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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine


by ~ December 7, 2008.
Permalink | Filed under: 21st Century Risk, Hybrid Vigor, Planetary Life, Policy and Decisions.

A few posts ago, I made a plea for the Obama administration to include social scientists in the mix as it moves to return science to its rightful position of inclusion and respect in the public policy sphere. If you want just one real-life example of what’s at stake by not doing so, read this letter about the “updated” Technical Assistance Document on anthrax contamination, proposed by EPA and several federal agencies after the 2001 and 2002 attacks.

It’s written to EPA administrator Stephen Johnson, from my colleague Baruch Fischhoff, the Carnegie Mellon risk expert and professor who’s chair of the Homeland Security Advisory Committee for the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board.

Fischhoff wrote:

[S]everal Committee Members, myself included, were distressed at the lack of systematic, scientific attention to communicating with the public.  … It is not unique to this anthrax project, but reflects a general problem in our national emergency planning … As we saw in 2001, a b. anthracis (“anthrax”) attack has enormous potential for achieving our enemies’ goals, even when causing relatively few casualties … Much of that damage came from our own inability to communicate credibly, causing needless concern and distrust that persists to this day.

With its rigorous methodologies and an impressive body of academic literature supporting it, risk communication represents the bounty of wisdom that can be found in the applied social sciences, from fields including psychology, communications, decision analysis, rhetoric, sociology, political science, law, ethics, linguistics and anthropology.

But the scientific aspects of risk communication are often entirely overlooked or dismissed by technical experts and authorities in both emergency preparation and response. Instead, they assume that  their knowledge of technical details, their intuition about what to say to the public, or their charisma (this being the politicians) will give people enough information to respond to emergencies.

Call it ignorance, arrogance or denial, but that attitude is a big mistake, and it has real consequences.

Look back at Hurricane Katrina for some horrific examples. Not only did authorities fail to get the frail and the poor out of New Orleans, it utterly failed to persuade tens of thousands of them who could evacuate the city to do so.

And recall the disaster that one risk expert called the “Duct Tape Risk Communication” emergency preparation strategy, proposed by the White House in 2003, which immediately was turned into a lampoon to skewer the U.S. government, rather than inspiring citizens to take useful action.

People need to trust their leaders and technical experts to tell them the truth in emergencies, in ways that actually answer their questions — questions which will be different for business leaders than for schoolteachers — and address their fears. Without that trust, the public isn’t going to follow instructions.

As Fischhoff said in his letter to EPA, the only way to prepare for emergencies is to have an inventory of scientifically sound risk communications on hand — pre-scripted press releases, print and electronic explanatory materials, guides to self-testing, FAQs and the like — ready to be adapted to specific circumstances. And,

Communications research planning is not expensive.  However, it requires a skill set that is not represented in the anthrax [Techical Assistance Document] task force.  Nor is it present in most other parts of our national response effort [including the Emergency Consequence Assessment Tool and the WaterSentinel Program (PDF)].  As a result, much of what passes for risk communication advice has no scientific foundation.

Thankfully, compared to some of the other problems facing the Obama administration, this is an easy one to fix. And given the nature of some of those problems, they may want to fix this one now.


  1. Cision.net Blogs » Blog Archive » Comms Links 09/12/08

    […] Anthrax, terrorism and risk communication […]

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