inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #76 of 112: Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Wed 24 Oct 07 13:54
Jon and Paulina - you're right, corporate interests, or at the very
least economic interests, are what drives a lot of this nonsense. And
for me, the libertarian arguments about inefficiency of government are
just foils for the same thing. 

When you're dealing with tremendously invasive and/or transformative
technologies, what does efficiency have to do with anything -- unless
you have a highly sophisticated and educated public that has enough
technical knowledge to be able to make risk v. benefit determinations
for themselves? 

Here's a paragraph from p 166 of Intervention:

"As the sociologist Ulrich Beck wrote in his landmark essay,
Risk Society, 'We no longer pick the experts — instead, the experts
choose their victims,' based on the information they give
us. What they know literally determines what we know. This
fact is particularly poignant in the realm of science and
technological risk, where the way in which we define expertise and how
society rewards its experts determines how those experts define
and assess risk for all of us."
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #77 of 112: Gail Williams (gail) Wed 24 Oct 07 13:56
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #78 of 112: Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Wed 24 Oct 07 14:08
As for "we need the precautionary principle" ... I don't know,
Paulina. I guess if my only choices were precautionary principle v. the
power that be "having their way with the locals ... who are only
asking reasonable questions," then I guess I'd probably go in that

But first of all, it would NEVER fly in the U.S. The power of
innovation and the individual's right to sell his or her better
mousetrap to the public is very much like the "rags to riches" idea in
America -- deeply woven into our national mythology. Any perceived
attempt to quash innovation in the name of precaution would get its ass
handed to it in a bag. 

And second, I don't want to give up just yet. I truly don't think that
it is impossible to instantiate better risk assessment methods into
government policies. It may have to happen by self-possessed
stakeholder groups going out and doing these assessment themselves,
transparently, and publishing the hell out of them, to (a) pass
sensible local laws using the results of those assessments, and (b)
embarrass state and national governments (and international too,
although many of them are smarter than we are about these things) into
following suit.

I honestly and perhaps naively believe that many of the kinds of
outcomes like the one you describe are because people don't know
there's another way -- that actually works. 
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #79 of 112: Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Wed 24 Oct 07 14:11
And yes, it is chilling. And so very unnecessary and wrong. GACK. 
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #80 of 112: Paulina Borsook (loris) Wed 24 Oct 07 14:53
i share yr misgivings about the precautionary principle, and
the US culture of innovation. but when it comes to chemical
agents being used in living systems --- i dunno, seems
like not a bad idea (you probably know how europe
is much better in terms of monitoring chemicals in
household use [cosmetics, toys, etc] than the US is)

i am too close to this issue of course --- but the older
i get, the more i am struck with how people are just
stuck in their ways of believing and knowing.
so, say, the old-line toxicologists who have no
understanding of more ecological systems (i.e.
chronic low-grade exposure to  multiple pollutants
has additive and multiplicative negative effects
on all different aspects of the ecoysytem) simply
think 'hey, there was no bhopal/cropdusting accident,
so no prob!'.

so as you said, there is no understanding of
how things could be different.

and yes, in a gallows=humor way, i have been enjoying
how the santa cruz sentinel (local newspaper) clearly
has a reporter on this story with the mission
of making the dissidents look stewpid extremist and flakey ---
and quote industry sources who say the chemicals
are 'mostly safe'. one of them even said 'it;s
about as safe as RAID". [no comment].

so yes, these were the experts, as you say, chosen
to give their soi-disant expertise.
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #81 of 112: Paulina Borsook (loris) Thu 25 Oct 07 21:12
something i have also been thinking about,
is part of why wonderful sensible things
like OTA dont triumph/arent heard is
that people have emotional-quasi-religious
bonds to their ideological positions.
the 'dont complicate it with facts' response
really means 'i feel strongly about this,
and you havent given me a way to back
down without losing face/allow me to sort
of still feel like myself --- and not
lose my identity if i change my position'.

another variant of
'the best lack all conviction; the worst
are full of passionate intensity'

thinking of the brown-moth situation,
i am sure that if the calif secy of ag
who brought this plague on us were
confronted with reams of good scientific
evidemce from everywhere --- he would
ignore it/stay the course --- because
he would mean public humiliation/admitting
he was wrong.

