The Risk-Monger

Twenty years ago, Ulrich Beck, in his ground-breaking book, Risk Society, observed how rising technological advances would lead to increased risk aversion. I don’t think he had expected the scope of this reaction to modernity, the new roles taken on by regulators and social actors or the degree of public rage toward risks. This is the first part in my summer “back to basics” series on the nature of risk-taking and risk management where I plan to assess how our perception of risks has influenced the way we are organising our societies. This first blog is on why we dread risks so much?

Risk-taking is ubiquitous. From the moment we wake up and put our feet on the floor, we embark on a series of risk management decisions that define our day, our well-being and our identity. What to eat, where to go, what to wear … these decisions are based on risk management processes that most times we barely notice. Every benefit that we identify comes with a risk that must in some way be managed, although most assessments are fairly easy and painless. We knowingly and willingly take risks as well, whether it involves injecting Botox (a toxin based on botulism) into our faces or trying new diet fads that could offer anything but a balanced diet. Benefits rule our risk decisions.

What is it about the nature of risk then that makes it such a nasty term, one that Peter Sandman would say, causes such outrage? Is it the uncertainty of our decisions or activities that leave us feeling vulnerable (food risks, health affects, physical limitations …)? Is it the loss of control in the decision-making process, leaving us at the mercy of the motives and interests of our authorities? Is it the complexity of the technology around us that frustrates and alienates us (leading to a nostalgia towards what some perceive as easier times). All of these play a role in what I could call “risk rage”, but I think there is something a little more malicious at play here.

Nobody likes to take risks, so where we can reduce our exposure or the perception that we are taking risks, the happier we will be. This is not lost on authorities and stakeholders who play on our vulnerabilities, promising us risk-free benefits that we willing accept. But when we discover that these promises are deceptions, this causes us to become even more disenchanted with risk taking. For example:

  • Our governments promise us a certain high quality of life, without telling us the costs, in cities that cannot pay the price or protect us, thus leaving us feeling more at risk.
  • Researchers develop diet pills or interventions that are supposed to solve our obesity epidemic, but in the end lead to other complications or side effects (and still we gain weight).
  • Companies develop seed technologies that they promise will make food healthier, safer, more abundant and more enriched. What we got was more expensive food and further uncertainty.
  • Environmental NGOs promise us that if we adopt more sustainable practices, we will defeat global warming and defend biodiversity. I think we all know how that story ends (with further requests for more donations).
  • In the 1970s, the nuclear industry had promised energy that would be so abundant that it would be too cheap to bother metering (reality: it got more expensive). We see similar deceptive promises from advocates of renewable energy today, and sure enough, costs are going up.
  • We were promised by banks and realtors that the house we bought would continue to go up in value. As we are losing our retirement savings, it should not be any surprise that even financial risk-taking is seen as unacceptable.

Risk has become a four-letter word because we had been promised things (benefits) that were never delivered upon or came with a much higher risk ratio than we had perceived. Risk-taking is based on trust, and any series of deceptions have left us in a state of trust deficiency (and hence, risk aversion). As we don’t take risks with people we don’t trust or with institutions we don’t find credible, and as there is little today that we do trust, this increased risk rage should not come as a surprise.

So the best way to address the threat of being in an increasingly risk averse (and yet technologically dependent) society is to stop promising people risk-free benefits. This is advice that the nanotech researchers, for example, should heed (especially as we are now beginning to feel more comfortable accepting the risks of the science of the small). Don’t follow the route of biotech two decades earlier by promising to change the world, eg, with new medical applications, lightweight fabrics or scratch resistant coatings, and in the end, only delivering on products like socks that ensure that our feet don’t stink. People remember promises you make.

We should stop treating people as naïve or incapable of understanding the nature of risks and benefits. A patient in a hospital understands that beneath the desired benefit (wellness) are certain risks and we should afford them the maturity to tell them the truth. A person should understand that they are also responsible for the quality of their living standards, health and well-being and authorities or companies should not try to sugar-coat it for them. We are too worried about not telling people what we think they want to hear, we don’t realise that lying to them only further erodes the trust situation.

In my next back to basics risk blog, I would like to look at the role trust plays in the risk-taking process, how it is undermined and what can be done to restore it.

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  1. Just to give you that link to a lecture of Anthony Guiddens in 99, about globalization…

    all 4 other lecture are fantastic too, and still innovative.

    Risk is a computation, nothing more. Choosing whether uncertainty of possible losses is acceptable against uncertainty of expected benefit.
    If no benefit, it is not a risk. just avoid it.
    If no choice, it is not risk, just accept it.
    if you don’t weight both side, even with rough heuristics, your are not taking a risk, you are irrational, frightened, enthusiast, maniac , panicked.

    Basic of life strategy.

    best regards.

