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University of Nairobi Fallacies of Risk Engineering Discussion

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Journal of Risk Research ISSN: 1366-9877 (Print) 1466-4461 (Online) Journal homepage: Fallacies of risk Sven Ove Hansson To cite this article: Sven Ove Hansson (2004) Fallacies of risk, Journal of Risk Research, 7:3, 353-360, DOI: 10.1080/1366987042000176262 To link to this article: Published online: 17 May 2010. Submit your article to this journal Article views: 316 View related articles Citing articles: 2 View citing articles Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at Journal of Risk Research 7 (3), 353–360 (April 2004) 1111 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 20111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 30111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 40111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 81111 Fallacies of risk SVEN OVE HANSSON* Philosophy Unit, Royal Institute of Technology, 100 44 Stockholm, Sweden Abstract In addition to traditional fallacies such as ad hominem, discussions of risk contain logical and argumentative fallacies that are specific to the subject-matter. Ten such fallacies are identified, that can commonly be found in public debates on risk. They are named as follows: the sheer size fallacy, the converse sheer size fallacy, the fallacy of naturalness, the ostrich’s fallacy, the proof-seeking fallacy, the delay fallacy, the technocratic fallacy, the consensus fallacy, the fallacy of pricing, and the infallibility fallacy. KEY WORDS: risk, fallacies, argumentation Introduction Ever since Aristotle, fallacies have had a central role in the study and teaching of logical thinking and sound reasoning (Walton, 1987). It is not difficult to find examples of traditional fallacies such as ad hominem in any major modern discussion of a controversial issue. Discussions on risk are no exception. In addition, the subject-matter of risk (like many others) seems to invite fallacies of a more specific kind. The purpose of this short essay is to discuss 10 logical and argumentative fallacies that can be found in public debates on risk. Some of these are not as rare in the scholarly and scientific literature as one might have hoped. 1. The sheer size fallacy X is accepted Y is a smaller risk than X ∴ Y should be accepted This is one of the commonest fallacies in the lore of risk. It is not often found in recent scientific writings, but is still often heard from advocates of various risk-associated technologies: ‘You will have to accept this chemical exposure since the risk it gives rise to is smaller than the risk of being struck by lightning.’ Or: ‘You must accept this technology, since the risks are smaller than that of a meteorite falling down on your head.’ The problem with these arguments is, of course, that we do not have a choice between the defended technology and the atmospheric phenomena referred to. Comparisons between risks can only be directly decision-guiding if they refer to objects that are alternatives in one and the same decision. When deciding whether or not to accept a certain pesticide, we need to compare it to other pesticides (or non-pesticide solutions) that can *E-mail: Journal of Risk Research ISSN 1366-9877 print/ISSN 1466-4461 online © 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/1366987042000176262 354 1111 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 20111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 30111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 40111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7111 81111 Hansson replace it. Comparisons to lightning, meteorites, background radiation, one cigarette a day – or any of the other popular examples in the rhetoric of risk – are not of much guidance (Hansson ,1997). Life can never be free of risks. We are forced by circumstances to live with some rather large risks, and we have also chosen to live with other, fairly large risks – typically because of the high value we assign to their associated benefits. If we were to accept, in addition, all proposed new risks that are small in comparison to some risk that we have already accepted, then we would all be dead. Like several of the fallacies to be discussed below, the sheer size fallacy involves the treatment of risks as ‘free-floating’ objects, dissected out of their social context – in this case, out of the context of associated benefits. Strictly speaking, it is on most occasions wrong to speak of acceptance of a risk per se. Instead, the accepted object is a package or social alternative that contains the risk, its associated benefits, and possibly other factors that may influence a decision. 2. The converse sheer size fallacy X is not accepted Y is a larger risk than X ∴ Y should not be accepted This line of argument may be described as the converse of the sheer size fallacy, and it is equally fallacious. For an example, consider two pesticides X and Y, such that X can easily be replaced by some less harmful alternative, whereas Y can at present be dispensed with only at high economic costs. It may then be reasonable to accept Y but not X, even if Y gives rise to more serious risks to health and the environment. Several of the fallacies to be treated below also have a converse form, but in what follows I will only state one of the two forms (namely the one that gives an invalid argument for acceptance, rather than non-acceptance, of a risk). 