X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.
Risk-taking and risk-rejection are not just things that people do because they see something as good or bad, but they're part of the context of life, in which people support the kind of social relations they like and they oppose the kind of social relations they don't like.
Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Aaron Wildavsky, author of Searching for Safety, The New Politics of the Budgetary Process, and several other distinguished books. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Professor Wildavsky. In your book on risk with Mary Douglas you take a look at how we perceive risk.
AARON WILDAVSKY: People do not perceive dangers as isolated individuals, but as part of institutions in their relationships with others. Without realizing it, you know that if you are dealing with a right-wing, socially conservative group, they will tell you that the latest mine disaster is the price of progress, but that when people violate the divine commandments against the mixing of the sexes He will bring plague against them. In other words, they minimize the danger of accidents coming from industry and they maximize those from social deviants. Whereas, if you're taking a left-wing, egalitarian group, they will tell you that there's no problem at all in casual contact with the sufferers from AIDS, but that if you ingest one molecule of a cancer-causing substance among trillions upon trillions! it will cause cancer. To interpret, they minimize the dangers of social deviance and they maximize those that come from industry. The reason is that they are egalitarians and they see corporate capitalism as their enemy, so they want to tear it down. If Joe and Paul have dairies on the opposite sides of the street, little grocery stores, and Joe wants to drive Paul out of business and he spreads the rumor that when you eat sour cream at Paul's dairy you get cancer, and if he can get that rumor believed, if it has credence, Paul is not gonna stay in business very long. Well, they are trying to drive the corporate capitalists out of business and, as far as I can see, they're doing a pretty fair job of it.
MP: What more can we say about risk of, in terms of, say, engineers' perception, in terms of whether there is an abstract notion of risk that crosses the individual's boundaries?
AARON WILDAVSKY: Well, it is true that of course sometimes people who know more about things have different perceptions than those who know less, but the thesis of the book on risk and culture that Mary Douglas and I did is that people choose what to fear, to support their way of life. This means then that if you get, say, nuclear engineers and physicists, we know that ninety-five percent of them think nuclear power is a good deal, and safe enough, compared to alternatives. But if you ask the general population, you're going to find maybe sixty percent very leery, and if you were to ask, say, the National Resource and Defense Council or the Union of Concerned Scientists, or public-interest lobbies, you find ninety-nine percent are opposed to it. In other words, in any study done, there is no relationship whatsoever between knowledge of the subject and willingness to accept or desire to reject certain types of risk. Some people have psychological theories. Well, you know, my host here is risk-taking. Presumably, he jumps in front of trains and cars as a matter of choice, whereas other people are risk-rejecting. But you can see how foolish this is. You will go to a meeting of something like an Abalone Alliance, which is really hot against nuclear power, but on a different level they throw their bodies on the line, they are willing to go to jail, they disrupt their activities! That is risk-taking too. So, risk-taking and risk-rejection are not just things that people do because they see something is good or bad, but they're part of the context of life, in which people support the kind of social relations they like, and they oppose the kind of social relations they don't like. In other words, the struggle over risk, properly interpreted, is the struggle over the desirability of our institutions, reaching such questions as, who should have how much power, or money, and wealth, and power, and expertise, sufficiently equally distributed in our society. Are they too widely distributed? Are there too few who rule over too many? It is these questions which are the real questions underneath the buzzing confusion about risk. Take something we know for example. Which has never been disputed. That the amount of carcinogenic material in ordinary food, of the kind we all eat, compared to food in which there is pesticides, or some other residue that comes from industry. That the ratio between the good stuff, uncontaminated, and the contaminated stuff, is 10,000 to 1. That is, nature is great on chemical, very big on chemical warfare. And the result of this is that we get far more from ordinary food, including socalled safe food or organic food, than we do from chemicals of course. How would a potato survive if it couldn't ward off predators? I like to tell, or to play the game of the, the parlor game of the rational potato. If mother tells you, tells me, that I should eat the jacket because the jacket has the vitamins, and of course, as was often the case, mother was right. But, what mother didn't know was that every living, growing thing, to survive evolution, has to be able to ward off predators, otherwise we wouldn't know it, and the way potatoes do that is with a poison. Now, I don't mean you should stop eating potatoes, they are perfectly all right, but on rare occasions when potatoes rot and the poisons accumulate, people have been known to get very sick or even to die, from it. Now, if