Risk, Ethics, and Public Space: The Impact of BSE
and Foot-and-Mouth Disease on Public Thinking
POSTPONEMENT OF A GENERAL ELECTION
We currently face a complex and contradictory range of positions about risk. On the one hand, there is a general presumption that the scientificity of the process of measuring what we term risk enables us to have confidence in the end results of schedules of risk. Thus, for example, when citizens are informed by national health authorities that our risk of contracting certain forms of cancer is significantly decreased by the daily consumption of fruit and vegetables, we can expect that an alteration in our eating patterns will prove genuinely beneficial. Science claims it can do this work of risk prediction and that this is a useful task in helping the larger nonscientific community to reach responsible decisions in dealing with ascertainable risks. We also ask science to take on that task, often with the remit to report back on its findings to the state, which can be said to represent our collective interests, for in many areas we need the state to act for us.
On the other hand, we often increasingly exercise agency, drawing on and utilizing our common-sense judgments about what constitutes a risk in our daily lives, because we sense that scientific rigor and reliability are not straightforward, not least due to the very social processes that produce scientific rationality.
A further complication about risk relates to where we—the citizens of democratic societies—stand in relation to the state. The definitions of risk and actions to reduce its occurrence have comprised an interventionist discourse used by regulatory bodies that have had authority from governments to oversee safety to ensure citizen protection in a seemingly objective manner. And yet what has been a compromise device of regulation and protection may now be in danger of breaking down completely.