Decision-Making and risk communication: Top Tips in a Crisis

There has been quite a flutter in recent weeks; hovering around the science-policy interface. First up:  just before Christmas Top Tips  and Top Twenty Things lists have been flying through the ether in a way that made me giddy with delight.  It all started with a great Nature article ‘Policy: Twenty Tips for Interpreting Scientific Advice‘; followed by a couple of  tit-for-tat Guardian pieces called ‘Top 20 things scientists need to know about policy-making‘ and ‘12 Things policy-makers and scientists should know about the public‘   (yes, I’m not joking, Nick Hornby must have been beside himself).

Then, just after Christmas, most of the south of England disappeared under water and it was like ….errrr…. no-one had read any of these rules or anything. How did that happen? Howls of ‘not listening’ ‘mis-trust’ ‘betrayal’ and ‘where’s your evidence…’. There were also wellies, a lot of wellies and it was like they’d been given these Top Tips instead:

Image from @Selkie, summarising the key lessons being considered in the wake of the UK flooding in early 2014
Image from @Selkie, summarising the key lessons being considered in the wake of the UK flooding in early 2014

The overwhelming mental image I had was of a bunch of individuals standing on chairs in the wet with loud hailers, announcing their views in the hope that the loud hailer would help them get their point across.

The Top Tips Series are quite brilliant too; and it was exhilarating to see that sort of discussion sprawling in print with no apparent great crisis to have provoked the interest.  Granted,  a full blown natural disaster is not the place to start making policy, but, it is the place where really good risk management decisions have to be made and fast and by all sorts of people from householders to councils to national government. Sitting at the heart of these decisions is undoubtedly good scientific knowledge.

My metaphor now involves cooking a really great dish; with five or six ingredients and in a hurry. The Top Tips are like some really brilliant tasting notes for individual ingredients. Really helpful, but what you lack is the knowledge about how to bring them together and which bits are going to be the key to making the dish really tasty. That, my friends, needs  a little experimentation, interaction and a conversation: a proper one with listening and stuff.

That’s tricky in a crisis…..but to stretch the metaphor further, if you’ve had some good practice at bringing the ingredients together and understand their value, then you’ll be able to whip something up in no time that everyone likes.

That’s the hypothesis the STREVA project is building on: that by considering risk from many different standpoints we might do better in a volcanic crisis.

Finally, in the midst of all this flood-inspired opinion and *concerned faces* I read a paragraph in a paper(*) that throws some brilliant clarity on where science and its communication fits into this.

Let’s all come to the table and take a seat.

Because science communication seeks to inform decision making, it must begin by listening to its audience, to identify the decisions that is members face- and, therefore, the information that they need. In contrast, science education begins by listening to scientists and learning the facts that they wish to convey. Science education provides the foundation for science communication. The more that people know about a science (e.g. volcanology), the easier it will be to explain the facts that matter in specific decisions (e.g. evacuation). The more that people know about the scientific process per se, the easier it will be for science communications to explain the uncertainties and controversies that science inevitably produces.

…..or alternatively you could just play decision-making Top Trumps and try your luck…..

With the launch of Volcanoes Top Trumps (http://volcanoestoptrumps.org) they have been much on my mind. Here is Jon Stone's graphic he made for a recent STREVA meeting; illustrative of the kind of odd and disparate categories to be weighed in a volcanic crisis
With the launch of Volcanoes Top Trumps (http://volcanoestoptrumps.org) they have been much on my mind. Here is Jon Stone’s graphic he made for a recent STREVA meeting; illustrative of the kind of odd and disparate categories to be weighed in a volcanic crisis

(*) I changed the examples used to fit my own needs but the paper is by Baruch Fischhoff ‘The Sciences of Science Communication’ in PNAS 110:14033-14039.

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