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Controlling Dangers: The Truth About Risk Assessment

June 1996

At the gates of a nuclear power plant, protesters form a gauntlet of signs. As the plant manager passes, they chant, "Keep our children safe! No more nukes!"

Clenching his fists, the manager turns back to the crowd. "Don't you people realize that you're in more danger driving over here than you are from an accident at the plant?" he asks.

Both sides have performed a risk assessment and both sides are somewhat right, according to Paul Slovic, President of the non-profit organization Decision Research Inc., and a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.

"Danger is real but risk is socially constructed. Risk assessment represents a blending of science and judgement with important psychological, social, cultural, and political factors," says Slovic.

At the February meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Slovic presented his study of risk assessment -- work funded through NSF's Division of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. Slovic's results may help resolve such contentious issues as risk management of nuclear power and the priorities of government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

His research shows that both experts and the public must understand the following:

  • All risk assessment is laden with subjective assumptions. Even the basic measurements of risk -- mortality and morbidity -- are value judgments. Someone has to decide if deaths of healthy and sick should rank equally.
  • Defining risk is an exercise in power. Different definitions of risk will lead to different solutions.
  • Different groups in the United States perceive risk differently. For example, women and members of minority groups, usually rank risks higher than white males.

But Slovic and his colleagues James Flynn and C.K. Mertz, also found differences within groups. For example, within the white male group, 30 percent of the sample judged risks to be extremely low. The remaining 70 percent of white males disagreed and were not much different from other groups with regard to perceived risk.

Slovic then asked why these groups differed in their assessment and acceptance of risk. The answers include issues of personal control over the risk, and level of trust the individual has in the institution that is managing the risks.

Slovic concludes that negotiating acceptable risks within society will require more than providing additional science education; it will involve sharing of power and building of trust among groups.

"Recognizing interested and affected citizens as legitimate partners in the exercise of risk assessment is no short-term panacea for the problems of risk management," he says. "But serious attention to parti-cipation and process issues may, in the long run, lead to more satisfying and successful ways to manage risk."

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