discussions of rational decision-making/
evidence-evaluation strike me as wonderfully
idealistic, because no one ever wants
to admit that his/her position has
a faith-based component, even if wrapped
in the language of rationality
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #82 of 112: Cupido, Ergo Sum (robertflink) Fri 26 Oct 07 05:58
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #83 of 112: Gail Williams (gail) Fri 26 Oct 07 10:38

> emotional-quasi-religious bonds to their ideological positions

Had to see that again.  Great definition of the True Believer problem
in public policy.
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #84 of 112: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 26 Oct 07 13:07
This is why it's important to have *transparent* deliberative
processes that involve many stakeholders, and have a way to tie the
deliberative process to the process for making decisions. If the
Secretary of Agriculture's decision is informed by such a process, it
might be a better decision, and he could be in the position of sharing

I'm sure stakeholders are in the process already - but the prominent
voices are those of interest groups with commercial interests, so you
don't get the broader kind of deliberative process we've been talking
about, and it's usually not transparent.

I think I mentioned this before, but I really like the process
described in _The Charrette Handbook_ published by the National
Charrette Institute. It's a stakeholder process, it's deliberative, and
it's transparent. They're more focused on urban planning, but you
could use the same kind of process to evaluate decisions about science
and technology.
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #85 of 112: Paulina Borsook (loris) Fri 26 Oct 07 15:18
i meant 'emotional-quasi-religious' to also
apply to people who believe in technoutopian
cult of science: all technology is good and
has no downside. a reflexive, unthinking stance
as the anti-science attitude we are also
familiar with.

being the pessimist i am, i am sure the
calf secy of ag has been kind of taken
aback by the depth and strength of
the opposition  --- and i am sure
he thot his (or his lackeys') decision
to spray didnt warrant public, multi-stakeholder
processes. i suspect this doesnt happen
with most of the rest of what goes on his
office; why should it be different with
this decision?
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #86 of 112: Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Fri 26 Oct 07 16:40
For the record, I am not in favor of reflexive, unthinking stances no
matter what side they're on. No one who held such a stand would ever be
invited to a stakeholder risk consultation that I was running.
Sometimes you've got to lop off both ends of the bell curve if you're
going to get anywhere. 

I think it's also safe to say that no state or national politician
operating in today's environment of corporate yahooism will voluntarily
undertake these kinds of processes. Locals maybe, but not the guys who
really sling the big bucks. 

That's because as noted earlier they are virtually impossible to slant
while they are underway (because all the relevant stakeholders are
represented and also because they are transparent,  as Jon also noted).
This means that whomever makes the decision (politician, regulator)
will have to contradict the results of a very public, unbiased analysis
to decide in favor of cronies or corporate interests. 

The thing that we need not to underestimate is how far special
interests will go to make sure that these kinds of unbiased assessments
aren't used to make policy. 

When I was writing my risk paper for Rockefeller, I found an example
in the appendices to 'Understanding Risk' that I'm going include in the
next post. It's about the California Comparative Risk Project. 
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #87 of 112: Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Fri 26 Oct 07 16:54
From page 21: 

"Comparative risk projects start from the assumption that policy
priorities for environmental problems should be determined by the
magnitude of the risk each problem represents. 

When it began the process of determining these policy priorities in
1992, [the California Comparative Risk Project] acknowledged good
science was important to ranking risks, but also realized that
scientists deliberating amongst themselves wouldn’t provide sufficient
basis for setting policy priorities. 

"Direct citizen participation did not play a large role, but instead
the project called for involvement of academics, industry, business,
activists, residents and political interests to help design the
process. Soon this group included critics of conventional risk analysis

"The resulting process design included three technical committees for
the areas of human health, the environment and social welfare, and
another three committees that supplemented technical risk assessment
with social and economic concerns — including environmental justice,
which addressed concerns about the inequitable distribution of risk to

[Here is the paragraph that makes my hair curl. - DC]
"Although the California state government eventually distanced itself
from the CCRP report — trade groups went directly to the press and the
governor’s office, complaining that a new environmental risk assessment
basically ignored science and ranked risk according to “people’s
values, opinion, fears and anxieties” — the process was instructive for
many reasons. 

"It was particularly notable in using iteration and deliberation to
help refine the problem, and brought together conventional forms of
risk analysis with analysis and deliberation about social, economic,
equity and other concerns. 

"It is also worth following what happens the next time a broad-based
risk project is attempted in California, as the report’s authors state
that many hard-working participants were alienated by the fact that
their concerns were painted as 'unscientific,' or because their hard
work was shunted aside when it became a political football."

