Risk communication


This essay seeks to explain what the “science of science communication” is by doing it. Surveying studies of cultural cognition and related dynamics, it demonstrates how the form of disciplined observation, measurement, and inference distinctive of scientific inquiry can be used to test rival hypotheses on the nature of persistent public conflict over societal risks; indeed, it argues that satisfactory insight into this phenomenon can be achieved only by these means, as opposed to the ad hoc story-telling dominant in popular and even some forms of scholarly discourse. Synthesizing the evidence, the essay proposes that conflict over what is known by science arises from the very conditions of individual freedom and cultural pluralism that make liberal democratic societies distinctively congenial to science. This tension, however, is not an “inherent contradiction”; it is a problem to be solved — by the science of science communication understood as a “new political science” for perfecting enlightened self-government.


Antibiotic resistance is an increasing global threat involving many actors, including the general public. We present findings from a content analysis of the coverage of antibiotic resistance in the Swedish print media with respect to the risk communication factors cause, magnitude and countermeasures. The most commonly reported cause of development and spread of resistance was unnecessary prescription of antibiotics. Risk magnitudes were mostly reported qualitatively rather than using quantitative figures. Risk-reduction measures were analyzed using a framework that distinguishes between personal and societal efficacy. Measures at the societal level were more commonly reported compared to the individual level.


This study assesses the correlation between reports on food risk published in scientific journals and in the printed mass media and changes in the meat market. It focuses on the case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the United Kingdom. The findings suggest that during the time BSE and its related human disease were of noticeable public concern, there was a predominantly negative correlation between the number of reports on BSE published in the British printed mass media and meat market variables. In contrast, reports of scientific research on the disease contributed to reducing the perception of food risk because these numbers correlated positively with the meat market.


The recent events related to the spread of the influenza virus A (H1N1) have drawn again the attention of science communication experts to old issues, including a couple of issues we deem particularly important: risk communication and the role of scientific journalists in the society of knowledge.


The management of health risks related to scientific and technological innovations has been the focus of a heated debate for a few years now. In some cases, like the campaigns against the use of GMOs in agriculture, this debate has degenerated into a political and social dispute. Even risk analysis studies, which appeared in the 1970s in the fields of nuclear physics and engineering and were later developed by social sciences as well, have given completely different, and at times contradictory, interpretations that, in turn, have given rise to bitter controversies.


Many lives could have been saved on 26 December 2004, when the tsunami unleashed by an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 off the coast of the Indonesian island Sumatra struck a dozen coastal villages along the Indian Ocean. Those lives could have been saved if, on that day, science communication had not resulted in a complete failure to communicate scientific information adequately in many cases, in different places and at different levels. A long time passed between the violent shock and the devastation caused by the tsunami waves ­ in most cases, many hours.


On 15 September 2001, thirteen major international journals, coordinated by the International Committee of Medical Journals Editors (ICMJE), published a joint editorial titled "Sponsorship, authorship, and accountability". Unfortunately, only four days from the tragedy of 9-11, there is no room in the media for other news. In the scientific world, however, the content of that editorial sets off an alarm: the conflict of interest undermines the objectivity of biomedical research and the credibility of international journals vouchsafeing the quality of that research. (Translated by Andrea Cavatorti, Scuola Superiore di Lingue Moderne per Interpreti e Traduttori, Trieste, Italy.)


Over the last few years the media ­ and especially television ­ have focussed on presumed health emergencies such as mad-cow disease, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the Di Bella cancer-cure case and the Lipobay case. Topics such as these have a strong emotional impact on public opinion and subscribe to the dictates of the ratings rather than following the more or less prescriptive rules of scientific communication. In a highly competitive environment, if the ratings prevail against information, it is obvious that news follows the rules of fiction, health reports become mere entertainment, and moderation and accuracy give way to triviality, overstatement and alarmism. The loyalty of the target audience becomes the ultimate aim of the communicator, because that is what the advertisers are interested in. There is no point in blaming the journalists, though they too share the responsibility of this phenomenon. The mechanism seems to be exactly the same for all kinds of "emergencies": immigration, criminality, weather changes, new diseases, war. The format prevails over the event. Communication depends less and less on the topic and more and more on the medium, the debate on GMOs being no exception.


In recent weeks, Britain's Better Regulation Task Force report on scientific research regulation asked the Government to evaluate the risks associated with the development of Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies. The Government was also asked to prove its implementation of a specific policy to protect human, animal and environmental safety, were it to be threatened by the development of this emerging field of knowledge. These requests may sound rather alarming.


In the last few years, a continuous series of food alerts have caught the attention of the media and the public in Europe. First, eggs and pork contaminated with dioxins; then, "mad cow" disease, while, all along in the background, a battle against genetically modified plants has been in progress. These food alerts have had complex repercussions on the perception of risks associated with food production. Experts have often been divided over these issues, and the uncertainty of scientific data has been indicated on more than one occasion as one of the factors that influence risk perception. However, the most important factor seems to be undoubtedly the way in which the risk has been communicated (or not communicated) to the public. Therefore, risk communication analysis offers an excellent opportunity to understand the profound changes that are taking place in relations among the scientific community, mass media and other members of civil society now that they are fully aware that scientific and technological innovation, the real driving force of modern industrial society, is a source of development but also a source of risks which are not always acceptable. Within this different context, a debate open to all interested parties appears to have become a dire necessity for the "risk society", especially as far as food is concerned because food has extremely important psychological, ethical and cultural values.


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