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Tuesday, June 27, 2006


A very good item on Techcentralstation which deserves wider circulation & probably won't get it from the dead tree press. As somebody who said at the time the passive smoking scare was nonsense it is frustrating to see the UK Parliament (OK the House of Lords, who actually have more experience & fewer political axes to grind) saying I am right. Here are some highlights but the entire article is worth it:
The way the UK government looks at risk policy has been shaken up by a new report published recently by the Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs..... there are few areas of government that impinge so consistently, directly, and often unfortunately on the lives of its citizens.

.... found significant problems with the way in which the government thought about and managed risk. And while the report focuses on risk in the UK, its implications about risk and public policy extend to any democratic government.

...... government risk policy has "given insufficient weight to available evidence and placed too great a reliance on unsubstantiated reports that often have their origin in the media." This is hardly a minor matter since two of the most important aspects of risk management -- detecting and evaluating risk -- depend on accurate and objective scientific data. If the government proceeds without such evidence, or, worse, relies upon or creates evidence that it knows to be dubious, the risk management process is corrupted from the outset and the public is profoundly misled. Rather than risk policy being driven by science, science instead is "harnessed" to serve the ideological objectives of those managing risk. In effect, risk becomes a cover for far-reaching value decisions that are passed off as scientifically mandated.

A primary instance of this, as the report notes, has been the management of the "risk" of public smoking. Here the evidence is clear not only that the government acted against the best available scientific evidence which showed an insignificant risk (as the report notes the "decision to ban smoking in public places may represent a disproportionate response to a relatively minor health concern"), that alternatives to smoking bans were not given proper attention, and that it acted more with a mind to inaccurate media reports and pressure from special interests groups whose purposes were driven more by making it difficult for smokers to smoke than by protecting the health of nonsmokers.

This tendency to allow risk policy to be driven by a combination of bad science, media frenzy and special interests is unfortunately not confined to smoking policy.. ....patently false claims such as overweight and obese people live shorter lives than those of "normal" weight and scientifically unproven claims that curtailing food advertising or providing nutritional information will change the way in which people eat

.... There is also the problem that the government fails to appreciate the way in which its risk policies frequently erode personal freedoms and civil liberties. This occurs in a number of ways. {I am not at all convinced that government as a whole or as individuals are not perfectly well aware of 7 getting a buzz out of telling people what to do - Neil}

For instance, many risk nannies reject the core principle of a free society that individuals should, to the greatest extent possible, be left free to make their own decisions about how to act and to live their lives....

... the default position for government policy is that regulation to control risk should almost always trump liberty- a position that is fundamentally at odds with a free society. This is particularly evident in the debate about passive smoking, where the government appeared to refuse to even consider that restricting public smoking might involve a liberty-limiting issue.....

The third major flaw in the government's management of risk that the report finds lies in the use of the Precautionary Principle....It is anti-scientific because .... risk assessment is about making the most intelligent choice possible in the midst of the uncertainty. No responsible scientists can guarantee that a product or process will never harm humans or the environment -- as the precautionary principle requires -- for such predictions lie outside the compass of science. In effect the precautionary principle asks of science and of risk policy what neither can provide: a god-like omniscience.

.....many "risks" are simply the creation of special interest groups and a scientifically-challenged media.

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