The Risk-Monger

For the last few decades we have spoken about the benefits of living in the knowledge-based economy / society. The presupposition is that the knowledge (intellectual property) had more value than the material means of production; specialties far outweighed commodities; companies, universities and organisations were appraised by the depth of their intellectual capital; independent experts were called in to give advice and decisions were made on the best available collective evidence. Industrial production was offshored since the real money was in design and services. We celebrated that your iPod was designed in California – who really cared if it was assembled at Foxconn, that was incidental.

But about ten years ago, something happened. There was a perfect storm of public trust crises, shifts in policy-making processes and a revolution in the communications tools. In the 90s, public crises from BSE, dioxins, GMOs, blood contamination and very open scientific disputes on climate change, MMR vaccines and food safety led to diminished trust in authorities and expert information. Around the turn of the millennium, EU white papers on governance and food safety and two communications on the precautionary principle changed the rules of the game on EU policy management on risk issues. In fairness, most did insist on evidence but their calls for public consultation and stakeholder dialogue were what was highlighted as the means to reform policy-making in the EU (in the hopes of restoring trust and legitimacy). At the same time, the Internet had come into its own as a widely used communications tool. It was no longer necessary to go through cumbersome scientific review processes to present advice or views under the guise of legitimacy – anyone with a bit of web-training could set up store and demand to have a voice in the policy debates.

So we started to see, more and more, that facts did not really matter in EU policy debates. The consensus process meant that all societal actors had a right to be heard, regardless of the quality and reliability of their information. The REACH process weakened the role of expert advice as it became a circus of impact assessments (our scientists versus their scientists) and parliamentarians doing dreadful TV commercials for WWF. In 2005, the European Parliament hurried through legislation against a particular phthalate before the JRC had a chance to publish its exonerating report. By the time of the revision of the Pesticides Directive, there was no point in even doing an impact assessment – knowledge would only complicate the decision-making process (excuse my sarcasm).

The question “whom do you trust?” has been further complicated by the proliferation of conflicting information. People now tell their doctors what to prescribe to them on the basis of their home Internet searches (home-based expertise). Trust in authorities is gone today. Policy-makers and industry lost public trust in the 90s. Scientists became politicised and manipulated in the media over the last decade. The media itself has bifurcated into political colours enhanced with the new communications technologies and the ability to RSS your news to suit your preconceptions. Recent campaigns by NGOs like Greenpeace and WWF have narrowed their appeal with anti-globalisation rants costing them much of the mainstream trust they had built up during the 90s. With so many politicised actors, knowledge has become ‘faith-based’ and narrative contextualisation has become the main means for academics to understand diverging views.

With the political process today, who has trust has influence. If facts don’t matter, what is the worth of knowledge? As we move to the influence-based society, the rules are changing and a new logic is emerging:

  • The best campaigns against lobbying are being led by the most effective and best-funded lobbyists (who hide behind the cloak of ‘civil society’).
  • New campaigns pop up every day with millions expressing their outrage in real time before facts can be ascertained (it is hard to put rage back in the bottle with facts if a public doesn’t trust you).
  • Policy-makers follow rather than lead with stakeholders hammering out consensus views that they present to policy-makers as a fait accompli (no funding for carbon capture and storage, thank you, as we have decided among ourselves that you only need to fund the smart grid!)
  • The new Web 2.0 tools demonstrate the viral flow of information and influence – I only trust my friends who make up my sphere of influence, subjectively nominated on Facebook and Twitter. The wider your scope of friends, the stronger the influence of your views. Experts or people with a certain academic capacity do not have so many friends. The Greenpeace flash web campaign against Nestlé was based on pure nonsense (but with a military-religious zeal) – Nestlé was bullied and forced to capitulate in less than two months.

In the new policy process, influence is the main power tool. We now see umbrella groups, front groups, associated associations – these groups of groups allow a few people to make decisions under the pretense that they represent large portions of the population: perceived influence without the burden of accountability; quick communications without consequences; deep financial resources without heavy overheads. These virtual civil society groups lead the influence game with most policy-makers unaware of what lies behind the curtain.

As if 1999-2001 was not destructive enough to the role of evidence in EU decision-making processes, the Lisbon Treaty has now introduced the notion of the citizen’s initiative. One million signatures for influence-mongers like Greenpeace or HEAL is an easy spit and a further means to hack away at the legitimacy of the Commission (compelling civil servants to have to listen and integrate parts of their campaigns). Who needs facts, research or evidence when you can generate a million signatures whimsically?

