Politics of and Approaches to Risk (an overview)

 Politics and risk   In the broadest sense the concept of security, or capable risk management,  defines the range of services a State is contracted by its citizenry to provide. The discourse of risk, in public and official channels is intrinsic to political discourse as a result of the close relationship between authority, those submitting to authority, and the provisions for security an authority agrees to uphold in return for its control. Risk management, the provision of security, is an essential aspect of the social contract.  This relationship is more important in a democratic society than in other forms of State, where the social contract is regularly reviewed through elections.

Risk analysis intersects my own area of interest, political rhetoric, and absurd literature because of this close relationship between risk, discourse, methodology, and authority.

Politics and risk theory   Because risk, risk theory, and the epistemology of risk are all integral to society, and issues of risk are matters of political urgency, the flow of ideas, theories, and ideologies related to risk moves fast, resulting in the consequent influence of social and political landscape by new theory.  The development of risk theory in recent decades as a prominent area of applied research provides a case study for the development and effects of disparate research methodologies over time, and the increased of new theoretical frameworks as they gain prominence and legitimacy within social and academic institutions.

Risk perception/mitigation   A reaction to danger can be instinctive, purely in the present, without forethought. If danger is redefined more broadly as ‘stimuli’, this basic level of reaction approaches the normative definition of the one capability fundamental to all life. (The thermostat, fulfilling this condition in a sense, sometimes confuses philosophers).

An anticipated danger, however, involves a higher level of cognition, a degree of reflexivity. For an individual the comprehension of a particular risk implies forethought, a level of reflexivity, the abstracted modelling of possibilities in advance. It also implies the capacity for devising means of avoiding danger, or at least mitigating its effects.

In this sense risk is a frame of reference appropriate to consideration of the process of methodological inquiry more generally. It is essentially reflexive, concerning the confluence of reaction to stimuli and cognition. It deals with whole-processing of a particular perception or communication to the analysis, modelling and management of an external event.  The development of risk analysis and theory as an aspect of Western discourse and a focus of research can also be seen as a model of increasing reflexivity: methodological analysis of danger is complemented by theoretical analysis and critique of this method , which is complemented by ontological and historical research that investigates risk theory.

The individual response to danger involves reacting in the moment, and reflexive consideration of the event.  This reflection after the event results in the development of methods for recognising and even anticipating a similar event in future and for harm mitigation.  In the broader social context institutions are developed to perform various aspects of this process – the collation of risk perception data, analysis of the data, and the development of mitigation strategies.

Actuarial approach   This risk assessment approach is founded on a calculation involving relative frequency of an event over time. (Renn 1992 p58)

toxicological and epidemiological approach  Methodologies designed to determine causal relationships through modelling and experimentation on imagined variants of modelled scenarios. Toxicological experiments, experiments on animals, test these causal relationships between agents of harm and human beings. Epidemiological studies compare population groups with and without exposure to the risk agent.

Psychometrics  The identification of error in conventional risk analysis methods  led to technical analysis of expert, scientific risk mitigation procedures.  But it also prompted studies of public perceptions of risk, at first with a psychological focus, as public perceptions were considered an irrational distortion of expert risk assessment that contributed to error. Early studies based on accumulated public attitude data, says Sheldon Krimsky in the opening essay of Social Theories of Risk, first identified a disparity between public perception of risk, and the explanations and assessments of experts as devised by risk prediction models. (Krimsky 1992 p5)

In his essay Concepts of Risk, (also in the comprehensive volume Social Theories of Risk) Ortwinn Renn suggests the first question investigated by psychological risk research was ‘why individuals do not base their risk judgements on expected values.’ (Renn 1992 p55) Psychometric research essentially exploited the close parallels between the individual perception and assessment of risk and the social. Psychometrics is the psychological theory of probabilistic apprehension. It is essentially akin to a toxicological study, except the results are extrapolated from the individual to the society. Psychometrics extrapolates general social findings from individuals’ responses to risk.   These studies focused at first on individuals’ quantitative analysis of risk, and derived quantitative, statistical information for comparison with expert risk perception.

