Handling uncertainties and risks in society requires all actors to cooperate

Uncertainty is ubiquitous, and an inherent feature of scientific research. Scientists are therefore used to dealing with uncertainty. Those making decisions in society are much less comfortable with uncertainty since they need to be accountable to a public, who is often averse to the unknown. Things become even more complex when uncertain is associated with risks faced by society. These include health risks, associated with disease epidemics, risks associated with energy production, such as nuclear plants, as well as risks connected to technologies such as genetically modified organisms or nanotechnologies. This leads to question how modern societies can come to reasonable decisions, norms, regulations and measures to deal with ambiguity, uncertainty and risk.

Evidence-base policy

In the age of uncertainty, the role of science-based knowledge is more important than ever as the basis for policy makers and citizens to come to reasonable and responsible decisions. Some researchers in science and technology studies argue we have reached an era where science is in so-called post-normal stage. There, “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent,” as Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz describe in their article entitled Science for the post-normal age.

Before making any decisions around risky situations, it is important to understand what is at stakes. “From the abundant literature on technological disasters and failures, including studies of risk analysis and policy-relevant science, [we learn] that for almost every human enterprise that intends to alter society four key questions are crucial to address: what is the purpose? who will be hurt? who benefits? and how can we know?” wrote Sheila Jasanoff, professor of science and technology studies at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, in her article Technologies of humility.

This approach “distinctly favours the precautionary principle as a norm, because that principle takes scientific uncertainty and ignorance into account in setting policies,” Jasanoff explains in an email. Others believe that this precautionary approach comes with a caveat. “Precautionary steps might be taken, but it should be clear these are temporary while more information is being gathered, and that advice will change,” says David Spiegelhalter, an expert in medical statistics and a professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, UK. “Public concerns should be understood and acknowledged, but premature reassurance avoided.” Instead, “when, as is common, we cannot be confident in numerical assessments, we should acknowledge this deeper uncertainty, but tell people what they can do if they are anxious,” notes Spiegelhalter.

Dialogue about uncertainty and risk

In this context, neither scientists nor policy makers should deal with uncertainty alone, Jasanoff believes. “We have good reason to believe that wider public engagement would improve our capacity for analysis and reflection,” Jasanoff writes in email correspondence. This means that when science is in the post-normal stage, the knowledge of experts and lay persons is equally important. And public dialogue is needed in many areas such as health, safety and environmental decisions.

One step beyond uncertainty lies the notion of risks. One of the major findings of risk assessment and risk perception studies has been that “there is a gap between the expert assessment of risks in numerical terms and the perception of people with respect to the severity of these risks,” says Ortwin Renn, professor of environmental sociology and technology assessment at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. Therefore it would be insufficient and counterproductive to bridge this gap by trying to educate people to correct their perceptions in the direction of the expert judgments.

He adds: “The concerns that underlie perceptions and the trade-offs between risk categories and potential benefits are important elements of risk evaluation that go beyond scientific assessment”. These crucial aspects “necessitate the input from stakeholders and the general public in a democratic decision making process”.

Communicating systemic risks

Among the many types of risks encountered in our society, a crucial kind of risk is what Renn calls “systemic risks.” These are risks that cause damage not only to the people who are taking the risk, but also effect many people because they are widely linked to them. He explains: “Systemic risks behave like viruses, because they infect also people who are healthy and resilient in general, just because they are somehow connected or interwoven with the risk source.”

He points to examples of systemic risks that are global pandemics like bird flu but also includes those in the global financial system, as the subprime crisis in 2008 showed. And, last but not least, global warming. One main characteristic of systemic risks is that they “tend to be underestimated by politicians and societies, mainly because there are lingering by nature,” Renn adds.

Systemic risks are particularly difficult to communicate since the damages that can be expected from a systemic risk are too severe to allow learning by trial and error. “Society needs to intervene before negative results become visible. This is a major challenge since it is not part of our evolutionary tradition of dealing with threats,” says Renn.

Thus, how to communicate about uncertainties and risks remains a key question, regardless of the type of risk involves—be it for the danger of new infections, environmental and or technological risks. For example, “the principles of risk and crisis communication of any outbreak situation are full transparency, communicating the science-based facts and disclosing the uncertainties,” says Karl Ekdahl, head of public health capacity and communication at European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), in Stockholm, Sweden.

Indeed, “when there is a new infection we are assessing the risks with our scientists and try to get the best picture possible of the event at the time of the assessment,” he adds. This builds the bases for the estimates on the possible risks for Europe and the populations. He recalls the example of a previous flu scare in Europe. “During the very first weeks of the last [H1N1] influenza pandemic, in 2008-2009, we received the reports of the Mexican and US cases with high death rates, mainly among young people. So we had to be very clear about what we are saying today reflects the situation and the level of knowledge, what we have right now and that this could be bypassed by events tomorrow.”

Multipartite risk governance

Most people have developed the ability for prudent judgment in the presence of uncertainties. “It is not the duty of science to reduce the amount of uncertainty and ignorance in their communication but rather to emphasise these aspects as most people can cope with uncertainty better than many scientists think,” states Renn.

So the question is how to deal with the dilemma of risks and uncertainties in modern societies? Renn proposes a governance of risk involving four sectors of society: “risk and governance for complex and ambiguous phenomena cannot be managed by corporations and regulators alone. Therefore in plural societies we need the “cooperation of the four major functional systems: the political, the economic, the scientific and the civil society sector. Each of these functional systems provide the specific virtue and function that is needed for dealing with complex risks,” argues Renn.

To do so in practical terms, he recommends an approach that is a four-fold: the economic sector provides efficient solutions, the scientific sector effective solutions, the civil society sector fairness and coherence and the political sector resilience and legitimacy. He points out: “Only if all these four factors cooperate and use their specific competence to resolve complex risk issues can we be confident that future challenges in particular with respect to systemic risks can be successfully met.”

So what can we learn from the discourse of experts on uncertainties and risk? Today’s risks discourses and public controversies are mainly focusing systemic risks such as climate, energy, health, nutrition as well as financial and informational systems. All of these shape our future, probably even more than in the past. So the fundamental question that remains is to establish how decision makers in politics, science, economy and last but not least civil society, which act as architects of our collective future, can be more responsible, more transparent and decide and act accordingly in view of such risks. On that question, the jury is still out.

Karl Ekdahl will take part to an ESOF 2014 session entitled: The danger of new infections: what can be done to reduce the risks?

Other ESOF 2014 sessions relevant to this topic is entitled: From pathogens to pandemics: can we handle the risk? and Antibiotic resistance: a ticking time bomb!

Ortwin Renn and David Spiegelhalter will participate in an ESOF 2014 session entitled: Going to jail for being a scientist? The pitfalls of communicating scientific risk assessments

Featured image credit: Sagittaria via Fotolia

Go back to the Special Issue: ESOF 2014


Dino Trescher

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