This is the kind of political crap that makes me nuts, and drove me to
write Intervention in the first place. Of course, it happened 15 years
ago, which I hope is a material factor in how it turned out then v.
how it might turn out today. 

There is a move afoot in many quarters, including the financial world,
to accept that intangibles like reputation and brand and consumer
perception are in fact economic factors, which lends more credence to
these kinds of approaches. I wrote an NYT column about this a couple of
months ago that, bit surprise to me, got picked up all over the world.
(Here 'tis:

And technologies have become exponentially  more invasive (and/or we
are exponentially better able to tell how invasive they actually are). 

So I for one certainly am not afraid to try something like this again
(and in fact I am working on getting a project funded along these
lines). Nevertheless, no one wants to spend months or years working on
something only to have it become a political football instead of making
a contribution to sane risk management. CCRP is definitely an object
lesson as we try to move these kinds of processes into the mainstream. 

[and Jon, I would love a pointer to the charrette process if you can
send one.]
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #88 of 112: Credo, Ergo Dubito (robertflink) Fri 26 Oct 07 19:30
>“people’s values, opinion, fears and anxieties”<

One of the reasons politicians operate as they do is that they must
deal with the public as is where is.  Ignoring the publics fears,
ignorance, anxieties, etc., can be down right hazardous to politico and

Placing the matter in an unbiased, balanced, scientific, rational,
etc., etc, body that issues binding decisions may be what is best for
the nation or the world but it is not rule by the people.  It is rule
of the people by an elite, however well intended and disposed. 

We all seem to forget that rule by the people doesn't mean good rule
in all instances. "The people" can be down right stupid but that's
comes with the benefits democracy gives us.   
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #89 of 112: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 27 Oct 07 09:33
If you have a democratic intention, you look for ways to make people
smarter so that you can open up the process as much as possible and
involve those who are interested in any debate that will lead to a
decision that affects us all.

And that's really hard. It's much easier to have an elite make all the
decisions. Chairman Mao said that the best way to rule the people is
to keep their bellies full and their minds empty. We suppose that the
"democratic nations" are run differently, but there are powerful
individuals and organizations who would agree with Mao, partly because
they realize how hard it is to make decisions democratically (and you
know that, too, if you've ever tried to get large group consensus), and
partly because they have interests to protect, that might be
jeopardized by truly democratic processes.

Practically speaking, pure democracy doesn't work, which is why we
have represesntative democracy. Democracy doesn't scale very well, and
where you have a lot of cultural diversity, it's hard to create a
democratic conversation where everybody's on the same page. My friends
in the "extreme democracy" conversations didn't like to hear me say
this stuff, because they, at least some of them, would like to move
toward more of a purely-democratic model. I just don't see it working.

But I do think we can work toward a process that's more democratic. If
you look at our definition of extreme democracy
(, you'll see that Mitch
Ratcliffe and I were exploring how broader and better participation
could be mediated by social technology. I think the best case for
better governance combines effective use of those technologies, more
groups having more face to face gatherings for active and real
conversation, and better frameworks for citizen input to the political
process.  We have a pretty good basic structure, the U.S. form of
representative democracy that combines the legislative, judicial, and
executive branches of government as the apparatus for governance and
decision. Over time, especially in the broadcast era, I think we lost
the sense of partnership between that system and the people it's
supposed to represent: it's troubling that so many think of "the
government" as something apart, even hostile to their interests.

Sorry, Denise, if I hijacked your interview with my own soapbox... but
I thought this was relevant.  

One idea that's been floating around is about "open source
government"; I think that's an interesting and compelling concept. 
Open source is all about the kind of transparency we've been talking
about as a desirable part of governance in general and risk analysis in
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #90 of 112: Paulina Borsook (loris) Sat 27 Oct 07 12:55
yeah, well, and me being a pessimist by nature, and a raving
misanthrope/anti-group person as well, i always worry
about NIMBY/design by committee/mob-rule --- when
participatpory decision-making is on the table.
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #91 of 112: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 27 Oct 07 15:28
It's tough to decide who should be making the decisions. I've been in
discussions about democracy where it was always about how to make the
conversation happen, and never about how to get to the decisions that
real governance would require. I don't have the answers, myself, just a
lot of questions.