As expected, studies identified a range of logical and mathematical errors made by the public in reaching conclusions concerning risk, For example low-probability-high-consequence risks are usually perceived as more threatening than more probable risks with low or medium consequences.’ But studies also indicate many of these ‘errors’ were based on ‘contextual variables of risk.’  (for this last, Renn 1992 refers to von Winterfeldt, John, and Borcherding 1981. More generally, an excellent book on the topic of pyschometrics, bias, and error is: ‘Judgement under uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases’, edited by Kahneman, Slovic, and Tversky. Paul Slovic, Sarah Lichtenstein, and Baruch Fischoff of Decision Research are prominent in the field of psychometrics and heuristics in the context of risk research.  Renn (1992) also refers to research and papers on psychometric research by Pollatsek and Tversky 1970, Lopes 1983, Luce and Weber 1986; Slovic, Fischhoff, and Lichtenstein 1981; Vlek and Stallen 1981; Renn 1983; 1990; Covelllo 1983, Gould et al. 1988.; Jungermann and Slovic, in press)

Legitimisation of alternate knowledge  The results of psychological or psychometric research were designed to provide a useful critique of lay sources of knowledge on risk, but in fact also  had the opposite effect, beginning a process of increased legitimisation of lay or local knowledge of potential dangers.

Orthodox  methodologies  subsequently became the subject of investigation which produced detailed critiques of technical risk analysis methodologies.  Renn, in Social Theories of Risk, cites studies by  Hoos 1980; Douglas 1985; Clarke 1989; Meyer-Abich 1989; Mazur 1985; Beck 1986; Freudenburg 1988).  These studies found that many of the distorting influences that affect the public also affect expert risk mitigation, since, as Slovic notes, human interaction is involved at every part of a risk response.  In Concepts of Risk in Social Theory of Risk Renn identifies ‘contextual variables for risk, including ‘qualitative risk characteristics’ and ‘beliefs associated with the cause of risks.'(Renn 1992 p65)

Meanwhile other research, such as, famously the 1989 study of Brian Wynne into Scottish sheep farmers in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster (Wynne,1992 p280), substantiated evidence of the efficacy of lay knowledge in anticipating and avoiding danger.

In his 1997 essay The Risk Game, Paul Slovic suggests studies indicate public perception of risk is ‘qualitative and complex’ (Slovic 1997) entailing consideration of factors such as ‘uncertainty, dread, catastrophic potential, controllability, equity, risk to future generations’ (Slovic 1997). Conversely, from the distanced expert’s frame of reference, risk is ‘synonymous with expected mortality, consistent with the dictionary definition given above and consistent with the ways that risks tend to be characterized in risk assessments’ (Slovic, 1997)

Qualitative methodologies  Brian Wynne, in his 1989 study of the impacts of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on agriculture in the UK  qualitative case study methods, analysing farmers’ responses to scientific information to establish the relative accuracy of local knowledge of conditions and calculation of probable effects, compared with the official knowledge, on certain grounds (but not all).  This example illustrates the use of non-quantitative methods for the analysis of data and the formulation of conclusions, based on the nature of testimonial, the fundamental basis of human description of events and phenomena in the physical universe.

Quantitative analysis is adequate for the study of the objects, energies and  forces that compose the material plane, and can be used for the measurement of magnitude and proportion of groups of individuals, the power of institutions, and the flow of messages that constitute the social ground.  But the reductive nature of quantitative methodologies, founded in the requirement for a single, common  criteria of measurement, is essentially limited in inquiry into both the physical and social or methodological ground together.  Numerical analysis does not easily permit consideration of the effects of various elements of one system upon various elements of another.  One site of inquiry must be chosen, at the expense of detail and clarity in the other.  For example, a large range of fatal causes might be identified, but for their meaningful and exact numerical comparison a single criteria for measurement is necessary, such as number of deaths.

