Risk and Uncertainty. Communication. David Spiegelhalter. Centre for Mathematical Sciences, University of Cambridge, CB3 0WB Cambridge,. United Kingdom. The latest Tweets from David Spiegelhalter (@d_spiegel). Statistician Chair, Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication. Own opinions. Cambridge . Communicating risk and. t i t th l f uncertainty: the role of metaphor and analogy. David Spiegelhalter winton professor for the public understanding of risk, p p g.

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In Aprilan earthquake hit the town of L’Aquila in central Italy, killing people. More than 3 years later, four scientists, two engineers, and a government official, all members of Spiegephalter National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks at the time of the earthquake, were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

They were convicted, the judge saidnot because they had failed to predict the earthquake, but because they had failed to analyze and explain the risks adequately and had given false reassurances to the communicatjng. The seven commission members received a 6-year prison sentence that sparked protests from scientists around the world, concerned that the verdict would push researchers to keep silent about risks in the future.

Early-career scientists rarely sit on high-profile committees, but they may, nonetheless, uncover important information about threats to security or wellbeing. And they are especially vulnerable: Getting embroiled in a legal case could damage a budding career.

So what are the professional responsibilities of scientists when it comes to communicating risk?

Provided their public statements are based on sound research methods and findings, scientists generally have no reason to worry about legal backlash. Scientists with relevant expertise do, however, have a professional responsibility—even a duty—to communicate to the public the best possible evidence about risk, says Andrew Maynard dsvid, director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center.

He insists, however, that scientists should be careful not to overstep the fine line between helping people make decisions and telling them what to do. At UCS, Rosenberg advocates a somewhat more assertive posture. When he worked as a lead regulator in the Northeast, his studies of New England and mid-Atlantic fisheries inspired him to raise an alarm about overexploitation of the resource.


Measures taken then to curb overfishing helped some of the fish stocks recover, Rosenberg says. Communicatnig researchers may play their part by communicating their own results, David Spiegelhalterthe Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk in the statistical laboratory at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, says scientists can also police what others say about risk.

Online tools provide cheap, easy opportunities to offer commentary on risk.

David Spiegelhalter’s Personal Home Page

Spiegelhalter uses his personal blog and Twitter account. Maynard produces short YouTube videos where he discusses the risks of electronic cigarettes or HPV vaccines, among other topics.

One of the most important aspects of communicating risk is to appreciate the extent and seriousness wpiegelhalter the risk and to strike the right balance between informing and alarming. While scientists and risk professionals most often take a rational approach to deciding when a risk is big enough to speak up, they need to davud that the public or scientists spoegelhalter their field of expertise may perceive and rank risks differently.

For example, how a risk is spread over time and space will greatly change how people perceive it, writes Peter Sandman, a U.

Hazard B has one chance in 10 of wiping out its neighborhood of 5, people sometime in the next decade. Risk assessment tells us the two have the same expected annual mortality: In addition, the concepts of absolute or relative risks must be carefully deployed, depending on the situation, Spiegelhalter says.

Talking to the public about risk

Absolute risk expresses the likelihood of something happening communidating a percentage or ratio, while the relative risk compares risk levels in different groups. Using either of these can make risks look more or less important, depending on the context, Spiegelhalter says.

In L’Aquila, the absolute risk of a violent spieglhalter was low, but it was higher than usual, and the potential damage was high, so using an absolute figure could appear to minimize the risk. In that case, referring to absolute risk could be helpful to provide perspective. As a successful example of risk communication, Spiegelhalter mentions leaflets published by the U. National Health Service about breast cancer screeningwhich he helped write and design.

In the United Kingdom, all women aged rism to 70 are invited for breast screening every 3 years; the leaflet helps them decide whether to take the test. The issue divides the medical community, Spiegelhalter says, but the publication has been well received because it spells out risks spiegelhxlter benefits clearly and uses real-life figures that the public can easily grasp.


He suggests that young scientists first watch what senior, high-profile scientists do. Scientists sometimes face personal attacks when they speak out about risk, Rosenberg admits, especially if their findings threaten economic interests.

Talking to the public about risk | Science | AAAS

Researchers who raised the alarm about the risks of exposure to asbestos in the s faced backlash from asbestos manufacturers, for example. Rosenberg advises that early-career scientists seek feedback and mentoring from other scientists. One way to do this is to raise issues with other researchers through online networks like ResearchGate. UCS has also published an online guide to help researchers deal with harassment. While getting training in statistics or communication from your university or scientific society can provide you with tools to better communicate risk, your best safety net is probably your expertise.

Above all, your research and knowledge should be rock-solid, Spiegelhalter says: You have to know what you’re talking about. By Elisabeth Pain Mar. By Francis Aguisanda Nov.

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