By Giles Wilson
BBC News Online
Is snowboarding good for society?
Wherever you look in today's world there are things to be scared of - new diseases, the threat of terrorism, crime and crashes. But a conference this week claims that being prepared to risk a bit of danger is good for society.
If it's not one thing we should be scared of, it's another. Every day there is a different threat - whether it's Sars, terrorist bombs, shootings, train crashes, MMR, bacteria on kitchen worktops, or disappearing pension funds.
The world seems to be a dangerous place, and so the only responsible thing to do is to take care of yourself and your family, and keep your eyes open and fingers crossed.
But could things have gone too far? Could society now have become so obsessed with avoiding danger that it is missing out on taking those risks which could actually pay off?
A conference being held this week in London aimed at exploring that issue is facing a venerable line-up of scientific opinion which says we wouldn't be where we are today if humans had always been as cautious as they are now.
We wouldn't have trains, says University of Pittsburgh professor Stuart Derbyshire, since early observers said passengers travelling at 30mph were sick. And we certainly wouldn't have tried to go any faster than sound, since opinion at the time said it would be like hitting a brick wall in the sky.
We might not even have bicycles, says Dr Ilya Eigenbrot of London's Imperial College, and certainly we would have no medicines which have side effects - which he says is "practically all drugs from Aspirin to Zovirax".
Carl Djerassi, father of the modern contraceptive pill, says his creation would never have been adopted, and says the reason there is still no Pill for men is specifically because society has become more cautious about taking risks.
Conference organiser Helene Guldberg, of online magazine Spiked, says society "should be concerned that we pay too high a price for being cautious".
"I think it's partly as the world has become safer and uncertainty has been reduced, we live healthier and safer lives than in the past, and I think that's led to the preoccupation with unseen consequences," she says.
The panic over Sars was a prime example, where the actual risk of catching the disease is tiny in comparison to the worldwide precautions and fear.
"We've all got to realise that we've got to live with a certain amount of risk. If we want to live and learn as a society, if we want to embrace experimentation and move forward, that means dealing with unforeseen consequences. And that means facing up to new and potentially dangerous risks. We will never eliminate risk."
It's a message which even Prime Minister Tony Blair has echoed. Last year his Strategy Unit reported to him on how governments could try to strike a correct balance between minimising risks to society and blocking innovations.
Chinese chemical suits - now deployed to protect against Sars
One of the key recommendations was that the government should work hard to earn - and keep - the public's trust, something which took a severe battering after the realisation that there was some truth after all in the warnings about BSE. And the best way this trust can be earned was by being open and honest with information about possible risks.
People should, it said, have the information and the choice to manage the risks which affect themselves.
This "privatisation of risk", where people are responsible for their own dangers, can perhaps be clearest seen in the boom of extreme sports.
Former professional snowboarder Chris Moran has, like many in his field, suffered numerous broken bones, had many concussions and much surgery. But he is not put off - despite a number of deaths of celebrated snowboarders.
"It is a terribly dangerous thing to do, to slide really quickly down a snow-covered mountain. Sooner or later something awful is going to happen," he says.
The alternative to snowboarding?
"But there are risks doing everything, and if you aren't prepared to take any risks, you're just not going to be able to enjoy yourself."
That is a message somewhat surprisingly echoed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, Rospa.
Spokesman Roger Vincent says: "People think of us as a nanny state group, but we don't say 'just don't do things'.
"If something enhances your quality of life - if parachute jumping is something you've always wanted to do, for instance - then do it. But just make sure you've been properly trained and you have the right equipment and you've made all the right preparations."