Posted by: soniahs | September 29, 2010

Exam reading: Risk perception in science communication

People are notoriously bad at judging risk- we’re fascinated by rare, unusual events but blase about common and everyday hazards. This page is an interesting example- the comparison of lightning fatalities and shark-related fatalities between Florida and Hawaii is instructive, and bunnies in New York City are apparently really ornery…

A big part of science communication involves talking about risk and uncertainty, so this is a big deal. Today’s exam reading is by Paul Slovic: “Perception of Risk from Radiation” from Radiation Protection Dosimetry, 1996.

Summary: Slovic takes a rhetorical approach to communicating radiation risks-in this case, experts’ assessments of risk don’t match those of public. Public risk perception is based more on “dread” (emotion, voluntariness) and event unfamiliarity, while experts base assessments on probability of occurrence plus severity. There’s a psychological “signal effect”- rare, unfamiliar events are more scary than common, familiar ones. These differences in perception have social/political impact (e.g., Three-Mile Island had minor health effects but led to widespread public oppoisition to nuclear power.) Radiation is associated with “cosmic transmutation,” contamination, taint, and cancer; it’s a highly emotional type of pollution, e.g., there can be social stigma attached to people exposed to radiation because of “taint.” Nuclear and chemical risk perceptions share some similarities, e.g., medical applications are perceived as low-risk while environmental applications (pesticides, power plants) are high-risk. In communication, the challenge is getting from expert knowledge to recommendations for public (typical approach is to compare to a familiar risk, but be careful to compare similar hazards- nuclear exposure to x-rays, rather than nuclear exposure to chance of being struck by lightning.) There are large ethical issues with communication, because of strong framing effects- more pragmatically, it’s easy to destroy trust and hard to build it.

Comments: Slovic’s paper is more applied than theoretical, but he does mention some wider issues. For example, mentions ethical concerns around framing. Another big issue is that any type of media attention to an issue (even if saying “there’s no risk associated with doing x”) will tend to lead to perceptions of more risk surrounding that issue- this obviously has practical implications for communicating science.

Links to: Trench (risk=hazard + outrage); Irwin (risk from communications perspective); Nisbet (framing)



  1. I was just having a conversation with a colleague today about this topic. I hope your studies are going well. I enjoy popping in on your blog every so often. Have a good one.

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