Denise has the answers. *8^)
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #92 of 112: Paulina Borsook (loris) Sat 27 Oct 07 17:35
denise probably does have the answers. me, i always worry
about the issue of character: how many people have the
mature capacity to say 'i was wrong and you were right'?
to be able to be fair/judicious, as opposed to needing
to be right/to win? very few, imho...
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #93 of 112: Cupido, Ergo Denego (robertflink) Sat 27 Oct 07 20:10
Another issue is that the people who are very good at identifying the
problem may be mediocre at determining the solution and even
incompetent at implementation.  I understand that MBA programs of yore
had team problem-solving where the students would come up with the
answer and state "all that remains is the implementation".  The
inference was that some sort of minions would easily carry out the
brilliant solutions of the scholars.

Wide implementation of a mediocre solution to part of the problem may
be more effective than an elegant solution to the "real" problem that
only a few can understand or appreciate. 
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #94 of 112: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 28 Oct 07 07:39
Getting back to the book, there's a chapter on cost vs benefit. There
are significant costs involved in developing products like transgenics;
how well to companies assess the real benefit of those products. Are
they looking at factors beyond their own ROI? There's also costs
associated with risk assessment - how many government dollars should we
expect to spend evaluating risk? How do we quantify the return on
*that* investment?
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #95 of 112: Paulina Borsook (loris) Sun 28 Oct 07 09:56
not having read the book --- but i cant see how companies,
unless they have a commitment sustainaibilty, care about any risks/
consequences unless lawsuits might be involved. it's not in their
charter and it's not worth the $ they might have to spend.

i have some money invested in a fund called 'portfolio 21' ---
out of portland. it;s an intl fund screened for environmental
issues. the fund mgrs in this yr's prospectus were very
honest: we screen for enviro stuff, but global capitalism
is inherently not sustaimable and is a race to the bottom.
i found their honesty wonderful --- and i think they
spoke truth.
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #96 of 112: Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Sun 28 Oct 07 10:15
Just catching up, so I'll respond to some posts/ideas separately. 

In #89, Jon said, 

"Over time, especially in the broadcast era, I think we lost
the sense of partnership between that system and the people it's
supposed to represent: it's troubling that so many think of 'the
government' as something apart, even hostile to their interests."

Equally interesting to me is what we're losing as the broadcast era
dies -- at least, the mass-media type broadcasting that I grew up with.
Social media, which I really think of as more anti-social media, often
enables a kind of soapbox-ism masquerading as conversation: zingers
and positioning as debate, from government as well as the opposition. 

I don't know that I have the answers, but I know *that* isn't helpful.
And what I know about these kinds of processes is that they are in
fact conversations where biases and positions are not discouraged, but
are actually the reason that each individual is at the table. The
important part is that they are willing to change their opinion based
on others' questions and evidence. It's an investment in the outcome --
just not in my own outcome. 
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #97 of 112: Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Sun 28 Oct 07 11:06
In # 93, Robert said,

"Another issue is that the people who are very good at identifying the
problem may be mediocre at determining the solution and even
incompetent at implementation." 

Yes. That's why I was saying earlier that I wasn't sure how you do the
handoff from the recommendation at the conclusion of a risk
assessment. There has to be both will and skill on the
regulatory/legislative side to take these deliberated decisions and
implement them. If these kinds of assessments are adopted by
governments, I hope that part of the adoption process would include
making sure that decisions are delivered into a welcoming and
respectful environment. 

That said, none of the issues that we've raised here so far are new.
Risk is one of the most prodigiously studied topics in the world, with
extensive literatures in several different disciplines. Every aspect
that we've discussed has been addressed. But it takes a long time for
good ideas to fight their way out of academic journals and into
practice, in no small part because knowledge tends to stay in its silos
and it takes time and effort to break it out. 

And once a new idea is in practice, it takes a while for its
limitations to show themselves, and then it's a whole other process to
convince practitioners those limitations are serious enough that it's
time to try something new. 

Part of my goal with 'Intervention' is to try to hasten that process,
to raise awareness that solutions do exist if we have the willingness
to move beyond the limitations of theory and practice, loosen our grip
on our existing notions and try something new. 
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #98 of 112: Cogito, Ergo Spero (robertflink) Sun 28 Oct 07 18:47
>Part of my goal with 'Intervention' is to try to hasten that process,
to raise awareness that solutions do exist if we have the willingness
to move beyond the limitations of theory and practice, loosen our grip
on our existing notions and try something new.<

A laudable but tall education order among other tall orders. 

