After my March 16 post on risk communications related to the Japan radiation threats, I decided to continue the dialogue with Peter. We traded some emails last Wednesday, which I thought I’d summarize here (edited for brevity/clarity):
Three interesting articles to share:
- AP story on concerns over tap water. Note the quotes that suggest “stress over the tap water is more dangerous than the tap water itself.”
- Ropeik weighs in.
- Criticisms on risk communications from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Side note – years ago, I analyzed the Union and found it to be more aligned with political leanings than scientific. I wonder if that’s still the case.
Here is an edited summary of Peter’s insightful responses:
In my experience, much of it outdated, UCS does activist science – pretty parallel to a lot of industry science, I think.
I no longer think it’s easy or common to do “objective” science on controversial topics. Research on the social science of science has found a strong correlation between the findings of research on controversial topics and the preferences of the study’s funders. I sometimes call this the Ouija board phenomenon: Without consciously cheating, researchers manage to reach conclusions that please their funders the overwhelming majority of the time. Some of this, of course, is publication bias; when studies displease their funders they tend not to be submitted for publication. But some of it is unconscious bias in the choice of hypotheses, methodology, analytic strategy, etc. (And some of it, no doubt, is intentional.)
By the way, the UCS is absolutely right about the importance of an intermediary role – technical people whose crisis assignment ISN’T to manage the crisis, but to shuttle between those managing the crisis and those who need to know what’s going on (government policymakers, company decision-makers, and public affairs people). If everyone who knows what’s going on is busy managing the crisis minute-to-minute, everybody who isn’t managing the crisis ends up making unwise policy decisions and inaccurate public statements.
As the UCS article points out, this was a key conclusion of the Kemeny Commission that studied Three Mile Island response. It’s partly about hardware (dedicated phone connections between the control room and the offices of policymakers, so they’re sure to get through to each other) – but the intermediary role is crucial. Policymakers need somebody to call who doesn’t have a phone in one hand and a fire hose in the other!
All the best.
A few hours later, Peter added these gems:
I’m no judge of the seriousness of the radiation in Tokyo’s tap water. But the government certainly worsened the seriousness of thepublic’s stress about tap water by its failure to warn people. People could have had a few days to get through their adjustment reaction before they had to cope with the actual contamination.
I see only three possibilities:
- The government had reason days ago to think this morning’s news was likely. If so, it should have warned people about what was likely, and advised them (especially families with infants) to hurry and store some tap water now.
- The government had very little real understanding of how much radiation had been released, and how much radiation was likely to be released in the days ahead…and knew it didn’t know. Here, it should have warned people that it couldn’t tell what was likely, and given the same advice.
- The government imagined it knew enough about radiation releases not to worry about water quality in Tokyo and turned out wrong. In this case, its core problem (pun intended) is a technical failure, not a communications failure.
All the best.