spiked's London conference debated the dangers of risk-aversion.
We live longer, healthier and safer lives than ever before. Yet society is becoming more and more anxious about exaggerated risks, about everything from SARS to bioterrorism to transport safety.
There has never been a more important time to challenge the unfounded scares that hold such sway over our society. This was the message of Panic Attack: interrogating our obsession with risk, a London conference organised by spiked with the Royal Institution of Great Britain and Tech Central Station, Europe, on Friday 9 May.
Panic Attack brought together an international audience from the worlds of business, government, academia, the media and the interested public, to discuss issues ranging from chemicals in food to children and obesity, from Gulf War Syndrome to global warming. Discussion of these issues revealed the extent of society’s preoccupation with negligible levels of actual risk, and asked why this might be.
Speakers debating these issues included Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist; Jeya Henry, professor of human nutrition at Oxford Brookes University; Jim Bridges, chair of the European Commission’s toxicology committee; Carl Djerassi, father of the modern contraceptive Pill; Todd Seavey, editor of HealthFactsAndFears.com; and Robert Nilsson, from Stockholm University.
Plenary sessions throughout the day debated the causes and consequences of today’s risk-averse world, in which every sphere of life is organised around the grandmotherly maxim of ‘better safe than sorry’. In business, politics, science and culture, risk-taking is essential for progress and innovation; and the general consensus was that we could pay too high a price for putting safety first.
The conference opened with Mick Hume, editor of spiked, Jim Glassman of Tech Central Station and Gail Cardew of the Royal Institution outlining the themes of the day and questioning why society has become so obsessed with risk. In the second plenary Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, spiked columnist and the author of The Tyranny of Health, traced the history of panics to examine how something like SARS can hold the world in the grip of terror.
To conclude, the plenary titled ‘The future of risk’ brought together eminent British scientist Professor Sir Colin Berry, Frank Furedi, author of The Culture of Fear, and Geoff Mulgan, head of the UK government’s Performance and Innovation Unit, to discuss the consequences of risk aversion for society now and in the future.
Panic Attack raised a number of important questions, and pointed to ways in which our obsession with risk could be challenged: both at the level of getting the facts right about specific panics, and unravelling the broader cultural assumptions that lie behind particular scares.
While the obsession with risk shows little sign of abating, there is a large and diverse audience for critical voices in discussions about this trend. The more people who are prepared to raise their heads above the parapet, the harder it will be for new and more destructive panics to take hold. Panic Attack is only the beginning of a series of events and discussions that spiked will be initiating over the next few months.
We would like to thank everybody at the Royal Institution, and the conference sponsors – Tech Central Station Europe, Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC), National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), Luther Pendragon, International Policy Network, Mobile Operators Association (MOA) and Hill & Knowlton – for making the conference such a success.
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