The Zero Risk Fiction by Thomas R. DeGregori

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Arguments against constructive change take many forms. One is what I have
called the myth of the "riskless alternative." Every change has its risks,
whether the change is political, scientific, or technological, but a
simple assertion of risk is not in and of itself an argument against
change.

The risks of change have to be measured against the benefits of change and
the risks of not changing. Increasingly, we hear impossible demands for a
zero-risk society. In public discourse, scientists are asked to guarantee
that an innovation, be it genetically-modified food or a new
pharmaceutical, has no possibility of ever causing harm. Given that no
reputable scientist can ever answer such a question with absolute
certainty, the interrogator has seemingly won the argument by default - if
one believes that there is some totally risk-free alternative, either in
the status-quo or in some presumed prior way of doing things.

Opposition to change in favor of the status-quo-ante used to be considered
a conservative or reactionary position; now it has become the battle cry
of presumptive radicals from the streets of Seattle to those of Genoa and
beyond. Having "won" the argument by showing that safety cannot be
guaranteed with absolute certainty, the believers feel no need to subject
their proposed alternatives to the same tests, tests that would often
reveal that the radicals' plans carry far more risks than the innovations
they oppose.

Along with "riskless" change, there are now demands for "victimless"
change. Unfortunately, if there are possible risks, there are always
possible victims. If we examine the many changes over the past century
changes that have reduced infant and child mortality over 90%, have given
Americans nearly thirty years of added life expectancy, have recently
caused an even more rapid growth in disability-free years of life, and
have allowed comparable or greater advances in other countries we will
find that all those changes carried risks. Indeed, all those changes had
and continue to have organized opposition: chlorination of water,
pasteurization of milk, synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, modern
medicine, and immunization, to name a few. Pasteurization took nearly
fifty years to be introduced into the United States and the arguments
against it were identical to those used today against food irradiation.

Most every health intervention carries some risk, but those that we have
come to depend upon carry vastly fewer risks than the threat to life and
good health from the diseases that they protect against. But again,
nothing in life carries zero risk (although some vaccines seem to be
getting very close to that). I have a question that I have been asking for
over a quarter of a century: If technology and science are killing us, why
are we living so long?

Infant and child mortality and morbidity have so successfully been reduced
that we, individually and collectively, forget the scourge of the diseases
against which we are now protected. Unfortunately, infants and children
still suffer from other maladies, many with uncertain causes. Since
infants are given a regimen of eleven successive immunizations, it is not
surprising that some shots happen to coincide with the onset of an
unexplained malady. The anti-science and anti-technology coterie are quick
to assign the blame to immunization without a scintilla of evidence, and
they frighten parents into not immunizing their children. The evidence is
overwhelming that a decline in immunization will eventually lead to an
increase in disease, often with death or permanent health impairment
following in its wake. In the United Kingdom and Germany, some of these
fears have led to declines in immunization, which have lowered the
immunization rate perilously close to the minimum necessary for "herd" or
"community" immunity. That could lead to epidemics of diseases such as
measles.

There is a role for the genuine radical in calling attention to victims of
change, encouraging us to ask, for instance, whether the costs of change
are falling unfairly upon certain groups or individuals. Focusing on the
victims and the risks sometimes helps us find ways to reduce the adverse
outcomes (by making our vaccines ever safer, for instance). The smallpox
vaccination that I received as a boy had more antigens than the combined
total of all eleven vaccines that are administered to infants and children
today. Those who were harmed by the vaccinations obviously knew it, while
the vastly greater number who didn't get smallpox (or any other disease
against which we were protected) went on with their lives without thinking
about the horrors they might have suffered without the vaccinations.

One of the problems in defending modern science and technology against its
critics is that so many of the benefits are unseen: nasty things that
don't happen to us. Suppressing a technology such as immunization creates
far more victims that does utilizing it. In other areas, such as
globalization of the world economy, it is not only who is harmed that
matters but who and how many benefit. Unfortunately, globalization
critics, as is increasingly the case for the critics of most of the
modernizing transformations, provide us with a litany of victims or
alleged victims without noting the many beneficiaries, such as the
hundreds of millions of people who have been able to rise out of poverty
as a result of having their economies opened to change. There is a kind of
Gresham's Law of social protest whereby the increasingly strident
opposition to all globalization drowns out more reasoned arguments for
making globalization fairer.

Wealthy advocacy groups largely controlled by white, northern-European and
North American males with sophisticated command of public relations and
media access have created a new form of neo-colonialist imperialism,
hijacking the political agendas of many oppressed peoples and misusing the
suffering of those people to oppose globalization and change. With six
billion people in close to two hundred sovereign political entities, the
world is replete with injustices, legitimate grievances, and indigenous
groups seeking a just remedy for them. Tragically, they are not able to
get a hearing in the media without the aid of the developed countries'
advocacy groups. Those advocacy groups demand that the poor of other
nations make their claims using slogans that conform to their own ideology
and fund-raising needs. To draw media attention to poverty in a southern
nation, local activists may have to conform to the party line of northern
groups such as Greenpeace. Thus, their real grievances are diluted or lost
as are the grievances of any groups pressured to use the litany of
political complaints favored by wealthy countries' elite activist groups.
Justice requires that the poorest and most needy in the world have the
opportunity to experience the changes that have benefited the rest of us.
They should not be hindered by groups that oppose change for others while
enjoying it themselves. Taking reasonable risks turns out to provide us
all with greater safety. Those who would force us to pursue the impossible
goal of absolute safety put us all in greater jeopardy. --

Thomas R. DeGregori, Ph.D., is a Professor of Economics at the University of
Houston, is a member of the board of directors of ACSH, and has done
development work in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. His book The
Environment, Natural Resources, and Modern Technology has just been
published by Iowa State Press: A Blackwell Scientific Publishing Company.
The article is taken from a book manuscript to be completed later this
year.