Book Reviews:
How to live dangerously by Warwick Cairns, Macmillan, London, 2008. ISBN 978-0-230-71221-8. 188 pages.
Licensed to hug by Frank Furedi and Jennie Bristow, Civitas, London, 2008. ISBN 978 1 903386 70 5. 64 pages.

These are both excellent books, worth reading by all who prize adventure and challenge. Warwick Cairns has collected a comprehensive list of statements from research and official reports and written a story round them which I found quite enthralling. His book is full of counter-intuitive statements, such as ‘The safest way to get from home to your workplace down a busy road on which cyclists have been killed is on your bike. Without a helmet.’ The type of arguments he uses to support such counter-intuitive statements will be familiar to those who have read Marcus Bailie’s articles on adventurous activities. Do you know what is the most dangerous sport? Mountaineering, perhaps? No: angling!

The author has studied neuroscience to the extent that he can provide convincing explanations of the way in which the brain works to protect individuals from danger. The effects of testosterone and dopamine are explained, but surprisingly he does not mention the effect of mono-amine oxidase inhibitors in the cerebro-spinal fluid as a factor that influences risk aversion (different levels in men and women account for women being more risk-averse than men, on average).

The book contains numerous examples of relative risks, where the statistics are at variance with popular beliefs. Thus, really scary fairground rides like rickety roller-coaters carry a far smaller risk of death or serious injury (1 death in 834,000,000 rides) than attending to flower-pots while gardening (5300 injuries per year). It is a wonder that over-zealous health and safety authorities have not made it a criminal offence to go to bed without wearing a safety harness, given the number of accidents that occur when people fall out of bed.

Licensed to Hug is also studded with similar facts and statistics which underpin the proposition that the vetting culture encourages risk aversion. Moreover, by inducing a false sense of security, it places children and young people more at risk than if a common sense approach to adult-child relationships were adopted. The effect on the level of mutual trust in society has been corrosive. Requiring more than one in four adults in England to be checked by the Criminal Records Bureau from October 2009 sends out a strong message to children that the majority of adults are suspect. Worst case scenario assumptions have become the norm, irrespective of the fact that the vast majority of adults have no malign designs on children, and certainly far fewer than their peers.

Children are led to believe that among the few categories of adults who can be trusted are professionals who work for organisations like the NSPCC. As the book explains, the new safeguarding arrangements are ‘a kind of creeping totalitarianism, not to mention a galloping fatuity’.

In drawing attention to this writing on the wall, read these books and also a splendid article by Libby Purves in The Times of 18 August 2008 ‘We must train people to break the rules’.   Bertie Everard 

The point is that a nation not geared to extending itself beyond safety and its traditional ‘norms’, will fail to evolve: “The more you do of what you’ve done, the more you’ll get of what you’ve got…”.  If society wants to improve, whatever this may mean and to whom, change is inevitable and risk will be its companion. 

However, risk is not negative, it is a balanced term indicating potential benefits and potential costs.  If applied to education, crime, healthy lifestyles, enterprise and [young] people, we may perceive a relationship between thrill-seeking behaviours [substance abuse, unhealthy pursuits, thrill-crime and aggression] and the sloth, lack of enterprise and low aspiration which seem to characterize excessive safety and the unwillingness or inability of some to accept mishap and accident which sadly but inevitably occasionally accompany healthy adventure and greater achievement.

Security is when everything is settled. When nothing can happen to you. Security is the denial of life. Germaine Greer