by Judith Curry
The drunk notoriously searches for his keys not in the dark where he dropped them, but under the lamp-post where he can see. This is an apt metaphor for much of what is written on the subject of risk management.
It begins: “Where knowledge (belief) relates to potential future harms or benefits, as it usually does in situations where science communication is seen as problematic or contentious, the issue can be framed as one of risk communication.”
And concludes: “The problem for science communicators is that we, scientist and non-scientist alike, do not respond blankly to uncertainty. We impose meaning upon it. The greater the uncertainty the greater becomes the influence of perceptual biases. These biases have deep cosmological roots and are not easily shifted. Perhaps the best that a science communicator can hope for is that introspection might assist recognition of one’s own biases, and an awareness of the inevitability of different biases in others. Self-knowledge and an ability to stand metaphorically in the shoes of others are key ingredients of the empathy essential to effective communication.”
The aspects of this chapter that struck me were specifically related to understanding risk (rather than communication). Some excerpts:
On different kinds of risk:
Some risks are visible to the naked eye. We manage them using judgment. We do not undertake a formal probabilistic risk assessment before crossing the road; some combination of instinct, intuition and experience usually sees us safely to the other side.
Others are perceptible only to those armed with microscopes, telescopes, surveys, scanners and other measuring devices, and the data they produce. This is the realm of quantified risk assessment. In this realm uncertainty comes with numbers attached in the form of probabilities.
Virtual risks may or may not be real – scientists disagree – but beliefs about them have real consequences. The uncertainty is liberating; if science cannot settle the issue people feel free to argue from their beliefs, convictions, prejudices or superstitions. Here we are thrown back, as in the first circle, on judgments that cannot be objectively validated.
On perceptual filters:
It is commonly alleged by people struggling to put across scientific messages that ‘the public’ craves certainty and cannot cope with the provisional nature of scientific knowledge. This seems unlikely. The public after all buys millions of pounds worth of lottery tickets every week and a significant number regularly visit bookmakers. A more likely explanation of the difficulties encountered by those charged with communicating scientific information to the public is that there is no such beast as ‘the public’. There are many publics and they perceive and respond to uncertainty differently.
[A] typology of commonly encountered responses to risk developed in a branch of anthropology called cultural theory. These are caricatures, but nevertheless recognizable types that one encounters in debates about threats to safety and the environment.
- Individualists are enterprising ‘self-made’ people, relatively free from control by others, and who strive to exert control over their environment and the people in it. Their success is often measured by their wealth and the number of followers they command. They are enthusiasts for equality of opportunity and, should they feel the need for moral justification of their activities, they appeal to Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand which ensures that self-interested behaviour in a free market operates to the benefit of all. The self-made Victorian mill owner or present-day venture capitalist would make good representatives of this category. They oppose regulation and favour free markets. Nature, according to this perspective, is to be commanded for human benefit. They are prone to top-loop bias.
- Egalitarians have strong group loyalties but little respect for externally imposed rules, other than those imposed by nature. Human nature is – or should be – cooperative, caring and sharing. Trust and fairness are guiding precepts and equality of outcome is an important objective. Group decisions are arrived at by direct participation of all members, and leaders rule by the force of their arguments. The solution to the world’s environmental problems is to be found in voluntary simplicity. Members of religious sects, communards and environmental pressure groups all belong to this category. Nature is to be obeyed and respected and interfered with as little as possible. They are advocates of the precautionary principle and prone to bottom-loop bias.
- Hierarchists inhabit a world with strong group boundaries and binding prescriptions. Social relationships in this world are hierarchical with everyone knowing his or her place. Members of caste-bound Hindu society, soldiers of all ranks and civil servants are exemplars of this category. The hierarchy certifies and employs the scientists whose intellectual authority is used to justify its actions. Nature is to be managed. They are devotees of cost–benefit analysis and nervous in the presence of uncertainties that preclude the possibility of attaching uncontested numbers to the variables they are supposed to be managing.
- Fatalists have minimal control over their own lives. They belong to no groups responsible for the decisions that rule their lives. They are non-unionised employees, outcasts, refugees, untouchables. They are resigned to their fate and see no point in attempting to change it. Nature is to be endured and, when it’s your lucky day, enjoyed. Their risk management strategy is to buy lottery tickets and duck if they see something about to hit them.
JC comment: interesting categories, but I would have no idea how to characterize myself in this scheme.
