Witches, Floods, and Wonder Drugs: Historical Perspectives on Risk Management

  • William C. Clark
Part of the General Motors Research Laboratories book series (RLSS)


Risk is a people problem, and people have been contending with it for a very long time indeed. I extract some lessons from this historical record and explore their implications for current and future practice of risk management.

Socially relevant risk is not uncertainty of outcome, or violence of event, or toxicity of substance, or anything of the sort. Rather, it is a perceived inability to cope satisfactorily with the world around us. Improving our ability to cope is essentially a management problem: a problem of identifying and carrying out the actions which will change the rules of the game so that the game becomes more to our liking.

To cope better is to better understand the nature of risks and how they develop. It is naive and destructive to pretend that such understanding can carry with it the certainties and completeness of traditional science. Risk management lies in the realm of trans-science, of ill-structured problems, of messes. In analyzing risk messes, the central need is to evaluate, order, and structure inevitably incomplete and conflicting knowledge so that the management acts can be chosen with the best possible understanding of current knowledge, its limitations, and its implications. This requires an undertaking in policy analysis, rather than science.

One product of such analyses is a better conceptualization of “feasibility” in risk management. Past and present efforts have too often and too uncritically equated the feasible with the desirable. Results have been both frustrating and wasteful.

Another is an emphasis on the design of resilient or “soft-fail” coping strategies. The essential issue is not optimality or efficiency, but robustness to the unknowns on which actual coping performance is contingent.

The most important lesson of both experience and analysis is that societies’ abilities to cope with the unknown depend on the flexibility of their institutions and individuals, and on their capability to experiment freely with alternative forms of adaptation to the risks which threaten them.

Neither the witch hunting hysterics nor the mindlessly rigid regulations characterizing so much of our present chapter in the history of risk management say much for our ability to learn from the past.


Risk Management Policy Analysis Medical Drug Professional Interest Grand Jury 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1980

Authors and Affiliations

  • William C. Clark
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.International Institute for Applied Systems AnalysisLaxenburgAustria
  2. 2.Institute of Resource EcologyUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada

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