    1. Thank you Alain – I have to listen to the other lectures when I have some time – this one was well done. In the last ten years though, a lot has evolved in risk research (what I call the second generation of scholars who have been publishing their PhDs under the risk gurus). To add to your comments, risk perception has grown in influence in the recent debates. How individuals perceive risks like food safety fascinate me – there are those who laborious read the labels and are careful with every bite, and then there are those like my daughter who scarf down anything that doesn’t move and lets her stomach acid deal with it. Risk is in the eye of the beholder!

  2. Hi Risk-Monger,

    I’m glad someone (Alain) brought up Anthony Giddens’ take on risk.

    That lecture highlights some issues with your frequently stated views on climate change, GMOs, etc, and why I think you’re often way too harsh on your opponents. As you would have heard in the lecture Giddens argues that today’s ‘manufactured risks’ (such as GMOs, and new ecological risks such as human-induced climate chage) are often risk situations for which we have little historical experience to draw on and, moreover, in which typically we cannot know for sure (if it actually is a major problem) until it’s too late… in the case of climate, for exampl,e until too high a concentration of greenhouse gases are in the atmosphere. This leads to his further propositions 1) that there is inevitably push-and-pull “between accusations of scaremongering on the one hand, and of cover-ups on the other”; and 2) some scaremongering cannot be avoided if we believe there is/could be a risk “because people must be persuaded that the risk is real – a fuss must be made about it”. Further: “paradoxically, scaremongering may be necessary to reduce risks we face – yet if it is successful, it appears as just that, scaremongering”. You speak as if we can know for sure about these risks, rather than acknowledging the much more complex risk management situation that Giddens is trying to highlight. More to the point, I think this diminishes the persuasiveness of your arguments and, therefore, limits the positive impact you could be having on our engagement with these complex issues.

    I look forward to the rest of your summer risk series (Winter for me in Australia).


    1. Thanks Stephen for your comment. Scaremongering is indeed the most efficient way to raise awareness. Putting victims up front with emotional stories trumps rational evidence every time. I can remember during the REACH lobbying days, environmental groups recruited teams of 7-8 month pregnant women to protest against the chemical industry as male pigs only interested in poisoning their bodies. Activist campaign experts like Chris Rose from Greenpeace once celebrated in a newsletter that with biomonitoring he could unleash armies of “walking wounded” on policymakers. Scaremongering is effective, but is it moral, scientific or acceptable? Giddens finds it necessary, but should there be rules beyond good taste? What usually winds me up is when scientific evidence is shelved or disregarded for the benefit of campaign effectiveness (I am not only unforgiving on NGOs and media for succumbing to this temptation, but also regulators and industry opportunists who don’t feel the need or integrity to highlight or use available scientific information). These little games should not be taken lightly – they do have consequences, not just in well-known precaution disasters like malaria and food scarcity, but also on our priority mindset for development goals and assistance. In such cases, scaremongering needs a certain degree of riskmongering!

  3. Hello again,

    Appreciate you taking the time to respond. It’s a tricky one. Take nanotechnology in Australia – a topic I know quite well. There has been scaremongering by activists (not as much as for GMOs though), which indeed has had serious consequences. 1) It’s led to greater funding of research into potential risks, and greater regulatory oversight. These changes could be a net-positive. 2) However, much of the local industry has backed-off nanotech and many players see more opportunity and less hastle elsewhere (so they told me in interviews). This has hampered the innovation outcomes. I worry about this and have been critical myself of the scaremongering of local activists.

    But having said all this Giddens has made me think about the bigger picture here, in particular that some scaremongering may actually be a necessary precondition for effective management of risk. This is the key point I trying to encourage you to consider in my last post. What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree/disagree with Giddens?

    Interested in your thoughts on this specific issue. And, linked with this, what is your definition of “riskmongering”?!


  4. Further to my above comment, the other telling comment made by Giddens is “we cannot know when we are scaremongering and when we are not”. I think this is the most controversial comment that he makes on risk

