Translating the language of risk
Perhaps one positive outcome of the most recent BSE 'crisis' is the sign of increasing awareness of the difference between scare stories and accurate information. There has been, understandably, anger at the failure of bureaucrats to communicate what scientists were saying about the risks posed by BSE in cattle. There have also been a lot of 'told you so's from the right-on, but largely unelected and unaccountable, champions of the 'consumer' and food correctness. But now there is also greater recognition that yes, the world can be a risky place, but we must make the best of it and get on with our lives.
This more balanced and sanguine view is evidenced by the fact that although the Food Standards Agency and others have, quite rightly, called attention to the possibility of BSE existing in sheep, lamb chops are still on many supper tables. Some might even regret the lack a panic boycott which in the early stages of the BSE debacle enabled them to fill their freezers with cut-price rib of beef. Even Sheila McKechnie, the Director of the Consumers' Association, has been moved not only to congratulate the FSA's sense of glasnost but also the common sense of the people she claims to represent in largely ignoring this latest 'risk'.
Warning fatigue? Perhaps, but this is not always a bad thing, especially if it encourages us to skip past the 'Flatulent sheep cause global warming', 'Curries are addictive' and 'Ballet is dangerous' stories which litter our newspapers, and also our 'Scares and Miracles' column. But the problem of communicating risk in meaningful ways remains. While what we have called 'riskfactorphobia' results in the inability to lead a normal and even moderately fulfilling life, the results of 'switching off' to even the most sensible messages about health and lifestyle can be equally alarming.
Jeremy Laurance captures this dilemma very succinctly in The Independent in an article headed 'Highly infectious: scare stories'. He observes:
"Risk is unavoidable in life; no human activity is free from risk and those who insist 'safe' must mean 'zero risk' are deluding themselves. The correct approach when risks are uncertain – if I may paraphrase Lord Phillips – is to ensure the public are properly appraised of them. People are then free to dig their own graves, as it were.
But it is not so simple, Laurance argues: "The message here is that it is not enough to share information on risks – we have to communicate them meaningfully as well . The language of risk increasingly dominates our lives – but no one is translating it." His point is well made. When there is what he calls "the overwhelming stench of fear" dominating the content of our newspapers, rational thinking, and hence informed decision making, fly out of the window, to be replaced either by an unhealthy, morbid neuroticism or else a 'sod-the-lot-of-them-let's-have-a-good-time while we can' empty hedonism.
There may, ultimately, be no infallible way of 'translating' the language of risk. As part of the development of the SIRC / RI Guidelines we have been trying to tackle precisely this issue. But while the Guidelines have been warmly welcomed by those in the medical and science communities, and even some media correspondents, we recognise that we still have some way to go before we find a 'magic formula' that will enable Laurance's complaint to be answered fully. All we can do is to continue to urge a greater appreciation of the harm that fear-mongering can do. And yes, if a healthy scepticism about what we read in our papers increasingly prevails, then that might be useful too.