Ethics of Risk Communication

Subject: Ethics of Risk Communication
From: John Gear <catalyst -at- PACIFIER -dot- COM>
Date: Sun, 16 Jun 1996 10:41:59 -0700

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cross posted to the technical writing list (techwr-l; to subscribe, send
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On techwr-l, someone wrote

>Subject: Re: Blueline chemicals

>The oder you smell is ammonia (as in house hold ammonia bleach). As
>far as its toxicity, it is. Will it harm you at the level present when
>you are looking at the prints, I don't know. The people that make
>these prints work at these jobs for years and show no evidence of
>physical harm. What I learned at one of the places I worked is that if
>you can smell it, it's killing brain cells. So, how many extra brain
>cells do you have that you can afford to kill? It's just like anything
>taken in excess (even drinking water), its bad for you.

I was happy to see this mentioned on techwr because it introduces an issue
that I've been wrestling with for some time, which is the ethics of risk
communication. In fields where people--usually *other* people--are exposed
to some risk from, say, a chemical, it's common to see articles and hear
talks that pooh-pooh the risk with an argument that runs something like

"Well, the risk is pretty small and the amount you're exposed to is
tiny, and hey, you get more
exposure from (flying cross country, spending an hour in traffic,
etc.). And besides, as the
ancients knew, 'it's the dose that makes the poison'--anything to
excess is bad. Why, you can
drown in the bathtub!"

It seems that most risk communication is designed (and paid for) by the
entity that wishes to expose people to the risk or, occasionally, mandated
by a government agency with intense participation (usually opposition) by
the regulated industry. For example, note the current struggle over the
wording of warning labels on Olestra, the "fat-free" fat substitute that
depletes key vitamins from your body and is likely to give you diarrhea;
also note the Monsanto's struggle to *prevent* labelling of milk packaging
to say whether or not the packages contain milk from cows treated with
bovine growth hormone (rBST).

It seems to me that one of the principles of good communication is to use
everyday examples with which people are familiar. But I know it's also very
easy to use such examples to give people a totally inaccurate perception of
their risk by surrounding the discussion of the hazard in question with
ordinary risks that people feel comfortable taking (due to issues of
autonomy, familiarity, etc.)

John Allen Paulos has a good discussion of communicating risk in
"Innumeracy" but I haven't seen much discussion of the ethics of
communicating risk anywhere, including in books on the topic. Any
listmembers deal in risk communication? Care to share any guidelines for
ethical risk communications?

John Gear (catalyst -at- pacifier -dot- com)
The Bill of Rights -- The ORIGINAL Contract with America
Beware of Imitations. Accept No Substitutes. Insist on the Genuine Articles.
(t shirts with the above saying available, send e-mail for info)

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