Qualitative analysis and methodologies, usually combined with quantitative elements, have advanced in risk theory with the legitimisation of alternative epistemologies, originally as a result of quantitative psychometric research. On the psychological level, the qualitative paradigm involves a second reflexive leap, the re-processing of data already cognitively processed – the analysis of thought about the external, physical world, and the identification and adjustment of perception and strategy accordingly.  Qualitative methods –  for example some elements of survey research, case study research, ethnomethodology, and content analysis – discard exactness and broad applicability in favour of a broader frame of reference, allowing for research into the influence of  elements within disparate systems, for example physical and social systems, on one another.  The significance of a large number of elements can be considered in conjunction, providing contextualisation of events and phenomena under inquiry.

Risk communication management   Critique of technical-scientific risk analysis and legitimisation of lay risk perception represented the emergence of political contestation of disparate modes of inquiry.  It also represented a shift in the focus of public and official interest in risk from the exclusive focus on physical and material assessment of danger to analysis of social phenomena associated with the effects of danger and risk.

The shift in the social and research focus from the physical site of danger to social perceptions and the human and social effects began with the application of quantitative methods to the new social site of inquiry, through the psychometric method.  Increasingly, though, the communication through which risk is handled on the social and political levels  itself became the predominant site of inquiry.

It could be argued the orthodox response of decision-makers applying a scientific paradigm to the advent of qualitative and social analysis and the legitimisation of lay discourse has been the use of the former in the suppression of the latter, and that the shift in the attention of risk researchers to the social plane has in part facilitated the re-orientation of official risk management to the socio-political arena.  Certainly the evolution of the public relations, marketing, and advertising industries have drawn on social research in devising for the economic manipulation of consumers, and the political manipulation of voters.  In the arena of risk management, political, commercial, and state institutions employ strategies that represent a new architecture of risk communication management based on risk communication perception and risk communication analysis.

The use of these agencies in increasingly sophisticated ways allow for the redefining of risk for authorities in accordance with social criteria – the public is affected by the danger directly, but risk to the authorities flows from a potential crisis of public perception arising from the failure to properly manage the perception.  Renn (1992) refers to studies on organisational aspects of risk (Perrow 1984; Clarke 1989) , studies in the sociology of disasters (Dynes, De Marchi and Pelanda 1987), and analyses of media coverage and communication (Mazur 1981 1984; Raymond 1985; Lichtenberg and Maclean 1988 Peltu 1988; Stallings 1990; Peters 1990)

Static taxonomics Taxonomies map the domains that arise from second order reflexivity. They are system of categorisation applied to ‘ a domain of empirical phenomena.’ (p9) for the purposes of better conceptualisation. Krimksy mentions taxonomies by Rowe, 1977, Slovic, Fischoff, and Lichtenstein (1985), a material taxonomy by Burton and Kates (1964) – a taxonomy of natural hazards – and von Winterfeldt and Edwards’ social taxonomy of technological controversies.’ (1984) (Krimsky 1992 p10)

Systems and causal models Systems models determine the elements in a system, and can examine whether relationships exist between them or not. Causal models go further, determining a single path of flow between elements, and determining entirely the flow of possible feedback relationships between elements. A group of ‘laws of association’ are collected into a causal theory concerning ‘a class of phenomena.’ (p10), either ‘deterministic’ or probabilistic (p11)  Krimsky refers to Hohenemser, Kasperson, and Kates (1982) seven stage causal structure ‘starting with human needs and ending in biological effects.’ (p11).  Also to Soderstrom, who proposed, after a study of psychosocial impacts of the restart of Three

Mile Island nuclear facility that certain factors caused first order physiological impacts, and second-order social and community impacts.

