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Acceptable EvidenceScience and Values in Risk Management$
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Deborah G. Mayo and Rachelle D. Hollander

Print publication date: 1994

Print ISBN-13: 9780195089295

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195089295.001.0001

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Beyond Numbers: A Broader Perspective on Risk Perception and Risk Communication

Beyond Numbers: A Broader Perspective on Risk Perception and Risk Communication

3 (p.48) Beyond Numbers: A Broader Perspective on Risk Perception and Risk Communication
Acceptable Evidence

Paul Slovic

Oxford University Press

In a bold and insightful speech before the National Academy of Sciences at the beginning of his second term as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), William Ruckelshaus called for a governmentwide process for managing risks that involved the public. Arguing that the government must accommodate the will of the people, he quoted Thomas Jefferson’s famous dictum to the effect that “if we think [the people] not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion” (Ruckelshaus 1983, p. 1028). Midway into his tenure as the EPA administrator, Ruckelshaus’s experiences in attempting to implement Jefferson’s philosophy led him to a more sober evaluation: “Easy for him to say. As we have seen, informing discretion about risk has itself a high risk of failure” (Ruckelshaus, 1984, p. 160). This chapter attempts to illustrate why the goal of informing the public about risk issues which in principle seems easy to attain is surprisingly difficult to accomplish. To be effective, risk communicators must recognize and overcome a number of obstacles that have their roots in the limitations of scientific risk assessment and the idiosyncrasies of the human mind. Doing an adequate job of communicating means finding comprehensible ways of presenting complex technical material that is clouded by uncertainty and inherently difficult to understand. Greater awareness of the nature of risk perceptions, the fundamental values and concerns that underlie those perceptions, and the difficulties of communicating about risk should enhance the chances of designing an environment in which all parties can cooperate in solving the common problems of risk management. Risk assessment is a complex discipline, not fully understood by its practitioners, much less by the lay public. At the technical level, there is still much debate over terminology and techniques, and technical limitations and disagreements among experts inevitably affect communication in the adversarial climate that surrounds many risk issues. Those conveying these issues to the public must be aware of the strengths and limits of the methods they use to generate this information. In particular, such risk communicators need to understand that risk assessments are constructed from theoretical models that are based on assumptions and subjective judgments.

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