Knowledge as a concept has become rather empty or superfluous. A knowledge-based society will be more innovative, we are told. Europe 2020, as Barroso chants, will bring a flowering of innovation, sustainability and jobs to Europe. As a follow-on to the Lisbon agenda, does anyone really believe this anymore? Innovation is a business strategy (as is influence), as a means to an end – it is not an objective in itself. Two decades ago, when we bought the idea of a knowledge-based society, we could rally around the innovation targets. Today? If we can legislate out our competitor’s product or substance, we have an advantage – a strategy based on influence, not knowledge.

The knowledge-based economy model has also been busted: the financial services industry went bankrupt, intellectual property is a nice to have, but hard to enforce, while power has followed the means of production to the East. Who cares if your iPod was designed in California – they had better do something about the state of workers in Foxconn. The knowledge economy was built on sand.

Maybe we should stop listening to people who talk nonsense and return to evidence-based decision-making processes.

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  1. Good post David. I’m just wondering where my projects would fit into your analysis. I sincerely hope that the ‘influencing’ approach that we’ve taken was seen a) transparent & it was clear who was sponsoring it the discussion, b) only speaking with fact-based arguments, not emotions. So in your view do you belive it’s possible to achieve both influence with fact?

  2. The emerging social media tools are just that – tools – in the right hands, they can get people to think and understand other views. I am always influenced by good ideas if they are clear, transparent, evidence based. In the hands of those not interested in dialogue or anything other than political ideology, it is a dangerous tool. I assume you are friends with some of the big NGO FB pages and follow how they just say things, anything they want, and their fans systematically click the ‘Like’ button and cheer each other on. Where is the chance for open thought here ? Sometimes I throw comments on (and then my email box gets flamed) – this is emotive religion.
    Emotion is easier than facts to push influence (a picture is worth a thousand words, a bloody picture is priceless). The main influence driver – trust – is belief based and facts are always in an up-hill struggle there (go back to David Hume and see how reason has been indentured). Can you get people to think – shake them out of their prejudices – shove the facts in their face in a way that they cannot turn away? Not impossible, but not easy (you know my past, Helen, I tried!).

  3. Nice post as most I have read from you. What you say is happening also in the knowledge or research for knowledge area. Scientists become managers and the pressure to produce as many articles in one year on anything that may bring funding just brings down the quality of knowledge.
    Too many papers and not enough pear review; too many papers and not enough review even from the most famous or acclaimed Journals. It is such a big problem that even though a paper is finally found (3 or 4 years later) to be completelly skewed, it doesn`t matter anymore if it has had enough influence on people. On the contrary papers which are robust, but in the way of the new fashion, are blocked, not accepted or even criticised on principle. Either you produce a best seller or you are not advertised.
    We are condemned to two big problems: on one side the pressure to do research and produce many articles (it is how research is valued) without the time for quality; second, papers and articles are all focused on what brings money to the researches for their reasearch. And the bottleneck is dissemination which is not straightforward as you have highlighted in other posts for you may be a great scientist, but not everybody has the capability for eloquence and horatory like Cicerone.

    An example of what you say about influence and knowledge happened a few months ago with BPs accident: immediatelly the NGOs in Europe wanted a moratory on drilling and more controls from the Commission. Was it knowledge based? Did they know what happened exactly and which were the faults? Did they know what would be the checks the EC would have to do to make sure it never happened again? Of course not for the report has not ben concluded yet. But it doesn´t matter, for drilling is wrong, etc, etc…
    There is no bigger error than think that more checks without the knowledge of what you are looking for, solve the problems in this world.
    How can you ask

  4. Spot on Patrick. Funding has taken over the academic process. With less funding from governments, industry money more and more tainted (while technology costs escalate), researchers have little choice but to play the influence game (turn right at the University of East Anglia) – publish or perish has become patent or perish and the artificially imposed Lisbon / Europe 2020 drive has meant that the most brilliant minds are forced to become SME start-up managers. I am ruminating a blog on the artificialising of intellect where converting research into innovation is sought after but not understood (let’s call it the Craig Venter syndrome where great researchers have to resort to standing on street corners singing for their supper!). That blog will come some day – at the moment I am too busy. I am an academic which means I am too disorganised. I should not be running companies – I should be spending my time concentrating on increasing knowledge … sigh!

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