Challenges to Understanding Risks

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At first sight, understanding risks should be easy.

First, it seems obvious what a risk is-the likelihood of being harmed in some way.

Secondly, there seem to be thousands of experts who are paid to study and report on how risky different chemicals, different treatments, different drugs or different threats really are.

So, you might expect that effective risk communication is just a matter of explaining what they know in a way that members of the public can understand.

Sadly, the realities of risks just don’t work that way. In fact neither of the above two points is straight forward at all.

First: Defining what makes a big risk

  • Emotions Outweigh Facts
    When it comes to deciding what represents a big risk, most folk are influenced more by emotional factors than by well-documented hard facts. In fact, you could go so far as to say that the risks that get most attention in the media and people’s minds are not the risks that kill or harm the greatest number of people! Everyone who has to explain risks needs to understand the instinctive bias that the public typically brings to their judgments. Effective communication has to take account the realities of how the public’s mind works.
  • Risks vs Hazards
    Next, there is an important distinction between risks and hazards. - The two are confused with the result that a lot of time and energy is devoted to stuff that is in fact unlikely to ever happen.(A hazard is mearly something that has the potential to cause harm. eg the gasoline tanks that lay under your car as you pump gas. A risk would exist if there were a significant likelihood that harm might happen.
  • Many Causes
    The public tends to think of harm being caused by a single cause. In reality there are usually many contributory factors that lead to the harm actually occurring. In fact, you can often look back and say that if any one of the contributory factors had been different, then the harm may not have happened. If you accept that, then you suddenly see that thousands of factors that are not usually considered risk factors actually are- and defining what is a risk suddenly becomes many times harder. At some point it seems as is everything is a possible risk- or a hazard!
  • Out of the frying pan into the fire.
    When you try to avoid some risk, it is very common to change some part of the situation but that can result in exposing yourself to another different risk! In this way, you can see how trying to stop one risk can itself be risky! Our simple definition suddenly got more complicated again.
  • Tradeoffs-Risks vs Benefits
    For some people, even a big risk is worth taking if the benefit is highly valued. Now we have yet another complication. When folk make personal decisions about risks, they often make their judgment by balancing the risks with the hoped for benefits. Thus if a professional adviser focuses only on the risk (or only on the benefits) then they probably will not relate well to their audience’s mind set.

The Risk Communication Institute focuses on “Helping people understand risks and build resiliency”. We believe that, despite all these confusing factors, it can be very simple for professionals and the public to view risks in perspective.

To do this, we provide simple perspective scales to allow new risks to be viewed in the context of other known risks that the public is at home with. In addition, we offer versitile palettes that show the likelihood of a particular medical risk happening -or not happening.

Second: The experts often have difficulties when working out how big a risk something is

Just because we throw a lot of time and money at a problem does not mean that it can easily be solved. This is often the case when it comes to experts assessing the seriousness of some types of risks.

Take chemical risks for example. It is actually quite hard for scientists to work out how risky it is for members of the public to be exposed to small quantities of a particular chemical. We can get some idea of what might be harmful from history if humans have been exposed to it in the past. We can also look at how the chemical might behave in the body, based in part of on what is known about other chemicals with a similar chemical structure.

But we know a whole lot about chemicals that are essential to human health in small quantities and yet poisonous when ingested in larger quantities. There is no simple answer to the question “Is this chemical harmful?

So, in the end, we often have to resort to testing the chemicals we are concerned about on laboratory rats (since it is unethical to deliberately test humans.) However, for a variety of reasons, we often finish up testing large quantities of chemicals on rats over short periods of time and, from that data, trying to make deductions as to how this information relates to humans who are likely to be exposed to small quantities for long periods. Mix in the fact that humans may be more or less sensitive than rats and that different people will be more or less sensitive depending on their age and other health factors and you again begin to appreciate that understanding risks is not as easy as it at first seems.

Other risks- like car crashes or routine medical procedures- are fairly predictable on the basis of all the past records but in the end, we still only have an estimate of risk. This may or may not apply to a particular individual.

Now add to the mix the impossibility of knowing how to estimate the risks (if any) from new technologies (genetically modified foods) or treatments (clinical trials) or how different factors add together (or neutralize each other) and you again begin to see why most people benefit from some training if they are to understand risks and even more if they want to communicate about risks to others.

The Risk Communication Institute provides keynotes and training on understanding risks and building resiliency. Presentations for general audiences typically have a higher proportion of entertainment to information while those for sophisticated professionals usually are more focused on learning strategies and skills. In all cases John Paling likes to include segments from his Emmy award winning films as memorable metaphors for t he man points of his message.