Canadian Journal of Sociology


Introduction

Since the first recognized cases of BSE (1) (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) were identified in the UK during the late 1980s, the history of 'mad cow' disease, as it is popularly known, has been dominated by controversy, scandal and loss. Twenty years after its story began, the aftershocks of a veterinary disease which led to the deaths of almost one hundred UK citizens, culled millions of cattle and scarred the national beef industry, continue to pervade British society. It is within this context that Lord Phillips released his report from the BSE Inquiry to the British House of Commons in October 2000. Tasked with reviewing the emergence and identification of BSE and vCJD in the UK, along with the adequacy of the actions taken by the Government in response to the disease, Lord Phillips has produced a report of massive length. (2) Consisting of 16 volumes, the report covers a wide range of issues. These include the consequences of BSE for human and animal health, the disease's impact on the agricultural in dustry and the national economy, and an evaluation of the science and industrial processes in relation to BSE and vCJD.

It is of no surprise that BSE has attracted a great deal of academic attention in the social sciences, and although the disease is seldom treated in depth, it is often held up as exemplifying current trends in social theory. This is no truer than in the case of European sociology's attraction to theories of the so-called 'risk society'. However, what is more important, is that BSE has become a locus around which the language of social theory -- 'risk' and 'uncertainty' in this case -- has melded with public discussions concerning the ability of society to contend with relentless scientific and technological innovation (Rose, 2000: P. 63).

BSE and the Risk Society

Echoing one of the key tenets of theories of the risk society, Lord Phillips indicates that at the "heart" of the BSE story is the ability of society to contend with both known and unknown hazards (Phillips et al., 2000a: p. xvii-xviii). In other words, the emphasis is placed on the ability of science, industry and government to cope with routine uncertainty. An awareness of the fallibility and inconclusiveness of science, the recognition that hazards are the unpredictable consequence of human processes, and a loss of faith in the capacity of traditional institutions to secure society from these risks are all implicated in the Phillips Report. The inquiry's treatment of these components of uncertainty is specifically focussed around three core themes: i) the cause of BSE and the persistent spread of the disease amongst cattle, ii) the transmission of BSE to humans, and iii) the Government's failure to communicate risk and uncertainty to the public.

The Cause and Spread of BSE in Cattle

Although BSE was first identified in 1986, certainty about the cause of the disease and why it suddenly developed in cattle has eluded science. Originally thought to be linked to scrapie -- a more common form of TSE (3) found in sheep -- the Phillips Report now cites scientific evidence that demonstrates that this link does not exist. Instead, the report categorizes the cause of BSE as "unknown", and acknowledges that TSEs may develop sporadically (randomly and without explanation) in species in which they have not been identified previously (Phillips et al., 2000a: pp. 249-250). (4)

However, if the cause of BSE is recognized as uncertain, or potentially even unknowable, the report is far more certain in ascribing a cause to the persistent and widespread transmission of the disease throughout the UK beef industry. This epidemic side of the BSE story, Lord Phillips suggests, can be directly attributed to human innovation and industrial processes. Uncertainty, in this sense, is not understood solely as a limitation of knowledge, but as the source of potential hazards, or risks, which are the yet unknown products of our own making. …

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