you were a rational potato, where would you put your poisons? In the milky, white, soft center, or in the harsh, rough, abrasive, bark? I contend the rational potato would put its poisons where its vitamins are. And that is really the theme of the book on searching for safety, that is, it tells you, starts off with the notion that the good and bad health consequences of objects, chemical, ?prostheses, things in general, are intertwined, together. So it's not like you had a tree like the Tree of Life, and one side says Safe! Organic! Wonderful! Healthy! and the other says Sick! Perverted! Disgusting! Awful! And you look at your government officials or your private entrepreneurs and you say, for God's sake, pick the healthy and nice! and not the sick and disgusting! Often you hear discussions on the subject that make it appear that was the choice. But if the good and the bad health effects are intertwined in the same objects, as indeed they are, then we need a process for getting us over time searching out more of the good, and less of the bad. So, for example, if we say, I'm a purist, I want pure food, don't give me this crap about adulterization here, what are you? some monster trying to suck out my stomach, make my fingers rot and fall off? I want it all! I won't do anything, or I won't accept anything that ?isn't contaminated. That's a death sentence. That means you can't live! Water, for example, that is chlorinated, which is the water we drink, has cancer-causing agents in it. Chlorine forms chloroform, which is a very weak carcinogen. Why do we have it? We have it because, compared to the alternatives, like getting sick in other ways from water, chlorine is a better bet. Not because it's pure. So, our choice in life is how much and what kinds of contamination, and how to search out those combinations of things that will leave us better off. But you can't do that by saying no. You can say no to drugs, but you can't say no to contamination! because risk and contamination is coterminous with life. No contamination, no breathing, no life. Then we don't have to discuss any more.
MP: In the risk book, you and Mary Douglas talk about the problems of communication. You've sort of established the fact that we have, that the debates over risk are really debates over broader social issues. You also talk about the confusion of language, that groups don't perceive each other's language because they have different experiential systems.
AARON WILDAVSKY: Let me take an example that's not in the book but which I have worked up recently and which residents of the Bay Area at least will recognize. The famous Dr.ÝRuth Wertheimer comes with her sex show to Stanford. A young man gets up in the audience and says that a young woman and he were having a good time, they by mutual consent had their clothes off, things were going hot and heavy, they were in bed, and at the moment! when he expected consummation, she said, "No thanks. I've thought it over. Let's not do it." Did Dr.ÝRuth think this was a terrific idea? No, she says, the young woman should not have led him on. That led to a storm of protests from, among others, feminists. And when you looked at the nature of the discussion, you began to see that words that never had been used before had come into our vocabulary and other words, and I have in mind especially the word "rape" has taken on a quite different meaning in our times. Take a phrase like "spousal rape." I can never remember hearing that in my youth. I think the idea was that when a woman married she gave her consent. And she could not literally be raped. Now we know that women have been forced since time immemorial and that it's quite possible to be forced, in marriage, as in any other way. But it was considered, the relations between men and women were such that women would not have had a leg to stand on, so to speak. They would say "you've made your bed," ya know, "now live in it." Whatever. What the feminist movement tries to do is give women greater control over the situation, and to do that, they want to make, give the woman the power to say no until the last possible moment. So, from a situation that we all agreed on, ya know, if somebody comes with a club and beats up a woman and forces her, then we know, to a situation become much more murky now. There is spousal rape, there is date rape, there are other kinds of things. So I think if you think anybody who's old enough to think back ten, fifteen, thirty, twenty years ago will see that the consideration of these subjects is quite different now. Well, in very much the same way, when I grew up, the kind of discussion of risks was that, if you wanted opportunities, you took risks. There was nothing to be gained by sitting still, some people made it and other people didn't, maybe it was luck, maybe it was talent. But risk was something that went along with the job. Emh? Now, risk is more and more something that is imposed by foreign sources on unwilling people. The point to be made again, in answer to those who say that people will accept risks that they knowingly volunteer for, but they won't accept risks that are imposed on them, what is wrong with this is they don't see the language shifting. Namely, that risks that were accepted, like the ones that go with marriage, as par for the course, so to speak, have now become involuntary. If to say a risk is involuntary is to say it's unacceptable, the classification is the decision, and therefore there's a struggle, not only over the decision, but how the items shall be classified. In other words, we negotiate over the meanings of words and phrases, not out of some desire to engage in arcane law, but out of a very serious desire to have our preferences for public policy manifested in the way words are used.
