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June 25, 2010

London 2012 and the Dirty bomb: some philosophical reflections

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Don't be fooled by the pseudo-science of risk assessment, argues Lincoln Allison - Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor of Sport and Leisure at the University of Brighton.

Some weeks ago somebody telephoned me and asked if I'd like to talk about the security risks arising out of London 2012. Despite being known as "media tart" and "rentagob" by my sons, I wasn't even tempted; having a supposed expertise on sport does not make you an expert on security and the policing problems are essentially the same for a sporting event as for anything else involving a large crowd.

I was quite right to refuse because I would only have shown my ignorance. For example, I thought that a dirty bomb referred to a highly radioactive nuclear weapon. Since I have now been exposed to debate about these problems at every level from academic conferences to my mother-in-law's Daily Star I now know that dirty bomb has come to refer mainly to a fairly small and uncomplicated conventional explosive which spreads radioactive material and that such weapons are also known to be in the possession of some Chechen groups.

One small piece of sporting wisdom is relevant to security problems. It is that the Olympics offer a uniquely attractive target for terrorists. They do not - despite what their broadcasters inevitably pretend - represent state-of-the-art global sport. Nor do they any longer represent any clear alternative. But their unique success is as an event embodying the global village. The football World Cup may make more money and absorb more person-hours of viewing, but Olympic sport penetrates the places (like India and the USA) where interest in football is low and for various reasons Olympic sport is uniquely interesting to governments. A successful terrorist attack on the Games would, therefore, be the most symbolic act possible and also gain the most attention.

Three related issues arise out of this: cost, civil liberties and risk. The cost of security at the Los Angeles games in 1984 was estimated at just under $80 million. For the Athens games twenty years later it had risen to $1.5 billion; no sensible figure can be given for Beijing in 2008, nor - yet - for London in 2012. Since the benefits to weigh against these costs can be described as vague, intangible and transcendent no real assessment is possible. Apart from entertainment they include the maintenance and development of a global civil society - "bringing people together" - and the perpetuation of an ancient sporting tradition. Since the 1980s host governments invariably and strongly believe that hosting is good for national prestige despite the absence of any shred of evidence to justify the belief. If you think of this expenditure in terms of the opportunity cost to something you value you might get a little agitated; on the other hand, if you think of it in terms of the education budget it doesn't seem very important.

One Greek commentator, Minas Samitas, described Athens in 2004 as a "panoptic urban fortress". The Athenians were unfamiliar with that level of surveillance (though most of it has remained in place); it will be less of a surprise in London. It is interesting that this description of Athens uses Benthamite imagery because Bentham's argument was that watching people was better than having to hurt them. Surveillance as deterrence protects both potential criminal and victim. Unfortunately, it doesn't really apply to suicide bombers, but from a utilitarian point of view the civil liberties objections to surveillance make little sense.

Even if one accepts Robert Nozick's libertarian premise - that the worst anarchy could never be as bad as the worst state - an understandable preference for gangsters over the Gestapo, it doesn't seem to be a relevant comparison in respect of present dangers. I am worried that my children or grandchildren will be killed or have their lives ruined by a dirty bomb, either in general or in London in 2012. I am not much worried that they will end up in a concentration camp.

Nor am I in the least persuaded by the Orwellian imagery which surrounds surveillance and the arguments which it generates. Certainly, fourteen million CCTV cameras in the wrong hands would be a bad thing, but so would everything else if we ditched our foolish and incompetent government for a vicious one. If the technology existed then such a government would introduce it anyway without relying on their predecessors, any more than the Nazis relied on the Weimar Republic for its gas chambers. What worries me about surveillance in 2012 is whether there will be enough competent people to look at the pictures.

But the really interesting philosophical issue is risk and how we conceive of it. We have an institutionalised belief that risk can be assessed, a belief which is fed by ambition, scientism and our craving for security. At one point in my academic career there was a plan to coordinate the entire research of the University of Warwick around the concept of risk. It was reasonably clear that economists, the business school, biologists, mathematicians and many others could be brought on board, much less clear what the historians were supposed to do.

Careers and complex mathematical theorems have been built on risk assessment. Headmistresses have to do it for premises and projects. The elementary trick is to cover your bottom. The advanced one is to get your risk onto the agenda. We have spent billions in the last eighty years on draconian arrangements to avoid rabies (which kills six people a year on average in France). And whatever happened to swine flu - apart from the epidemic of malingering which it caused? I do have this awful feeling that something is going to get me, the risk of which nobody has assessed.

For what, after all, is risk? It is danger, the likelihood that something bad will happen. Logically, that likelihood can be assessed in two ways. There is statistical probability, where identical events occur without E1 affecting E2: coin-tossing and honest roulette wheels are the classic examples. And then there is the rest of life, where neither condition is met because events are all (very) different and E1 does affect E2.

Here we only have inductive probability to talk about and that is a kind of dressing up of the kind of knowledge gamblers have with a bit of metaphysics and some irrelevant statistics. The point is that we may be better off without the concept: most gamblers lose. Or we may overestimate risk and do nothing - the health and safety disease.

Let me give a sporting example. Risk is a necessary condition of sport: if there isn't a risk - even if only the risk of failure - it isn't sport. Kauto Star has in recent years been regarded as the best chaser over classic distances in National Hunt racing. But to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup you have to jump every fence, including some downhill fences in fast and variable conditions. Punters know that if Kauto jumps all the fences there is little risk of defeat. But in four attempts he has won the Gold Cup twice and fallen foul of the fences twice. And that information may tell you nothing useful about his next attempt.

Either Kauto Star hits the fence or he doesn't; either the bomber gets through or he doesn't. Fate operates on the binary system and you mustn't be fooled by the pseudo-science of risk assessment.

Lincoln Allison is Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor of Sport and Leisure at the University of Brighton. His two most recent books are The Global Politics of Sport and The Disrespect Agenda: How the Wrong Kind of Niceness is Making us Weak and Unhappy. He is also the author of Amateurism in Sport.

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