(Process model A process model defines an approach to a set of problems, ‘an ordered set of rules, procedures, or analytical tools’ (Krimsky 1992 p12) Krimsky notes that in 1983 the National Research Council of the United States used a seven-stage process model developed by Rowe (1977) to develop a process model for social management of risk: ‘hazard identification, risk estimation, risk valuation, and risk management.’ Specific sectors divide these models more thoroughly. (Krimsky 1992 p13)

Critical theory   Social theory also provides models for the critique of risk communication conceived as an orthodox discourse .  A critical theory paradigm for risk analysis focuses on the unequal distribution of risk  among disparate groups in a community, and on the political machinations that maintain these inequities.  Research that supports critical analysis examines official channels of discourse for evidence of bias and distortion that preserve the political and methodological status quo.

Renn (1992) offers a few risk-related critical theory analyses –  of equity and fairness’ by Kasperson and Kasperson 1983, MacLean 1986, Rosa 1988, and Brion 1988, and studies that analyse ‘risk distribution among classes and populations’ by Schnaiberg 1986 and Beck in studies of 1986 and 1990.

 Renn suggests the critical theory model for risk assessment focuses on ‘the normative aspect of emancipation’ where ‘Emancipation … involves the empowermment of groups and communities to enable them to determine their own acceptable risk level. .. existing institutions impose illegitimate risk policies ‘because they are based on the imposition of risks by one social group on another … and are often not in the interests of those who have to bear them. … risk experiences by different social groups reflect the class structure of society and indicate the inequities in the distribution of power and social influence.’’ (Renn 1992 p70 refers to Habermas 1984 – 87; Forester 1985; and Dombrowski 1987)

Social constructivism  A social constructionist model, unlike the previous models, takes the social ground as formative, and considers the material ground designed to a deep level by human political will.   ‘These concepts treat risks as social constructs that are determined by structural forces in society. Issues such as health threats, inequities, fairness , control, and others cannot be determineed by objective scientific analysis, but only reconstructed from the beliefs and rationalities of the vvarious actors in society.’ (Renn 1992 p71 refers to Johnson and Covello 1987; Bradbury, 1989 ; Gamson and Modigliani 1989)

‘The fabric and texture of these constructions reflect both the interests/values of each group or institution in the various risk arenas and the shared meanings of terms, cultural articats, and the natural phenomena among groups (Renn Concepts of Risk p71 refers to Wynne 1983; Rayner 1987b) …risk policies result from a constant struggle of all participatinng actors to place their meaning of risk on the public agenda and impose it on others. The need to compromise between self-interest, that is constructing one’s own group-specific reality, and the necessity to communicate, that is, constructing a socially meaningful reality, determines the range and limitations of possible constructions of reality. Technical risk analyses are … also based on group conventions, specific interests of elites, and implicit value judgements (Renn 1992 p71 refers to Applebaum 1977; Dietz, Stern, and Riecroft 1989)

Krimsky, Golding, and Plough’s 1990 study Evaluating Risk Communication: Narrative vs. Technical Presentations of Information About Radion considers the application of a narrative theoretical framework as an effective device of risk communication, as compared with a more impersonal technical discourse, in a 1991 risk communication study. The study considered the effectiveness of traditional technical discourse as compared with a narrative discourse for communicating information about risk. ‘Increasingly, expert-based versions of risk communication are coming under critical scrutiny’ (Golding, Krimsky, and Plough 1990)

The social constructivist paradigm invites inquiry into strategic or controlled lines of communication, the impact of conflicting strategies on risk management, and the investigation of devices for the manipulation of discourse about risk in public fora.

Post-Normal science   The response of some risk theorists to the new critique of traditional risk assessment methodologies and the political strategies that had evolved around them was the development of alternate institutional and quasi-institutional structures for the subversion of controlled, expert communication channels and the legitimisation of testimonial and other forms of lay knowledge and critique as a part of official discourse.

