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Living With Uncertainty - Risk And BSE

image Published: Apr 14, 2010

First it was sheep cloning, then pigs hearts for humans, then it was BSE. Animals have been big news of late. Keeping pace with these developments is the SRT Project’s work on genetic engineering in non-human life forms, now nearing completion. In this edition of the SRT Bulletin we look at some of these topical issues.

BSE raises disturbing questions on how we handle scientific information, risk and political responsibility. A policy decision was made to reduce the treatment used to prepare cattle feed derived from animal products. By a series of compounding effects we have a disastrous epidemic of the cattle disease BSE. After repeated Government assertions that there was no proven link to its human analogue CJD, we have about a dozen cases of a new CJD strain, whose cause is still a mystery. We don’t yet know, but BSE might be the culprit. It might not.

There are many unknown factors in the scientific data. For the scientist, that’s quite normal. But if politicians or the public hear serious concerns spoken of only in terms of probability, uncertainty and the need to await more data, it’s a problem. We want to have certainty when there is none to be had.

At such a point, the “Precautionary Principle” should come in. If it’s really serious, we take precautions ahead of confirmatory data. This is true for global warming, and it should have been for BSE. The mistake is to resort instead to political assurances aimed to allay public fears. Scientific reports can be interpreted as much firmer than could possibly be justified from the data. “Science” can become a pawn in a game of political expediency, and a cycle of dubious information is begun, the cost of whose breaking becomes higher the longer it goes on .... until the evidence catches up with one.

Donald Bruce

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