In our report we explained to the HSE that in the terms of this typology they were statuary Hierarchists; they who make the rules and enforce the rules. For the foreseeable future we predicted they could expect to be attacked from the Egalitarian quadrant for not doing enough to protect society, and from the Individualist quadrant for over-regulating and suffocating enterprise.
Occupants of all four quadrants are all familiar with the concept of uncertainty but respond to it very differently.
From the section What Kills You Matters:
Acceptance of a given actuarial level of risk varies widely with the perceived level of control an individual can exercise over it and, in the case of imposed risks, with the perceived motives of the imposer.
With ‘pure’ voluntary risks, the risk itself, with its associated challenge and rush of adrenaline, is the reward (e.g. mountain climbing).
With a voluntary, self-controlled, applied risk, such as driving, the reward is getting expeditiously from A to B. But the sense of control that drivers have over their fates appears to encourage a high level of tolerance of the risks involved.
Cycling from A to B (I write as a London cyclist) is done with a diminished sense of control over one’s fate. This sense is supported by statistics that show that per kilometre travelled a cyclist is much more likely to die than someone in a car. This is a good example of the importance of distinguishing between relative and absolute risk. Although much greater, the absolute risk of cycling is still small – 1 fatality in 25 million kilometres cycled; not even Lance Armstrong can begin to cover that distance in a lifetime of cycling. And numerous studies have demonstrated that the extra relative risk is more than offset by the health benefits of regular cycling; regular cyclists live longer.
While people may voluntarily board planes, buses and trains, the popular reaction to crashes in which passengers are passive victims suggests that the public demand a higher standard of safety in circumstances in which people voluntarily hand over control of their safety to pilots, or bus or train drivers.
Risks imposed by nature – such as those endured by people living on the San Andreas Fault or the slopes of Mount Etna – or by impersonal economic forces – such as the vicissitudes of the global economy – are placed in the middle of the scale. Reactions vary widely. Such risks are usually seen as motiveless and are responded to fatalistically – unless or until the risk can be connected to base human motives.
Imposed risks are less tolerated (e.g. consider mobile phones).
Even less tolerated are risks whose imposers are perceived to be motivated by profit or greed.
Less tolerated still are malignly imposed risks – crimes ranging from mugging to rape and murder.
Which brings us to terrorism and Al Qaida. The malign intent of the terrorist is amplified by governments who see it as a threat to their ability to govern. To justify forms of surveillance and restrictions on liberty previously associated with tyrannies ‘democratic’ governments now characterize terrorism as a threat to Our Way of Life.
JC comment: The climate change issue is a complex one by this categorization, including risks from nature, motivated by profit and greed, and a thread to Our Way of Life.
From the section Who’s to Blame?
Risk is a word that refers to the future. It has no objective existence. The future exists only in the imagination. There are some risks for which science can provide useful guidance to the imagination. The risk that the Sun will not rise tomorrow can be assigned a very low probability by science. And actuarial science can estimate with a high degree of confidence that the number of people killed in road accidents in Britain next year will be 2500, plus or minus a hundred or so.
But these are predictions, not facts. Such predictions rest on assumptions; that tomorrow will be like yesterday; that next year will be like last year; that future events can be foretold by reading the runes of the past. Sadly, the history of prediction contains many failures – from those of stock market tipsters to those of volcanologists seeking to predict eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis. In the area lit by the lamp of science one finds risk management problems that are potentially soluble by science. Such problems are capable of clear definition relating cause to effect and characterized by identifiable statistical regularities.
On the margins of this circle one finds problems framed as hypotheses, and methods of reasoning, such as Bayesian statistics, which guide the collection and analysis of further evidence. As the light grows dimmer the ratio of speculation to evidence increases. In the outer darkness lurk unknown unknowns. Here lie problems with which, to use Medawar’s word, we are destined to ‘grapple’.
JC comment: I really liked this article, and they way it attempted to untangle different types of risk and people’s perception. It provides an interesting framework for thinking about the complex and diverse public response to the risks associated with climate change and the proposed solutions, and the role of uncertainty and unknown unknowns. The objective of the essay is to frame scientific communication for publicly controversial topics as a challenge in risk communication. I think this is exactly on target. Re communication:
Perhaps the best that a science communicator can hope for is that introspection might assist recognition of one’s own biases, and an awareness of the inevitability of different biases in others. Self-knowledge and an ability to stand metaphorically in the shoes of others are key ingredients of the empathy essential to effective communication.