MP: And to support our ideology. We'll be right back. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, and our guest today is Professor Aaron Wildavsky, author of Searching for Safety, The New Politics of the Budgetary Process, and several other distinguished books. So far, we've discussed risk in terms of perception from the group that you're part of, or your worldview. We've talked about safety as being part of a continuum of the entire world, in which safety plays a role of moving between several choices. We've talked in general about the way that risk and safety are perceived as related to social pressure or power or ideology. And lastly, we've looked at the way risk can be related to conceptual categories and boundaries and language. Professor Wildavsky, could you discuss the way that you think society can deal with safety issues? The issues of resiliency and the metaphor of the body?
AARON WILDAVSKY: Basically, there are two main strategies for dealing with danger. One is, of course, very well known to us, it is called Trial and Error. And the opposing strategy is Trial without Error, that is, no trials are permitted without prior guarantees! that there won't, that no harm will come. The trial-and-error strategy we will call resilience; that is, you learn from adversity how to do better. The trial-without-error strategy we will call the strategy of prevention; that is, through government regulation, trying to stop bad things from happening. So let's ask, first, what you would need to make a strategy of prevention, of trial without error, work in the world. And listeners should know that this is not some academic conception, but trial-without-error is the standard of public policy for new chemicals. And for other new processes. The first thing you need to know is information about the consequences of the alternatives here. Namely, that you have to know what will occur, and its probability of occurrence. That is, you need to know the quality of the event, and its likelihood. I asked a whole variety of people, and I looked at a lot of literature, to see if anything important had been predicted in my lifetime. By important I mean things like the computer revolution, nuclear warfare, feminism, things that make a difference to our lives. And I think the answers were batting zero. This leads to the problem of false positives! Namely, that, of the evils against which we seek to protect ourselves, many will turn out never to have occurred, or to be much milder or weaker. The result of this is that we use up enormous amounts of resources. So you say, Why not spend money, for health? You know, if you've got your health, you've got everything, and money doesn't matter. In a separate section, I try to go along with the folk wisdom of Sophie Tucker, who in the Brooklyn of my youth was famous for the Yiddish red-hot mama who used to say that "I've been poor and I've been rich and, believe me, richer is better." And I say richer is safer. If you look among the countries of the world, those with the highest gross national product per capita have much better health and safety records than those that are low. If you look within countries, richer people are healthier and safer than poorer people. Otherwise, [chuckling], what would be the point of the poor trying to get better off only to get sick from the alleged ills of affluence here? So, money is not just money. Money is health, as well. A second question then arises. Well, why shouldn't we be cautious? What's wrong? I mean, health is precious. Why be half safe? The old way was that engineers say would estimate what a bridge would need to carry a maximum load and they'd multiply by ten or a hundred times, just to be sure, 'cause calculations aren't that good. But the new way is that at every step in the process, and this process may have two-hundred steps, you say, let's be conservative. So you keep on adding factors on the safety side. Well, the results of this are horrendous. One is you don't know what you're doing. That is, it's not as if you calculated the probability of damage to the best and then said let's make things better, but you have calculated your estimates of things going wrong so many different times in so many different ways that you can't figure out anything. This is to confuse risk estimation with risk decision-making, which is quite another matter. But it's worse than this. Let's suppose you come up with something that's very, very conservative. And I come and say, cut that in half. And then you come and say cut my half into eight parts! because it's always possible to go lower and lower. In other words, this is a reducto ad absurdum. There is another message here for us. Somebody comes and says, look, there is a very tiny risk here. We can certainly accept that. And then somebody says, but if you add up all the tiny risks! then we're gonna do worse, and our health is gonna deteriorate. Let's accept as given that there are many new things in the world and many of them hurt us. And many old things hurt us. And lots of things are not good for somebody. And let's stipulate that, like in a courtroom, without argument. If that were true, and that is all there was in the world, why are we here talking? Why when I go on my campus aren't the stretcher-bearers carrying the youth of America away? Why, if you look your world almanacs, do you see that health rates are improving