Counselling Caution When It Comes

From time to time an almost religious fervour surrounds an idea. A consensus emerges about its importance which relegates to the margins any sensible or open discussion about the issue.

I was reminded of this when re-reading for the first time in a decade-and-a-half the autobiography of former Sunday Times editor, Andrew Neil, and his account of the hyping of a heterosexual Aids epidemic that was meant to be hitting Britain’s young middle classes in the mid-1980s. Neil recalls, ‘the more I looked at the matter the more elusive the heterosexual threat seemed to be; and no matter how the Aids Establishment dressed up the figures there seemed to be very few HIV-positive cases as a result of heterosexual sex. The overwhelming majority were homosexuals or needle-injecting drug abusers…Of the 12,565 people in Britain who had developed Aids since the disease was first diagnosed in 1982, 162 were heterosexuals not exposed to a high risk category, such as drug users and bisexual men’.

In trying to stimulate further debate on the risk, Neil encountered an extreme level of hostility. But as a result of the consensus that quickly emerged around the threat of Aids to heterosexuals, money that should have been targeted at real risk groups was spread uselessly across the population. Indeed at one stage there were three times as many Aids counsellors as sufferers.

Once enough of a media storm has been created, it is often politicians’ extreme aversion to risk that most successfully stifles debate. No matter the hit to the public purse, thoughts of ‘what could have been’, and the mantra of ‘better safe than sorry’, are powerful enough to silence any naysayer. Add to that the social stigma pinned to dissenters, and the charge that they are irresponsible not to take threats seriously, and you have a potent formula that can see vast sums squandered on all sorts of apparently worthy projects – sometimes to the detriment of the very causes they are meant to support.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that almost a decade ago we were rigid with fear about the impact of the millennium bug on conventional computer systems. All the experts were united – this Y2K problem had all the makings of an economic catastrophe and any commercial organisation reliant upon computer technology needed to invest significant sums to alleviate the potential problem. As we now know, 1 January 2000 came and went and the millennium bug proved a damp squib. No real – or virtual – harm done. Countless thousands of information technology specialists made a financial killing in the run-up but life went on.

More recently, I recall quoting in parliament an Evening Standard article as swine flu reached our shores that confidently predicted the number of dead on a borough by borough basis once this pestilence had swept through London. In total, it was claimed that 94 000 will die and, in the worst case scenario, over half the capital will be infected. I cannot help but think back to the BSE, SARS and avian flu scares that by now should have sent us either to the madhouse or the grave.

A similar almost evangelic fanaticism surrounds the phenomenon known as climate change or global warming. In fairness, deep concern about the man-made warming of our planet goes back almost two decades. I remember writing an article when I was barely out of university for a political magazine suggesting that the environmental movement had found in global warming a convenient stick with which to beat global capitalism. Unfortunately the subsequent birth of internet search engines meant that my words then were (mis)quoted to imply that I was hostile to all elements of green politics!

The argument I was making in 1990 is similar to the one that I make now – that the loudest voices amongst environmentalists all too frequently have a strong self-interest in perpetuating the idea that the entire issue is ‘settled’ in spite of the fact that as recently as the mid-1970s, the then conventional wisdom was that we were entering a new Ice Age.

Debate should always be welcomed, especially on a topic like climate change. For when people no longer contribute fresh ideas, we can find ourselves going along the wrong path. Take for instance the fashion for biofuels which saw Brazil cultivate plantations for ethanol the size of European states, the vast monocultures replacing important ecosystems like rainforests.

Unfortunately once politics becomes part of the mix the chances of a reasoned debate diminish. I am by nature a sceptic. Choice to my mind should be at the very essence of political decision making. Nowhere is that more important than the clear choice that should face an electorate. As a result I am instinctively sceptical about the idea of a ‘political consensus’ developing on any issue, be it health, welfare or even (more recently than we Conservatives might like to remember) the economy. In principle I regard the notion of the ‘debate being over’ as little more than a conspiracy by the political class to disenfranchise the voters. I also regard it as curious that rather than choose a message of hope, an increasingly powerless political class seem to encourage the national predilection for the apocalyptic.

I am not saying that we ignore advice. However, there should be a healthy scepticism towards expert opinion. We need to assess risk within context. So when it comes to consensus, I advise only this: exercise a degree of caution; always question; always inquire. For it is when debate has died that we should worry the most.