L’Aquila and Uncertainty

18 10 2011

Expert Risk communicator write a guest blog post in Scientific American, where he adds a new interpretation to the L’Aquila trials in Italy.

Some news outlets have said that science is on trial, while others call the trial an “inquisition.” Ropeik says that it is not an issue of the science being on trial, but it is rather an issue of how the risk was communicated.

Everyone on that committee failed the public. They all failed to provide information that would help people make healthy judgments about their safety. They apparently never even considered that critical aspect of their responsibility. There was no one with risk communication expertise at the table during the meeting, and the experts skipped the post-meeting new conference. They thought about the risk through their narrow expertise as scientists, and either out of ignorance, or hubris – probably both – thought that was enough. They aren’t on trial for failing as risk scientists. They are on trial for failing as risk communicators.

According to the blog post,  Dr. Bernardo De Bernardinis, then deputy chief of Italy’s Civil Protection Department, said that the situation “was favorable” and that the scientific community said there was no danger. As a result of these remarks, the people let down their guards, and didn’t prepare adequately for the Earthquake. The person communicating the risk was careless, and the rest of the committee members were not present in the press conference.

A big part of risk communication is about dealing with uncertainty (from predicting an earthquake, the intensity of a hurricane, or whether exposure to a certain chemical will make you sick). Uncertainty is difficult to handle, and while scientists are comfortable dealing with uncertainty, most politicians and reporters are not. And they should be. Being able to better communicate uncertainty will be a great help to their readers and constituents, who rely on them for information about how to react.

Perhaps, if the spokesperson had been better prepared to handle uncertainty, the trial at L’Aquila would not be happening…

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