‘I came across this field [risk] by accident largely thanks to my long-standing interest in the democratisation of science and technology.’ (Brian Wynne 1992 p274)

In the essay Three Types of Risk Assessment Silvio O. Funtowicz and Jerome R. Ravetz (Funtowicz, Ravetz 1992, p251)  discuss a three-tiered model for the progression of risk assessment. The first step is applied science to be used for assessing high-frequency low-impact risks, the second consultancies, for the application of social theory to risk, and for risk communication,  and for instances of medium-frequency, medium-impact risks.  The third tier is ‘post-normal science’, a consultative, participative, democratic

model for social risk management in which the counsel of citizens and experts are equally valued.  This model, say Funtowicz and Ravetz, is appropriate for application to low-frequency, high-impact events.  This still hypothesised process is described as ‘the democratisation of expertise.’ (Funtowicz, Ravetz 1992, p273,)

As solutions to the distortion by science of sensible risk perception as practised by the populace, and the conflicts created by different values represented in risk communication in societies, Paul Slovic proposes ‘negotiation, mediation, oversight committees, and other forms of public involvement’ (Slovic, 1997 p8) His conclusion is that ‘serious attention to participation and process issues may, in the long run, lead to more satisfying and successful ways to manage risk.’ (Slovic, 1997 p8)

Social amplification   The democratic post-scientific risk mitigation paradigm proposed by Brian Wynne, Slovic, and Funtowicz and Ravetz is obviously anathema to anyone motivated by the desire for centralised, stream-lined control in society.  Orthodox applications of social constructivist models instead provide measures for the improvement of communication control, and the analysis of political attempts by competing interests to distort official  constructions of risk.

Kasperson and Renn used causal modelling together with a systems approach to ‘integrate different dimensions of risk’. The resulting model, called the social amplification model proposes: ‘risk event, sources of amplification, individual stations of amplification, group and individual responses, ripple effects, and impacts.’ (Kasperson 1992 p12)  From one perspective, the social amplification model is a model for the containment of risk events within society.  That is, the model is designed to analyse and mitigate against the impact of potential risks on a particular sector of society, necessarily as .   The model provides for the use of the public as a risk buffer, a separate catchment where the effects of external threats are absorbed.

Risk ontology Sociological studies can examine the interaction of political ideologies, social interests, and other qualitative contributors to the broader concept of value. But they cannot examine the origins of these theories. A third order of reflexivity is capable of framing new relationships between beliefs, methodologies, and strategies, and examining how they evolve over time.

The third order of reflexivity takes as its site of inquiry the theories that underpin political and social interactions in society, and examines the relationships between social forces raised by these theories, and the nature of the empirical ground that is the consequence. The effects of risk theory, management, assessment, and perception, and danger on one another are considered within broad ontological frames.

This is risk ontology – theorising about theorising about risk.

cultural theory

In Cultural Theory and Risk Analysis (another of the essays in Social Theories of Risk) Steve Rayner notes that Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger (1966) was a seminal work in cultural theory. The book was a study in the relationship between social order and dietary restrictions. She makes comparisons of dietary restrictions across cultures, determining a lack of cross-cultural corroboration of dietary culture. She also correlates from textual analysis evidence in Leviticus concerning imposed dietary restrictions with ontological taxonomies elsewhere in the culture of the text’s origin. Douglas dismisses rationalisations of the prohibition against eating pork as medical ( a connection with trichinosis and other disease) as being of 12th century orgiin (from the time of Maimonedes), asking why in China, with far more advanced medical technology, pig was legitimate fare, if the empirical link was evident to Israelites. (Rayner 1992 p86 )

Instead ‘ Douglas (says Rayner 1992) insists that we should take seriously the explanation given in Leviticus: ‘Foods prohibied to the Israelites are all taxonomical anomalies. Pigs have cloven hooves but do not chew the cud like other cloven-hoofed animals. Snakes are prohibited because they live on land but have no legs … Shellfish live in the water, yet lack the fins and scales characteristic of true fish… prohibited items straddle classificatory boundaries. They are monsters abominated by the Lord and by his chosen people. (Rayner 1992 p86)

Rayner formulates these findings of cultural theory applied to cultural perspectives of risk in the following way ”Whatever objective dangers may exist in the world, social organisations will emphasise those that reinforce the moral, political, or religious order that holds the group together.’ (Rayner 1992 p87).

