Graham Stewart

Too much zeal

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Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming

Christopher Booker and Richard North

Continuum, pp. 494, £

Many of us are beginning to weary of the pushier sort of ‘expert’. Gone is the sense of proportion, the admission of scientific doubt, the ability to weigh risks against benefits. Taking seriously a year’s worth of their health warnings would give anyone an eating disorder.

It hardly builds confidence when so much of the advice directly contradicts whatever was confidently pronounced beneficial only months previously. The natural reaction is to take it all with a pinch of salt (if that is still allowed) and assume that the hasty appearance of a government minister on the one o’ clock news to endorse the latest findings is an early indication that they will transpire to be nonsense.

For 20 years we were solemnly and repeatedly lectured that 21 alcoholic units a week for men and 14 units for women were the upper limits of what is safe to drink. A couple of months ago we discovered that these figures were, in the belated admission of their author, ‘plucked out of thin air’. But did anyone think to query the evidence at the time? No, we were taken in by the government-endorsed expert. The only wonder is that he has not been knighted.

Sadly, such frequent infelicities are minor matters compared to the jaw-dropping outrages and abuses of authority revealed by the dogged research of Christopher Booker and Richard North. Scared to Death is a masterful and salutary account of the most costly misjudgments of the last 25 years. Written with painful clarity, here is an important study of the process by which sloppy science becomes a difficult to shift orthodoxy. In the process, Booker and North have produced a shocking but not remotely hysterical indictment of how government error is re-enforced — rather than held to account — by the media and special interest groups.

A common pattern unites these scandals. The scares that have done the most damage have concerned products — often food — that have the potential to affect the entire population. Usually there is a scintilla of truth behind the initial warning. Unfortunately, the zeal of the expert is fuelled by the gullibility of the media, complicit in the desire for a headline and spoon-fed by the promotional energies of pressure groups. The result is a panic in government departments staffed by people who lack the wit to ask the right questions and fear accusations of complacency if they do not act hastily.

How we have repented this at our leisure and, more importantly, our cost. Now that over £3.4 billion has been spent incinerating the nation’s entire cattle herd over 30 months old, Scared to Death points out that no link between the fatal human brain disease new variant CJD and eating beef infected with BSE has been conclusively demonstrated. Yet, how could the British government not be seen to be doing something drastic when, under pressure in the Newsnight studio to reveal his worst fears, one of the government’s scientific advisers, Dr John Patterson, suggested that half a million Britons could be dead of the disease by 2005.

It is not as if the resulting cull of eight million cows can be credited with preventing the anticipated human catastrophe. After all, sufficient BSE-contaminated beef had already been served on the nation’s plates to expose a vast section of the population to the alleged dangers before the cull began. Yet the expected deaths never occurred. Indeed, vCJD cases have all but dried up. Arguably, a higher death rate was caused by ruined farmers committing suicide. Such was the consequence of a process whereby startling conclusions are adduced from making doubtful connections.

Alas BSE was not a rare lapse. Honest businesses were also casually ruined in smaller inaccurate scares over e.coli and listeria. Not that there is much evidence of shame or contrition. The damage Edwina Currie did by pontificating foolishly over salmonella in eggs was of such a scale that it is a modern wonder she has even the effrontery to let sex-rated novels appear in her name.

True, there is something darkly comic about the millennium bug saga, which is more briefly related in this book. Searching for modish causes to champion, Tony Blair found himself urgently quoting the chairman of Unilever that the supposed data glitch ‘could cause a worldwide recession’. Unimaginable sums were spent, and on the night everyone held their breath. At which point, a number of Australian bus ticket machines briefly failed to work. Countries that had ignored the hype and done little suffered no more than those that had squandered billions. When the only people assumed to understand these technical matters were the computer programmers making tidy sums out of fixing the non-problem, the precautionary principle trumped more measured assessment.

The most expensive scare, which became a scam, was the campaign against asbestos. In this case, a genuine source of harm from amphiboles (which had been tackled long ago) was confused with the harmless ‘white’ asbestos which formed 90 per cent of all asbestos-containing materials. Neither the media nor the law-makers armed themselves with the facts to resist the combined pressures from interest groups, lawyers seeking personal injury fees and contractors earning inflated sums to remove the innocent fire-resistant material. In Britain and America, bankrupting litigation was brought against companies dealing with the innocuous substance. Juries began awarding $25 million each to plaintiffs who showed no symptoms of ill health. A collective madness took hold. Lloyds of London was brought to the brink of ruin, a fate passed on to many of its names.

Booker and North take these and other telling examples not just to highlight past folly but to warn about the future. In particular, they relate them to the global warming debate. Scientific experts (many of whom, on closer inspection, transpire not to be climatologists at all) who assert rising temperatures are largely man-made have so collared governments, research funding, hearts, minds and the ‘factual’ output of the BBC that to express contrary evidence is to be equated with engaging in Holocaust Denial. Western governments are committing themselves to the sort of emission-cutting targets that are either unsustainable or economically ruinous. But what if this latest weather cycle, like so many in the past, is as much or more to do with natural variations in the sun’s activity?

Only time will tell whether a measure of scepticism towards the most alarmist climate claims is well founded. In the meantime, the similarities in method between those pushing the man-made global warming agenda and the various blinkered boobies and charlatans responsible for the catastrophes dissected in Scared to Death demands a more pluralistic response than almost anyone in our public life is prepared to countenance. That alone, should worry us.