Learning from the Blind Men and the Elephant, or Seeing Things Whole in Risk Management

  • Steve Rayner
Part of the Advances in Risk Analysis book series (AIRA, volume 4)


Much of the literature on risk perception and management published over the last few years has asked how society should resolve the question, “How safe is safe enough?” There has been political and technical disagreement over the types of answers that may be given, as well as over the social values attached to perceived probabilities and magnitudes of various outcomes. Despite controversy, there seems to have been a large measure of consensus that, “How safe is safe enough?” is the right question to ask. This paper sets out to question that assumption. Various ingenious techniques of risk analysis have sought to discover the real risks inherent in various activities, but the picture each presents is like one of the proverbial blind men’s perception of different parts of the elephant. From a socio-cultural viewpoint it can be seen that no single answer can be given to the problem of adequate safety in a complex society which contains a wide variety of perceptual biases about danger, expectations of the good life, and levels of demand for safety. The paper will argue that, from a societal risk-management perspective, we should be addressing a different range of questions that views societal risk as a whole rather than as the sum of individual hazards. The relevant questions would then be those of how consent is obtained from affected parties, what principles are being invoked for the distribution of liabilities that arise, and how trustworthy are the institutions that societies must depend on to manage technologies and the environment?

Key Words

Risk: Epistemological Definition Fiduciary Trust Consent Management of Liabilities 


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Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steve Rayner
    • 1
  1. 1.Oak Ridge National LaboratoryOak RidgeUSA

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