Data collected is usually qualitative, and assessed through qualitative, thematic  inquiry.   But some models, such as the grid/group model developed by Mary Douglas from her early cultural theories of taxonomy, correlate results in terms of a proportional, inexact mathematical architecture.

Renn (1992) identifies cultural models as ‘prototypes’, and notes Douglas and Wildavsky ‘distinguish between ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ (1982b); Rayner uses four prototypes (Rayner 1987b; Rayner and Cantor 1987) and Thompson five (Thompson 1980a) (Renn 1992 p73)  Renn himself identifies five prototypes – The Atomised Individual (probability uncontrollable, life is a lottery; Bureaucrats – acceptable risks can be controlled; Hermits – risks are acceptable that do not involve coercion; Entrepreneur – risks offer opportunities, can be exchanged for benefits; Egalitarian – avoid all but inevitable risks, public good paramount. (Renn 1992 p73)

Politically, the cultural theory model is suggestive of further controls an orthodox system, by the conscious manipulation public beliefs about risk through a wide range of communicative devices – fridge magnets, and a current Government anti-narcotics campaign come to mind.  But cultural theory, inquiry into the relationships between social organisations, material phenomena, and the theoretical frameworks that define both,  also provides for deep critique of risk mitigation, and makes consideration of familiar risks in the context of alternate belief systems, and the ideologies that generate values, possible.

The work of Sheldon Krimsky, co-editor of Social Theories of Risk, reflects the potential for social and cultural critique in risk research that takes  risk research itself, and associated utilitarian and social interests, as its site of inquiry (for example articles and studies such as  ‘The business of research’ 1995, with Ruth Hubbard,  ‘Journal policies on conflict of interest: If this is the therapy, What’s the Disease, 2001; and The Funding Effect in Science and Its Implications for the Judiciary’ published this year.)

In 1000 Plateaus Deleuze and Guittari refer to preventive measures for the state that act in pre-state ecosociological systems.  These risk measures mitigate against the disasters and dangers associated with the evolution of highly organised, high density, system-based, hierarchical societies. ( The cultural paradigm of inquiry presents a framework for consideration of risk analysis in an ontological and political environment in which many our traditional concepts of social organisation and theoretical application are challenged.  These modes of inquiry provide critical devices in the face of all social and ideological manipulation. In research, though,  they are limited (as is all other research) in that they are necessarily founded on a comparison between two systems of belief, two categorisations of the world – that of the researcher, the observer, and that of the subject under observation.

Social drama risk assessment In Chapter Eight of Social Theories of Risk Ingar Palmlund describes a cultural theory model in which he maps a traditional dramatic narrative structure to the processes of risk perception, communication, and management.

Palmlund asserts that the social drama model of risk ‘provides categories for analysis of social conflicts over technology’ (Palmlund 1992 p212), ‘critical perspective on the discourse and the symbolic action in societal risk evaluation’ (Palmlund 1992 p212), and thirdly raises questions concerning patterns of behaviour surrounding communal reaction to risk in disparate times and societies. (Palmlund 1992 p212), Palmlund’s aim is creating a model in which emotive statements (Palmlund 1992 p211), and the ‘provisional character of our understanding’ ( Palmlund 1992 p211-212) are retained. Palmlund is critical of quantification and commondification of health and environmental risks, and of a managerial outlook on risk, and an associated appropriation of the devices of risk communication. (p198-199)

My first contention with this theory of social drama is that while it is advanced as relatively ‘new thinking’, the dramatic theory applied is extremely traditional – classical, even. There’s a brief reference to Beckett, otherwise the model of drama encompasses Aristotle’s tragic model and Meyerholdian melodrama. Also the labelling of the disparate actors doesn’t really refer to actual stock characters of any particular theatrical tradition, which may serve as a more effective device.