Our existing notions may be similar to elements of the environment
that are at risk. "The installed base" may be considered to consist of
our investment in current thinking as well as the expertise and
physical plant associated with things as they are.  To contain or
reduce the risk to some valued aspect of life, e.g. the environment, we
will probably have to put some of our ways of thinking and living at
risk.  Can we easily write off such "investments"?

Another model could be the idea that society has some very bad habits
and kicking them is at least as hard as kicking an addiction as an

Are there any examples in history of a culture making a radical shift
in some important sensibility? If so, there were probably some stages
that include such things as denial, anger, blaming others, tantrums,
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #99 of 112: Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Sun 28 Oct 07 19:21
Yes, I think the beginning of the environmental movement, starting
with 'Silent Spring,' is a pretty good example. I think some of us are
still going through the stages you list. <rueful grin>
inkwell.vue.310 : Denise Caruso, "Intervention"
permalink #100 of 112: Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Sun 28 Oct 07 19:49
Jon asked earlier about cost benefit analysis. 

I'm actually trying (desperately) to finish a column on the topic for
a magazine, even as I type this, and so I'm kind of up to my eyeballs
in it at the moment. 

You asked "how well" companies assess the real benefits of
transgenics. As far as I can tell, they do no formal assessment of this
at all. They do not, as far as I know, look at factors beyond basic
return on investment -- except for liability.  

One of the most remarkable quotes ever in the universe on this topic
came from Monsanto's PR chief, Phil Angell, who said this to Michael
Pollan in an NYT magazine piece back in 1998:

"Monsanto should not have to vouch for the safety of biotech food. Our
interest is in selling as much as of it as possible. Assuring its
safety is the FDA's job."

Of course, the part he doesn't say is that a Monsanto lawyer was hired
by the FDA to write the regulations for transgenic foods back in the
early 1990s. 

As for how many government dollars we should expect to spend
evaluating risk ... that's not the whole story and also I don't know
that I'd put the question quite that way. 

Right now the government doesn't spend much money at all evaluating
risk per se (and I'm talking about transgenics here; I don't have data
on anything else). Agencies spend their money basically processing
forms that contain the data companies provide them. 

There isn't any money allocated for regulatory scientists to do their
own risk assessments. They're plugging corporate data into existing
risk models -- not peer reviewed data, mind you, but whatever the
companies are willing to share that isn't "proprietary." 

So in addition to beefing up the agencies so they actually have some
personnel on hand to run some of their own tests and challenge some
existing safety and risk assumptions, I think there's another issue

That has to do with research money. Right now, virtually all of the
taxpayer money that's allocated to research -- to the National Science
Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, etc -- is for discovery.
If there's any money allocated to risk research at all, it's a
single-digit percentage of the entire budget. 

One of the people who's spoken very eloquently about this is Dave
Rejeski at the Wilson Center in DC. In 2006, his group there published
a terrific white paper about the desperate need for a nanotech risk
research agenda. It's called "Nanotechnology: A Research Strategy for
Addressing Risk," and it's published through the Project on Emerging
Nanotechnologies funded by Pew via the Wilson Center. 

The question of how we quantify the return on such investments is
what's holding back a lot of important work. As I mentioned earlier,
some of the benefits are intangibles that have to do with public trust
in government and industry, company reputation, valuations on
intellectual property and questions of scientific uncertainty. But some
of them are quite quantifiable, in ways that economists generally
don't care to bother with today. 

For example, government economists don't quantify what really happens
in the economy when the cost and benefit of a given regulation is
estimated. They estimate only the first order effects — the amount of
money that the polluting industries will have to spend to clean up the
mess they've made. They don't include the benefit of spending that
money -- that it will employ people and produce revenue for other firms
and can have an overall positive effect on the economy. 

It's called the Porter Hypothesis, for Michael Porter from Harvard. He
says that expenditures for cleaning up often can yield productivity
gains that more than compensate for the cost of complying with a new

So I think that using cost benefit analysis as the primary foundation
for regulation is a practice whose time has passed. It's a terrific
tool and great when it's used appropriately. But nowadays governments
and industry use it as a weapon to get their own way in the policy
world, and it's becoming a liability.

Sorry for this very long answer, but it's a complicated question.  


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