    1. Thanks Stephen – your remarks are provoking what should be another blog, then again I find the discussions following the blogs to be more interesting than the blogs themselves. My view on Giddens, which perhaps I was too polite in the earlier comment, is that in risk situations, perception matters more than facts. Scaremongering molds perceptions, often politically, by using communications tools to raise awareness (often to raise fears which Giddens finds necessary). The problem here, and I don’t mean to be too critical as I think it is human nature, is that we tend to take evidence and data and fit it into our perceptions, discarding data that does not confirm our perceptions and being less critical on datasets that agree with our assumptions (Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about this in The Black Swan). Scaremongering takes these perceptions and fears further from evidence analysis (what I blindly tag as science) and more to political conclusions (we feel confident enough that we must act, … and as we are now quite afraid, we must act urgently!). This is not science, but what I call commonality (the feeling that as we all now agree, there is no need for further discussion or data gathering, but now we need to act). There are ethical and professional issues about using fear over science to change people’s perceptions to risks. Maybe it is his choice of words – he should have taken the Popperian line that attempting to falsify our premises is essential to risk management, but he moved away from evidence towards perception-molding.
      Scaremongering and fear-building tend to be cultural and episodic (the French are terrified of GMOs but then eat unpasteurised cheeses that kill dozens every year). I marvel at how many risk episodes are regional – MMR in the UK, acrylamide in Sweden and yes, sunscreens in Australia (perhaps a definition of real risks is one that goes global but I think that has more to do with campaign funding than evidence). I’ll avoid the obvious (combining the Paracelsus Principle with the summer we are currently having), that Belgians don’t wake up and lather on sunscreen, but the debate on titanium dioxide at the nano-scale being a risk only seems to come up when I find myself in debates with Australians. I am not saying it is not a risk (everything we expose ourselves to is a risk, even acrylamide), but it is a good case of where the scaremongering is local and has not (yet) entered a real global debate. As far as I understand it, Friends of the Earth Australia along with some academics are leading the campaign – I make that assumption because I often meet FoE members at conferences in Europe and the US, which I conclude means they have enough money to travel and take the campaign global. I always follow the money so we must assume that there is a strong market interest in sunscreens without TiO2. I don’t see the same fear towards nano research in Brussels – rather there seems to be a risk relaxation process going on (where public perception of the benefits is more predominant than perception the uncertainties). Innovation follows from research only where public perception supports it (the best EU biotech researchers moved to the US in the 1990s) – this affects public and private research funding (which as you mentioned drives where the research goes).
      Risk relaxation is not scientific either and I have found myself raising alarms in my blogs to relatively unperceived risks (scaremongering?) like cars, 4G cell phones, meat and (perversely) organic food. Of course I often do this mischievously to get people to think, but I believe there needs to be sufficient evidence to back our claims. I don’t see the evidence against TiO2 to merit such scaremongering, but maybe we haven’t funded enough research to justify this yet ;-).
      What does it mean to “riskmonger”? I think I need to do a blog on that one!

  5. Hi, (thanks for my spam box to have freed thos alerts)

    Some one here evocate what look like a precaution principle, about unknown risks.
    My sad experience of life with risk, is that unknown unknowns don’t behave like you imagine, and if you are afraid of global warming, you can stupidly be unprepared for no more improbable ice age.
    The big mistake in todays risk-mongering is that you feel so sure of a risk that you don’t care of usual real risk, or of unknown opposed risk, or of the risk of NOT going forward, or of the risk that you cannot manage because you miss a progress.

    Take the unproven risk of food, that organic food try to fight… the result, because for precaution and ideology old known hygiene have been refused (chloride cleaning), have killed a hundred European, and will kill a thousand of other from consequence of their kidney disease (transplant failure, infections, general weakness).
    As a climber I’ve put my guide in risk because I was afraid and taking dangerous useless measures.
    Look at GMO, they can easily manage many risk linked to global warming, cooling, overpopulation, and low fecundity…

    In case of unknown unknown, you should only do “no regret” measures, like learning, empowering yourself, developing science, increasing technology, wealth and comfort, saving goods and energy,… preparing for global warming at the cost of today is a waste. The best in unknown unknown is to develop your own power to solve unknown problems. When things get clear, just use your new power, and prepare to be surprised.
    Judith Curry have made many smart article on risk management, and no-regret solution have her preference.

    Look at history too, because what look unprecedented today, is in fact classic cycle and mainstream amnesia of media. Every half a century there is a Malthusian delirium, linked to rich being afraid of losing their comfort facing richer poor mass..

    For example the peak-everything that I see everything are classic Malthusian delirium, and once again it is false. because there is an hydrocarbon boom,and anyway there will be an energy boom launched mid-august.

    take as example those lost funding to solar and wind energy. those energy will die soon after ICCF17 this 13th or august… all that cash for nothing.
    At the same time research on heretic subject have not been done, that could have solve our problems ten years ago.
    Research around renewables and other fashionista was not useless at all, but subsidies to production , while it was not competitive, is plain dump of cash. We should just have waited it to be competitive, and it would have never happened because of a Defkalion Black Swan

    On the opposite all research on nanotechnology, space travel, particle physic, accumulators, and also in industrial solutions for nuclear and tharmal power plants, will be used massively in next Maslow window, and we will laugh of our stupidity like we laugh of Celtic people afraid of the fall of the sky.

    I hope that , as usual in history, our fearful Malthusian phase, will end into ebullience and a new Maslow Window.

    Of course there will be change, unexpected as usual, and we will manage them with creativity and not with fear.

    1. Thanks Alain. What frightens me is how quickly Malthus seems to have come back into fashion (his ghost was all over Rio). Malthus is about uncertainty management rather than risk management, where benefits are not entered into the equation. These two concepts need to be kept separate – risk management identifies a value to keeping the benefits and manages the risks while uncertainty management finds a way to avoid risks (loss of benefits is acceptable). I have argued that all risk management (unlike the run for the hills breed of uncertainty management) is about lowering exposures as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA) which I feel resembles “No regrets” in the definition of what is reasonable.

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