so much, decade by decade, year by year?! According to this logic, it ought to be going done 'cause all we're doing is adding danger to life! Obviously, something else is going on here. From ecological studies and sex studies and so on, we know that organisms that are superbly adapted to a particular niche or level often do very poorly under conditions of environmental change. Whereas those who don't do so wonderfully at one level are often able to manage reasonably well in a number. That is of course resilience. What we see is that, while the trial and error is causing harm, and here's no doubt about it, it is also giving us knowledge we can't get in any other way. We have a decentralized economic system. All sorts of people are exploring the nature of the world, most of them are doing it badly, and they kind of, or their efforts disappear, but others find the right mixtures! of risks and benefits, in order to do well. The result of this is that the opportunity losses we suffer when we have trial and error are more than made up by the opportunity gains! If something like that was not happening, we should all be sicker, we shouldn't be here talking to each other. So. The thesis is this. That our health and safety depend on the accumulation of generalizable resources; that is, resources that can be used to make other things that we don't today know we'll need. One of the few certainties in life is bad things are gonna happen that we haven't thought of yet. AIDS is a very good example, since I'm not aware of anyone who had the remotest idea something like this could happen. If you want to fight it, you couldn't have remedies beforehand. The fact that we have a vibrant biotechnical industry is a tremendous asset for us. In the same way, the more wealth, the more knowledge, the more information, the more communication we have, the better able we are to respond resiliently to the bad things that do occur, and to take advantage of new knowledge to do better. If we follow only policies of prevention, we're gonna make ourselves poorer, and then sicker. What is the point of this? The argument of that book is not that you should never use prevention. When we know what's gonna happen, when we know how it's gonna happen, when we know when it's gonna happen, when we know what to do about it, so the remedy isn't worse than the disease! then of course, as with public-health measures, we should prevent dangers from occurring. But, as in most areas of life, when we don't, trial and error is a much better strategy. That is, my argument is not pushing progress and this pace of innovation is good for the pocketbook, which we know it is, but that it's good for our health. And to argue against those who would stop technological progress is the name of health, because everything we know tells us otherwise. I'll conclude like this. Nobody in this whole field, up to now, has asked the critical question. How did we get so much healthier and safer than any other people in the history of the world?! We are in danger of putting the genie back in the bottle, that is, of undoing the good we have done in a misguided effort to believe that if we just kind of sit still and hold our breath we're gonna get healthier. But it ain't so. On the other hand, if you're gonna say, well, we expect hazards, but they are remote, that is, way in the future, and they are tiny! Six parts per quadrillion! A figure so amazingly small it's only in recent years we ever even learned how to measure it! Compared to substantial benefits, I believe this is foolish, and I have an example for you, which I've worked on since the book was written. And that is the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment. It turns that even the greatest critics agree that the probability of something going wrong with this is remote. What they say is that if something does go wrong, it could be bad for us. Faced with a remote contingency, which has never happened before and nobody's even got a cold from this process, in all the years they've been doin' it, there is immense benefit. I didn't realize until I studied this how many millions of people suffer from genetic defects, that could be helped. For instance, if, for example, we have something like global warming, or global cooling. By the way, both are distinct possibilities, and not just the warming. And that might say imperil food supplies. Isn't it good to be able to increase the output of cows by half with the same input? And there are many other possibilities. If it's gonna get colder in some regions of the world, then the ?ice-minus stuff, which would make, say, potatoes more tolerant to, and strawberries more tolerant to frost, that would be a good idea. The advantages are known to come in the next couple of decades that would be very large. The disadvantages are, first of all, remote and extremely unlikely. Hnh. If we can't face those, then we become like that Russian character in ?Gonshurovnana, ?Loblumov, who spent his whole life in bed, and who made only one mistake. Of course, when you spend your whole life in bed, everything is very dangerous. He got up once. That was the end of him.
MP: Thank you for being with us, Professor Wildavsky. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, our guest was Aaron Wildavsky. The books that were mentioned primarily were Searching for Safety, published by Transaction Publishers.