Lack of knowledge of risks can lead to risks
RSM researcher Elisabeth Brein blogs about the perception of risk and its consequences. She is a criminologist and project manager, and her specialist subject is human behaviour and leadership during crisis situations.
We live in a precautionary culture, but there’s a problem with being precautionary. It might be holding us up.
The way we deal with unsafety, threat and loss has changed with advances and transformations in modern life; in scientific knowledge that is reflected in economic growth, and with the enormous increase in humans’ survival chances.
Not surprisingly, our views on prosperity, health and wellbeing have changed too. We are less willing to accept exposure to risk, threats and loss as a fact of life. We expect loss and damages to be compensated, and to be able to live free from damage.
In this so-called precautionary culture, we have the desire to live in a safe and predictable environment. The precautionary principle, identified by Pieterman (2008), argues that when an activity raises threats or harm to human health or the environment, we take precautionary measures – even though there is no causal relationship. Frequently occurring events that involve a small number of deaths are more acceptable than less frequent events with a large number of deaths, even though the total number of deaths for the small-but-frequent events would be much greater.
Earlier, Boutelier (2005) said we don’t live in a utopia of safety, but that we imply safety and security in much of our thinking and acting – it’s what people need: “the unfeasible desire for coincidence of maximum freedom and maximum safety” (p.25).
Inevitable damage or exclusion of risk?
The human attitude to threats is generally one of three; one of guilt, one of risk culture or one of precaution. But some threats have diminished in recent history – food shortages, for example – but others have increased, such as environmental pollution.
The culture of guilt is an individualistic approach in which everyone is responsible for their own damage, which is seen as relatively inevitable and therefore accepted. Here, acute damage is classed as ‘danger’ but risk refers to the damage that could occur sooner or later.
Risk cultures consider whether excluding or limiting damage will yield more than the costs involved. Research shows that risks taken voluntarily, such as smoking and mountaineering, are assessed as lower and are therefore more easily accepted than numerically equal but involuntary risks.
More recently, people have started to considered damage to be avoidable and risk culture has become precautionary culture. There is less left to chance, and the focus has changed to issues surrounded by uncertainty – and the prevention of damage with the exclusion of risks.
In the precautionary culture, every new technology must demonstrate that it causes no damage to nature, the environment or future generations. Science is required to provide absolute guarantees about safety. But it can be argued that damage actually happens during the development of a technology. And it’s here that the application of precautionary principles leads to stagnation of development.
For example, our concern about climate change contributes to the current high level of interest in renewable sources of energy and nuclear energy, but there’s political and social resistance to nuclear power. Science must guarantee nuclear technology is completely safe. Proponents of the precautionary principle say it might be harmful. And so, based on this, the authorities take precautionary measures with far-reaching limitations, strict conditions and prohibitions.
Risky not to allow risks
It’s a risk to not allow risks; the characterisation of the precautionary principle is a lack of factual knowledge about safety. If the exclusion of risks cannot be demonstrated with complete scientific certainty, then the next resort is a determination of the 'benefit of the safety', a principle that’s difficult to criticise. Who wants damage, accidents or disasters?
Helsloot et al. (2011) is critical of this presentation. Their research has shown that even a lack of evidence of harmlessness leads to restraint, stagnation in development, and – paradoxically – introduces new risks.
They argue that the application of the precautionary principle can actually increase risk, because scientific evidence of the causal chain that leads to damage is set aside, and the relationship between cause and effect of the relevant risk is no longer decisive. It’s unclear what these choices in risk management are actually based on, and the results of research increasingly belong to politicians. It’s a fact that science is becoming increasingly politicised.
No innovation without risks
But science can’t issue certainties about the absence of harmful effects, and doesn’t follow the precautionary principle. Fundamental rejection of new developments – for example nuclear energy – by setting extreme safety requirements slows the pace of research and development. New techniques such as nuclear energy are, by definition, uncertain; every activity involves risks and there is no progress without risks. Trial and error is a fundamental part of human existence.
A false security
The precautionary principle is a false security that insists on ‘trial without error’. On the contrary, risks must be weighed and taken, and the only reason to halt or stop the development of innovations is cause-effect relationships. Damage has to be foreseen, but it actually happens during processes that cannot originate from a desire for absolute safety. It means that the culture of precaution is the real risk. Fear and ignorance of change can obstruct current and new developments.
If you enjoyed reading this, try another one in our series of blog posts about aspects of safety from the Centre of Excellence in Public Safety Management (CESAM) at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). It is intended to act as an introduction to the Centre’s work; to promote and foster the professional development and management of public safety organisations, and to give CESAM members a platform to share their observations and experiences as academics and citizens. Please see our webpage to find out more.
Pieterman, R. (2008) De voorzorgcultuur. Streven naar veiligheid in een wereld vol risico en onzekerheid, Den Haag: Boom Juridische Uitgevers.
Boutellier, H, (2005). De veiligheidsutopie hedendaags onbehagen en verlangen rond misdaad en straf Boom Juridische Uitgevers.
Helsloot, I., Pieterman, R., & Hanekamp, J. (2011). Risico's en redelijkheid: naar een nieuw beoordelingskader voor risico's in Nederland.