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The BSE Crisis

This week saw the publication of some 16 volumes of the Phillips report on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease. On Friday came the news that one man of 74 had died last year from new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (nvCJD). This gave rise to the idea that many more might have died of it and that there might even be an epidemic.

"BSE teams rethink size of epidemic" James Meikie (The Guardian, 28 October, p1). Up till now, all reported cases of death from CJD had been between 15 and 54, though one girl was known to have had it at 12 and she, Zoë Jeffrey, died on 28 October at only 14. The estimates have shot up from 100 to 100,000 based on the percentage of the population thought to be open to the risk, the number of infected cattle and the period of incubation. It was uncertain whether this incubation period was 8 years or 30 years. 86 are now known to have died from nvCJD so far.

"Whatever Lord Phillips says, remember that survival is a risky business" was the title Richard North gave to his article in The Times (26 October, p20). Mishaps like the BSE affair are almost bound to arise in a society that makes progress. Risk is intrinsic to progress. The Titanic sinks, the Chernobyl nuclear plant blows its top and leaks out radioactivity, and Concorde crashes. There are any number of train crashes and even more car smashes, but they were far, far fewer than the journeys that are successful completed. And a successful journey is the norm. Motor accidents are running at about 3,000 deaths a year, but are said to be as low as 10 from the railways though a higher figure of 18 has also been cited. There have been over 40 deaths on the roads since the Hatfield crash. But the anxiety industry makes out that all risk is special and that the lot could be avoided, says North.

The anxiety industry loves the BSE problem. It is all too pleased when things go wrong, as this gives evidence that wolves do sometimes appear. It will say that the Ministry of Agriculture should have warned the public earlier say 1986 rather than 1988. Even when the Ministry did issue a warning, it was somewhat downbeat, as the Ministry did not want to admit to the EU that British food was tainted, says North. It was never clear of its role and was confused as to whether it was there to regulate the farmers or to stand up for them. Should Douglas Hogg, the Agricultural Minister, have resigned in 1996? He and his forerunners saw that there was no evidence from mainstream science or from the government advisers on a danger. They took that to mean that the beef was safe, but that was a non sequitur, says North. He is right on that but fails to see what the modern philosophy of science recommends. Stephen Dorrell thought that what mattered was consensus in science and he knows no better today. Thus, in his apology on Any Questions on Friday 27 October, he merely thinks he was wrong because the consensus has now changed. What he should have done, if he followed Karl Popper, was to test the theories of the mavericks (Dr Helen Grant, Dr Stephen Dealler and Dr Richard Lacey) that were critical at the time,. We attempt to test by attempted refutation rather than passively conforming to the thought of the status quo at any one time.

However, when the officials said that the beef was safe, they were for the most part correct. Very few helpings of beef in the 1980s led to disease, says North. Dr Stephen Dealler repeated his fears that nearly all of us have eaten about 50 meals of contaminated beef. He said that a third of the sheep, a quarter of the goats and all the mice and mink he tested died. The dead man in the older age bracket means that the estimate of 136,000 needs to be pushed up. But those 50 meals may well have failed to do any harm. North may well be right that they were in fact safe. Nor can it truly be said that there was a failure of regulation in the BSE affair, he continues, for there is no firm reason to despair about the past. We could not have done much before we found out about the disease, but now we can make reforms.

The very popular idea that the affair arose because the feed was unnatural is not the lesson to draw at all, for many unnatural things work out well. And many natural things are great dangers. The idea that GM food is like BSE is not apt, nor is GM food going onto truly new ground. The future is not finally predictable and trying to keep to nature's way will certainly not ensure safety. It could be that one day the dreams of the Greens their nightmares maybe that the planet is ruined by progress comes to pass, though North feels that it is most unlikely. He nowadays tends to think that such an outcome might be better than to stagnate in fear, as they tend to recommend we should do. We should be thoughtful as well as progressive, but trial and error is bound to lead to some mishap.

On Saturday, the mad Hattersley give us his opinion on the 16 volumes of the report. "The diseased herd" (The Guardian, 28 October, p20) displays all the author's skills in his new career in writing. He begins with the Falklands war. Then the mad Hattersley goes on to the topic of arms to Iraq. No fault was found in either pulling the ships away from the South Atlantic or in selling arms to Iraq as far as the elite on the enquiry teams can see. They take it for granted that any error made arises despite those in charge, who like the enquiry team are part of the elite. Whenever possible, blame is to be avoided completely. Given this class outlook, the mad Hattersley did not expect much criticism from Phillips. He said that two Agricultural Ministers, Gummer and Hogg, and one Health Minister, Dorrell, underplayed the risk of eating beef. But the government believed its own propaganda. Later when it emerged that it was possible for BSE to transform into CJD they still set out to avoid an over-reaction. Phillips thinks that was a mistake. Amen to that says the mad Hattersley. But he will not endorse the idea that the government did not lie. The report does not excuse or exonerate the guilty but it does treat them very gently. The mad Hattersley thinks that if they were doing their best, it was woefully inadequate. They have got off too lightly.

Nothing we do is free of risk. We can never be sure how dire are the risks we take but will need to think out the risks for ourselves in each case. The action we take will be our own and so will the responsibility for the results. Gummer, Hogg and Dorrell are not up to doing other than conforming to the status quo and so they were not much help, but it is not likely that the mad Hattersley knows better. What is needed in science is to test the knowledge by attempted refutation.

Old Hickory

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