Magazine article The Spectator

Too Much Zeal

Magazine article The Spectator

Too Much Zeal

Article excerpt

SCARRED TO DEATH FROM BSE TO GLOBAL WARMING by Christopher Booker and Richard North Continuum, £16.99, pp. 494, ISBN 9780826486141 £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 Many of us are beginning to weary of the pushier sort of 'expert'.

Gone is the sense of proportion, the admission of scientific doubt, the ability to weigh risks against benefits. Taking seriously a year's worth of their health warnings would give anyone an eating disorder.

It hardly builds confidence when so much of the advice directly contradicts whatever was confidently pronounced beneficial only months previously. The natural reaction is to take it all with a pinch of salt (if that is still allowed) and assume that the hasty appearance of a government minister on the one o' clock news to endorse the latest findings is an early indication that they will transpire to be nonsense.

For 20 years we were solemnly and repeatedly lectured that 21 alcoholic units a week for men and 14 units for women were the upper limits of what is safe to drink. A couple of months ago we discovered that these figures were, in the belated admission of their author, 'plucked out of thin air'. But did anyone think to query the evidence at the time? No, we were taken in by the government-endorsed expert. The only wonder is that he has not been knighted.

Sadly, such frequent infelicities are minor matters compared to the jaw-dropping outrages and abuses of authority revealed by the dogged research of Christopher Booker and Richard North. Scared to Death is a masterful and salutary account of the most costly misjudgments of the last 25 years. Written with painful clarity, here is an important study of the process by which sloppy science becomes a difficult to shift orthodoxy. In the process, Booker and North have produced a shocking but not remotely hysterical indictment of how government error is re-enforced -- rather than held to account -- by the media and special interest groups.

A common pattern unites these scandals.

The scares that have done the most damage have concerned products -- often food -- that have the potential to affect the entire population. Usually there is a scintilla of truth behind the initial warning. Unfortunately, the zeal of the expert is fuelled by the gullibility of the media, complicit in the desire for a headline and spoon-fed by the promotional energies of pressure groups. The result is a panic in government departments staffed by people who lack the wit to ask the right questions and fear accusations of complacency if they do not act hastily.

How we have repented this at our leisure and, more importantly, our cost. Now that over £3.4 billion has been spent incinerating the nation's entire cattle herd over 30 months old, Scared to Death points out that no link between the fatal human brain disease new variant CJD and eating beef infected with BSE has been conclusively demonstrated. Yet, how could the British government not be seen to be doing something drastic when, under pressure in the Newsnight studio to reveal his worst fears, one of the government's scientific advisers, Dr John Patterson, suggested that half a million Britons could be dead of the disease by 2005.

It is not as if the resulting cull of eight million cows can be credited with preventing the anticipated human catastrophe. After all, sufficient BSE-contaminated beef had already been served on the nation's plates to expose a vast section of the population to the alleged dangers before the cull began. …

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