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Science, Maths & Technology

The Reality of Risk

Updated Thursday, 22nd September 2005

Is it possible to avoid risks altogether, or are we always destined to be playing the odds?

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How risky is a mobile phone? What is Risk?
Risk can be defined in many ways -


Most people take it to mean the probability of something bad happening.

Risky weather Another meaning is the probability of something happening, multiplied by the damage caused. In other words, if something has a very bad outcome, it is seen as riskier than something with a less serious outcome.

A risk assessment is the estimate of total risk from a particular activity. It may relate to economic, safety or environmental hazards.

Each assessment involves a cost-benefit analysis - to weigh up the pros (possible benefits) and cons (possible risks) of taking a particular course of action.

A big question is who will benefit and who will pay the price if anything goes wrong - the two are not always the same.

What's your chance of dying this year?

Annual risk of death: 1 in 88 chance
Men aged 55-64:1 in 74
Women aged 55-64:1 in 120
Men aged 35-44 :1 in 590
Women aged 35-44:1 in 910
Boys aged 5-14:1 in 5,000
Girls aged 5-14:1 in 6,700

(HSE 1993)

What will you die from?

Cancer:1 in 360
External causes (accidents, homicides, suicides, poisoning, others):1 in 3,070
Road accidents (averaged over whole population) :1 in 15,700
Death by lightning:1 in 15,000,000

(HSE 1993) "I have worked in this field for 25 years .. did I go out and eat lamb chops, did I go out and eat lamb brain, sheep brain? The answer was 'no', but it was not based on scientific criteria, it was based on just emotion ... At a scientific level I cannot give you a scientific basis for choosing or not choosing beef, because we do not know the answers"

Nobel Laureate Stanley Prusiner, BSE Inquiry, 6 June 1998

Risk isn't just about statistics!

Many other factors influence our perception of risk, including whether the risk is outside our control, whether it's seen as artificial (rather than natural) and whether it is thought to act in an unseen way.

The danger of catching CJD from BSE-infected beef is not only hard to quantify (the government still admits it doesn't know how many cases there will be) but is also seen as 'risky' according to the criteria above.

Increasingly, policy-makers and scientists are taking an interest in how people perceive risk, partly because it may help them understand how best to allay fears about new technologies - for example, Genetically Modified food.

Taking precautions

A recent report into the safety of mobiles suggested children shouldn't use them more than necessary.

This is the 'precautionary principle' in action!

This principle implies that where there is the possibility of harm, more weight should be given to evidence pointing one way (towards harm) than the other way (towards safety).

Some scientists are worried that, taken to the extreme, the development of new technologies will be blocked because there will always be at least the possibility of harm.

The Guests


Sir Colin Berry is Professor of Morbid Anatomy at the Royal London Hospital.

He is a former chair of the UK Advisory Committee on Pesticides, which advises the government on pesticide science and has also served on other health-related advisory committees. He has published widely on many subjects, including toxicology.

Sir Colin was knighted in 1993 for services to science and medicine.

Mike Maier is a consultant psychiatrist at Charing Cross Hospital and Senior Lecturer at Imperial College London.

Mike is a regular guest on the series. His research focuses on schizophrenia. As a doctor, he is particular interested in medical risks.

Kenneth McRae is Professor of Medical Statistics at the University of Surrey. He is a fellow of the Institute of Statisticians and of the Royal Statistical Society.

In the area of risk, he's worked on the danger of brain damage from whooping cough vaccine, and of thrombosis from the contraceptive pill. He believes he's established in both cases that anxieties about increased risks were unfounded.

Lynn Frewer is head of the Consumer Science Section at the Institute of Food Research. She's been involved with the Society of Risk Analysis Europe since 1996.

Her research interests include the psychology of risk perception, public reactions to genetic modification and other new technologies. She is also helping develop ways of involving the public in the development of food techniques like genetic modification.

Colin Blakemore is Waynflete Professor of Physiology at Oxford University, and director of the Oxford Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience. A renowned neuroscientist, he's also a TV and radio regular and an enthusiastic promoter of science. He is a fellow of the Royal Society.

Futher Reading

Life's Adventure: Virtual Risk in a Real World
Roger Bate
Butterworth-Heinemann 2000

John Adams
UCL Press 1995

Genetically Modified Crops: The Ethical and Social Issues
Nuffield Council on Bioethics 1999

Genetic Engineering: Food and our Environment
Luke Anderson
Green Books 1999

Fearing Food: Risk, Health and Environment
edited by Roger Bate and Julian Morris
Butterworth-Heinemann 1999

Department of Health report: Communicating about Risks to Public Health: Pointers to Good Practice(1998)
The Stationery Office 0207 873 9090





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