3. The fallacy of naturalness X is natural ∴ X should be accepted Psychometric studies indicate that most of us are more concerned about those risks that we believe to be unnatural than about those that we conceive as natural. Unfortunately, it is difficult to make more precise sense of this way of thinking, since naturalness is one of those concepts that seem to dissolve almost into nil when subjected to a logical analysis. As an example of this, consider the notion of ‘natural foods’. With a very stringent definition of ‘natural’, it may be claimed that only the foods that were available to pre-civilization humans are natural. This would exclude all foodstuffs that derive from domestic animals or require heating for their preparation. At the other extreme, a very liberal definition of ‘natural’ can be based on the argument that we humans are biological creatures, so that all products of our civilization are also products of nature. According to this latter definition, everything that we eat is natural. The intuitive notion of ‘naturalness’ seems to lie somewhere between these two extremes, but more precisely where should the limit be drawn? Is heavily salted meat Fallacies of risk 1111 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 20111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 30111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 40111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 81111 355 a ‘natural’ food component? And what about frozen meat? The latter is of later origin and depends on more advanced technology, whereas the former deviates more in its chemical composition from what pre-civilization humans can have eaten. And is fried meat natural? Tea? Strawberries and grapefruit (that are outcomes of plant breeding)? Yoghurt? Vitamin C tablets? The terms ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’, as used in this and many other contexts, have a strong normative component. By saying that a child’s behaviour is natural you call for acceptance or at least tolerance. By saying that it is unnatural you condemn it. More generally, we tend to call those, and only those, fruits of human civilization unnatural that we dislike. What is commonly accepted is not considered unnatural. I have not heard anyone call it unnatural to boil contaminated water before drinking it or to wear glasses, but pasteurization has been given that designation and so has (in certain religious circles) the use of condoms. Not many of those who call homosexuality ‘unnatural’ would change their views if it was proved that humans have a biologically based tendency to homosexuality. Hence, naturalness is not a scientific concept, based on our knowledge of human biology, but rather a teleological concept that expresses beliefs about how humans are suited or destined to live their lives. Naturalness is one of the major rhetoric figures that are used in debates on risk. It is often more correct to say that we call something natural because we accept it than to say that we accept it because it is natural. The fallacy of naturalness is a case of petitio principii; a discussant who is not already convinced that a risk is acceptable cannot be expected to regard it as natural. There may be valid reasons to treat some of the risks that we call natural less strictly than some of those that we call artificial, but naturalness per se is not among these reasons. We eat meat and potatoes although we would never accept a new pesticide with as incomplete toxicity data as we have for these foodstuffs. However, this is not – or at least it should not be – because of their elusive ‘naturalness’, but because of the associated benefits. We can live on meat and potatoes, but not on DDT and preservatives. 4. The ostrich’s fallacy X does not give rise to any detectable risk ∴ X does not give rise to any unacceptable risk The standpoint that indetectable effects are no matter of concern is a common implicit assumption in both scientific and more popular discussions of risk. On occasions we also find it stated explicitly. An unusually clear example is a statement by a former chairman of the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), a private standard-setting body with a strong influence on occupational exposure limits throughout the world. He conceded that the organization’s exposure limits ‘can never be used to guarantee absolute safety’, but found it sufficient that ‘they can be used to control adverse health effects of all types below the point at which they cannot be distinguished from their background occurence’ (Mastromatteo 1981). Similarly, the Health Physics Society wrote in a position statement: [E]stimate of risk should be limited to individuals receiving a dose of 5 rem in one year or a lifetime dose of 10 rem in addition to natural background. Below these doses, risk estimates should not be used; expressions of risk should only be qualitative
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