Risky Advice

BRIGHTON – Why do we seem to be witnessing an increasing number of nasty technological surprises? Indeed, this year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan and last year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have taken their place alongside older problems, such as ozone depletion. We believe that the way in which scientific advice is developed and communicated lies at the heart of the question.

Science is increasingly used to support what are essentially public-policy decisions, particularly concerning new and complex technologies like genetically modified (GM) foods, novel chemicals, and contending energy infrastructures. Decisions about options and how to implement them are difficult, owing to uncertainties over hazards, benefits, and potential side effects. Doubts surround not just likelihoods, but extend to the outcomes themselves, and what they might mean. Powerful economic interests are often at stake, raising the pressures even more.

Too often, expert opinion is thought most useful to policymakers when presented as a single “definitive” interpretation. As a result, experts typically understate uncertainty. And, to the extent that they acknowledge uncertainty, they tend to reduce unknowns to measurable “risk.”

Yet risk is just one – relatively tractable – aspect of uncertainty. Beyond familiar notions of risk lie deeper predicaments of ambiguity and ignorance.