My second contention is that while there is value in the combining of two fundamental paradigms of human conceptual reflexivity, risk assessment and management, and performance, for the purposes of examining lower order, Palmlund has failed to recognise the application of the mode of poetic discourse on the broader level of risk theory, and the still broader level, given the claims of social risk theory, of socio-cultural risk theory.

Narrative theory of risk   The hermeneutic circle invoked by the ontological 3rd reflexive level of inquiry causes problems for any inquiry, introducing critical uncertainties into any quantitative or qualitative system.

What is demanded is thus the following: we should know the cognitive faculty before we know.  It is like wanting to swim before going in the water.  The investigation of the faculty of knowledge is itself knowledge, and cannot arrive at its goal because it is this goal already.” (from Habermas On Knowledge and Human Interests)

“Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere. Climb the mountain just a little bit to test it is a mountain. From the top of the mountain, you cannot see the mountain.”   (Frank Herbert, Dune)

The frame of fiction provides an escape from this theoretically inavoidable ontological crisis. Fiction provides two observers, two ontological frames, with which to work – that of the author, and that of a character or characters.  The creation of a fictional universe is the establishment of a bounded world frame – an  enclosed system, as far as its metaphysical provisions allow.  Accepting the limitation that only a single possible causal chain is to be modelled provides freedom from the reductive aspect of conventional theorising.

Literature as risk assessment   One might consider that in a rational society, right at the inception of a nation it would be sensible to consider what risks one wanted to have, and construct logical arguments to define other risks out of existence, thought and mind, before we begin claiming we have profitable solutions to the risks we’ve decided to invent.

In a similar way one way of looking at a novel by a speculative fiction writer such as Philip K Dick is that he is constructing a risk study backwards:

‘The first thing is the idea. A pure idea. The next thing is characters who will be confronted by an environment based on that idea. … In other words, I translate an idea into a world. Then you need the people who must live in that world. I always try to find somebody who’s the victim of the idea and somebody who’s the master of the idea, so that you have a bifurcated society with somebody who’s going to make it off the idea and somebody who’s going to be victimized by the idea.’ (Philip K. Dick in interview)

Texts   In the speculative fiction novel The Godmakers, Frank Herbert models a far future society, and introduces risk as a fundamental law of the universe. Although all specific flaws have been made impossible, a system of highly controlled equilibria develops a generic flaw because the development of such a flaw is an imperative of cosmological architecture.. the universe evolves a flaw in the absence of the functioning of pre-existing mechanisms to introduce dynamism back into an artificially static system. Because it’s in the nature of the universe to do it. In essence, it’s a deus ex machina, in which the ultimate system is based on a value related to equilibrium. Another Frank Herbert book, Dosadi, which has echoes of Douglas’s grid/group cultural theory, imagines an experiment in which a community of 80 million human beings is enclosed in a very dense, entirely contained social environment for several hundred years.  The result is a population so strategically evolved and capable that their release from constraints presents a substantial risk to the remainder of the population of the galaxy.

“I think science fiction does help, and it points in very interesting directions. It points in relativistic directions. It says that we have the imagination for these other opportunities, these other choices. We tend to tie ourselves down to limited choices. We say, ‘Well, the only answer is. . .’ or, ‘If you would just. . .’ Whatever follows these two statements narrows the choices right there. It gets the vision right down close to the ground so that you don’t see anything happening outside. Humans tend not to see over a long range. Now we are required, in these generations, to have a longer range view of what we inflict on the world around us. This is where, I think, science fiction is helping. I don’t think that the mere writing of such a book as Brave New World or 1984 prevents those things which are portrayed in those books from happening. But I do think they alert us to that possibility and make that possibility less likely. They make us aware that we may be going in that direction. We may be contriving a strictly controlled police culture.’ (quote attributed to author Frank Herbert at http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Frank_Herbert)

Speculative fiction is an epistemologically useful way of modelling certain risk scenarios that lies outside the range of useful technical risk research, and outside the range of useful empirical social research as well. The fictional methodology can cater to improbable future worlds many steps down the road. It invokes all levels of discourse. As with the social drama model for risk analysis, different frames of reference are provided for – the technical mise en scene is contextualised  socially through the filter of imagined human perception, and different actors represent different interests. This includes different ontological and epistemological frames – the limits of the fictional universe are arbitrary, and so the confounding effect of the hermeneutic circle can be excluded, or reduced.

