Friday, April 6, 2012

Using Fear to Communicate Risk

Our fear for cancer has caused more suffering than cancer itself. Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring, told us that the toxic chemicals that we fear are no longer in our nightmares or at the factories over the hill but that these chemicals are now all around us- touching everything we do; the air we breathe, the water we drink and soil we plant in.

This information is definitely disconcerting not because we know it to be factually true but because of a phenomenon called “intuitive toxicology.”   Our instinct is such that we cringe at the thought of contamination, especially if it has any to do with cancer.  Embedded on our psyche or our intuition, we have always relied on our senses to detect harmful or unsafe food, water or air (Slovic, 1994). However, at some point in time we realized that our intuition often leads us astray.  We then created the fields of toxicology and risk assessment to oversee the use of science as a tool to overcome the limits related to our senses and intuition. These fields work to quantitatively link the chemicals to disease.

The Challenge of Communicating Risks

While scientists involved in the fields of toxicology and risk assessment have come a long way in understanding the effects and impacts that chemicals have in our environment, there is still work to be done.  One of the biggest hurdles has been communicating the determined risks to the general public.  There are some factors that make the importance of this communication process more significant and important. One of the more influential factors is the “source” of the information. When people who are not involved in risk assessment work to convey risk, they normally misrepresent the risk, they base it on their biases and personal experiences; this only serves to feed into people’s intuitive sense of toxicology.

Effective communication of risk is key to managing how the public struggles with understanding the science of new technologies. The way the public reacts usually does not have to do with their lack of knowledge of the subject matter but rather their built-in intuition and value systems.  People with personal experiences and preconceived biases can easily and dangerously influence the discussion on communicating risk by creating shortcuts in the process. These shortcuts serve to reinforce instinct and lead the general public further away from the actual facts.

The Use of Fear in Natural Gas Development

As an example, Sandra Steingraber’s recent article titled “Cancer in the Ransom Note” focuses on the ability of carcinogenic chemical’s to cause cancer.

“Some of the cancer risk from fracking comes from the release of naturally occurring chemicals found deep in the earth. One of them is radium-226, which is as radioactive as its name implies. Of over 240 fracked gas wells in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, almost three-fourths produced wastewater with elevated levels of radiation.”

Here she sets the stage to draw out our innate sense that tells us that these chemicals are dangerous; she uses terms like “radioactive” and “elevated levels of radiation” to drive the point home.  These words create a visceral image of prevalent and widespread radioactivity. Most Risk Communicators know the necessity of using a comparison value when using the term “elevated” when referring to chemical concentrations. The comparison value puts the level in question in context. Is it elevated enough to raise concern?  Without a context, it is nothing but an arbitrary level that has no informational value. She however, goes on without any further explanation to allude to her readership that the end result of exposure to the arbitrary value is dire.

Mull that over the next time you're glancing at the pamphlets on breast cancer in your gynecologist's office and encounter a phrase like exposure to ionizing radiation increases your risk for breast cancer.

The shortcut that she has created, quickly takes the reader from the vision of radioactive wastewater to breast cancer. This quickly and effectively reinforces biases, forcing people to discount the information that any technically sound risk assessment on the subject  would have or has addressed. This includes information on exposure pathways, exposure points, toxicity assessment and dose-response assessments which are crucial to determining the reality of risk. By focusing on a familiar and well understood subject - our fear of cancer, she makes her point and effectively misleads her readership.

The fear shortcut is a irresponsible way to communicate risk. It removes the function of risk assessments and the scientific mechanisms that have been introduced to allow a society to make decisions based on sound science. If all decisions were based on shortcuts, then our interaction with our environment would be extremely limited for fear of causing harm to the environment or to ourselves. Our regulatory system is based on scientific tools that take the time to follow the predetermined and time-proven techniques that go beyond our intuition and beyond our senses. 

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