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Snakes, astronauts and consumer risk perception

In the Holy Trinity of Risk Analysis, that of Risk Communication is the Cinderella of the three while those of Risk Assessment and Risk Management are supreme. The reason why risk communication is so poorly serviced is that scientists and their supporting regulatory structures think that the mere provision of information to the consumer is all that is needed. The consumer is, apparently, worried for the wrong reason because he or she has simply got the facts wrong or confused. All that needs to be done is to educate them. That was how I thought about things until I read the work of Paul Slovik of the University or Oregon. Now, when teaching my students in this area, I tell them the following story. A group of rocket scientists are holding a meeting in a nice convention center. And just as a former astronaut of multiple space trips is about to speak, there is pandemonium as several snakes are discovered in the room, hissing and generally acting in a distinct anti-social manner. The rocket scientists pour out into the lobby led by the former astronaut. Next to their meeting is one of herpetologists, experts in snakes, and they note the concern of the rocket scientists. When they discover it is all due to some snakes in the room, they enter fearlessly and after a while they return smiling, if not tittering, to themselves and explain that these are “usually very harmless snakes and that they are most unlikely to cause any harm at this time of year and at this altitude, longitude and latitude. So, why not go back in and finish your meeting.” If I were there, I would tell the main man where to shove his snakes. Either we get a new snake-free room or it’s sayonara to this convention center. The snake expert is driven by logicwhile the rocket scientists are driven by emotion. The fears of consumers are emotional and no amount of scientific logic will readily dampen that emotional fear. Hence the mismatch between consumers and scientists.
Slovik points out that whereas “danger is real, risk is socially constructed”. We can start with US studies, which show that educated males trained in science and engineering have the highest threshold for risk. At first this was put down to their proximity to and familiarity with industrial risks and their background training. However, a study that compared male and female US toxicologists showed that females had a lower tolerance of risk. Thus the educational and familiarity aspects were no longer applicable. Men are from Mars and women from Venus. Vive la difference! This comparison was then taken further comparing US and EU male and female toxicologists. The same male-female difference was observed in the EU as had been seen in the US. However, both male and female toxicologists in the EU had a lower threshold of risk compared to their US counterparts. Risk is indeed, socially constructed.

Consumers also diverge from mainstream science in their vision of those aspects of risk that mark the greatest danger to them personally. Paul Slovik cites three main aspects of risk that are used by consumers in constructing a perceived danger to their health namely “dread”, “familiarity” and “control”. First let us look at a public health problem, which has an extremely low population impact but a huge personal impact on those who fall victims to the disease. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is the human manifestation of “mad cow disease” (BSE) and leads to a dreadful death in humans. So we can tick off the first factor, “dread”. The idea that we develop holes in our brains and die a slow and agonising death is truly dreaded. Few of us know of anyone who suffered CJD or who had a close relative that encountered this disease and so it is utterly unfamiliar to us. The second box is ticked. And finally there is control. How can you know where BSE prions lie? You can’t so you really are at the mercy of lady luck which ticks box three “control”. Let us now compare this fear to that of obesity, which has enormous public health costs and which renders great suffering on large numbers of people. First it isn’t “dreaded”. Obese people can be fit, happy and highly successful and lead a long life! We do not dread obesity and we are also “familiar” with it. Indeed we all know obese people. And finally we can “control” it any time we like by going on a diet and taking up physical activity and we all know people who have lost weight. Thus the consumer sees the greatest danger in areas such as nanotechnology, GM foods, pesticides, additives, CJD, irradiated food and so on. These are dreaded, unfamiliar and out of the control of consumers. The facts that they pose little or no real population risk doesn’t matter. Obesity, sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure and the like are not seen as something to dread or fear. To add further to this complexity, when consumers are asked about the risk of obesity to society as a whole versus themselves, they see a much higher risk for society as a whole compared to them personally since, irrespective of their weight, they can personally take control of the situation and avoid the problems of overweight and obesity. They of course cannot say the same for the rest of society. They can control themselves whenever they choose to do so, even if society in general cannot.

Slovik makes a critically important point: “Danger is real but risk is socially constructed. Thus, whoever controls the definition of risk controls the rational solution to the problem at hand. Defining risk is thus an exercise in power”. Eco-fundamentalist NGOs are the main definers of risk and they answer to nobody. They are the darlings of the media and the Robin Hoods of the consumers.  Their opposition to a new technology is usually based on some philosophical, moral or social stance. However, they communicate these concerns to the consumer, not by arguing the moral, philosophical or social case but by scaring them with distortions of the scientific facts. The road is risk communication is a long and complex road and it is a road that generally attracts little serious interest in the governmental task of risk analysis.


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