Veracity is individual and intrinsic, and aesthetic.

In Quarantine, by Australian speculative fiction writer Greg Egan a humanity of the now recent past is dealing with the ontological risk management of other species working together.  A barrier has been imposed at the edge of the solar system, through which nothing can pass, no forms of radiation, no matter, nothing. The reason for the barrier is revealed eventually, by the aliens, in a compassionate piece of risk communication. Humanity threatens the aliens’ existence because of an irreconcilable ontological divide between the distant cultures. The aliens live in a pre-quantum state of multiple possibility, unlike the basic human frame of reference. Humans experience the world in what to the aliens is a ‘collapsed’ state.  Our technology had allowed humans to observe distant parts of the universe occupied by others, and in observing these stars and galaxies, had irreparably damaged them through inadvertent wave function collapse.

I’ll conclude with this abstract of one paper I haven’t yet seen that could be pursuing similar ideas:

Abstract of Finucane and Satterfield’s Risk as Narrative Value

1. Risk as narrative value: a theoretical framework for facilitating the biotechnology debate

by Melissa L. Finucane, Theresa A. Satterfield

International Journal of Biotechnology (IJBT), Vol. 7, No. 1/2/3, 2005

Abstract: Maintaining the global public good character of agricultural biotechnology requires the blending of many different values. Sometimes, however, there are large gaps between the values held by different stakeholder groups. Furthermore, there is a contradiction between what people say they value, and how they actually behave. Articulating and overcoming gaps and contradictions is key to reducing polarisation in risk deliberations. This paper presents a theoretical framework for understanding risk as value, and narrative as a tool for facilitating the global biotechnology debate.


Deleuze, Gilles, and Guittari, Felix, A Thousand Plateaux: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Continuum, London, New York, 2003 (originally 1987)


Egan, Greg Permutation City London Millenium 1994


Golding, Dominic and Krimsky, Sheldon Social Theories of Risk ed. by Golding, Dominic and Krimsky, Sheldon Westport, Connecticut, London Praeger 1992


Golding, Dominic, Krimsky, Sheldon, and Plough, Alonzo Evaluating Risk Communication: Narrative vs. Technical Presentations of Information about Radon published in Risk Analysis Vol. 12, No 1 1992


Habermas Jurgen Knowledge and Human Interests tr. Shapiro Jeremy J Boston Beacon Press 1968


Herbert, Frank, Dune, parsed to PDF by ->MKM<-, originally published 1965


Herbert, Frank The Dosadi Experiment VGSF, United States 1990 edition, first published 1978


Herbert, Frank The Godmakers New English Library 1978 edition, first published 1974


Hodel, Mike interviews Philip K Dick, Conducted 6/26/76  on KPFK-FM, North Hollywood, California. First published version as, The Mainstream That Through the Ghetto Flows An Interview with Philip K. Dick,” in The Missouri Review, Vol. VII,No.2 (Winter, 1984),pp.164-85.(link http://www.philipkdickfans.com)


Hubbard, Ruth, and Krimsky, Sheldon The Business of Research The Hastings Center Report Jan-Feb 1995 1995 p41-44


Kahneman, Daniel, Slovic, Paul and Tversky, Amos Judgement under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases 1994 edition eds. Slovic, P. Tversky, A. Kahneman, D. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne Cambridge University Press 1982


Krimsky, Sheldon Journal Policies on Conflict of Interest: If this is the Therapy, What’s the Disease Pychotherapy and Psychosomatics vol 70 2001 p115-117


Krimsky, Sheldon The Funding Effect In Science and its Implications for the Judiciary Krimsky (online) 2005


Slovic, Paul The Risk Game essay published online by Decision Research 1997

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