Online Only: Scientist explains risky science

By Lisa Nguyen

Science typically serves to advance human interests, but one professor disagrees.

Scientists are conducting experiments where the risk factor is an “extinction event,” said Dr. William Leiss, a visiting lecturer from the University of Ottawa. New inventions that do not conform to precedents of scientific standardization become dangerously unregulated, he argued.

Leiss held the research chair in risk communication and public policy at the Haskayne School of Business from 1999 to 2004 at the University of Calgary. He also wrote many books regarding his theories on science, technology and risk management. His speech last Thursday focused on “black holes of risk,” which he described as dangerous human endeavours that have all-consuming and irreversible consequences.

“We are very reluctant to constrain new science-driven technologies on precautionary grounds,” said Leiss.

Financial and technological industries have become theoretical models run by elite groups who make decisions based on data that is at best speculative, Leiss argued. Although nanotechnology is put into over 800 consumer products, there is no standard method of quantitatively measuring or regulating nanotechnology, he explained.

“Everyone salutes the flag of free market enterprise, but no one is setting up regulations,” he said. “The eventual unravelling of the market may be insurmountable.”

Leiss explained that a “black hole risk” has four components. Often, when the general public is unequipped with the knowledge to determine an experiment’s safety level, they delegate the responsibility of risk assessment. The selected few responsible individuals typically have an interest in the project’s success, he said.

The chance of a unwanted consequences cannot be unequivocally determined because of the numerous variables in an experiment that has a monumental risk factor.

Incalculable probabilities, as Leiss called them, result in a loss of tangible data to base informed risk assessments on. The unbounded externalities, or events that can’t possibly be taken into account, cannot be stopped and only vaguely predicted. Lastly, without precise data there is an inability to regulate systems, leading to catastrophic consequences, he said.

Complex structures like economies and ecosystems are vulnerable to the epidemic effect of systemic risk, explained Leiss.

In the financial market, underneath the reassuring promise of a return on investments, lies a layer of side bets based on financial strategies made by banking companies, explained Leiss.

“In financial investments and science technology, bigger bets are being taken for a chance of increased wealth, but the downside risk is building in the unseen background,” said Leiss.

The inherent interconnectivity of economy and technology implies that if one system crumbles the others will follow, explained Leiss.

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