The World Under Assault: Can Science Beat Terrorism?

The above title advertises a Cambridge Science Festival event, (9 March 2009) in which I have been invited to participate.  My answer to the question in the title, will be spelt out in my first PowerPoint slide:

“No: because paranoia cannot be cured by CCTV, or DNA databases, or ID cards, or CRB checks, or number plate recognition, or GPS tracking, or email archiving, or data mining.”

Further, I intend to argue that the combined force of all of these measures feeds the threats that they purport to defend against. For rest of essay click here.


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  1. Dr. Robert Davis says:

    “there have been no terrorist attacks producing anything remotely approaching the imagined death toll.”

    I think the Madrid railway bombs got up into the hundreds.

    Your point? My point is that a paranoid response to danger is one that exaggerates the threat. The 500 fatalities that are described in the scenario as “likely” are more than two and a half times the number killed in Madrid. Exaggeration feeds the paranoia that transforms “not impossible” into “likely”, and ratchets up the anxiety that is used to justify the authoritarian measures now trampling on traditional liberties. JA

  2. Chris Owen says:

    “On 7 July 2005 four suicide-terrorists with bombs killed 52 people in Britain – fewer than were killed in road accidents during the same week.”

    I think you should explain why this is an important point. The average person in the street would say that they are separate problems and don’t see it as a well crafted argument. My understanding is that it is a waste of time to dedicate valuable time to something that is a lesser problem to society.

    I have explained elsewhere why I think this is an important point. See “What kills you matters” – http://www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk/blog/archives/000512.php .
    I am not clear why you think it isn’t. In the last 10 years 52 people in Britain have been killed by terrorists and over 30 thousand in road accidents. Which is the lesser problem?

  3. Chris Owen says:

    Apologies, I clearly didn’t explain properly! I was actually agreeing with you that it is a much lesser problem and therefore doesn’t deserve the attention and resources. My point was that without further explanation a lot of people I have made the point to instantly reject it. They think, wrongly, that we should solve every problem with equal dedication. Of course I explain further.

  4. Martin Parkinson says:

    Chris is right – there often is a difficulty in talking about this kind of thing in normal, everyday, conversations with what the americans call ‘regular folks’ (i.e non-social-science-geeks).

    Though of course I appreciate that this is not quite who your blogoid is aimed at. (But please don’t get as shouty as the posturing controversialists, or I shall stop reading. I follow your comments because you are always measured and careful)

  5. Dr. Robert Davis says:

    No point contradicting the thrust of your piece – just trying to be accurate. I just thought it worth mentioning that there has been one terrorist attack in Europe with numbers in the hundreds.

    That’s all.

  6. Duke Maskell says:

    Robert Davis is still exaggerating. The Madrid terrorists didn’t kill hundreds. The official death toll resulting from the bombings of March 11 2004 was one hundred and ninety one.

  7. Dr. Robert Davis says:

    OK, Iwas wrong. When you try to be precise,someone comes along and is even more precise…

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