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Trust, Emotion, Sex, Politics, And Science: Surveying The Risk-Assessment Battlefield

P. Slovic
Published 1999 ·

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Risk management has become increasingly politicized and contentious. Polarized views, controversy, and conflict have become pervasive. Research has begun to provide a new perspective on this problem by demonstrating the complexity of the concept “risk” and the inadequacies of the traditional view of risk assessment as a purely scientific enterprise. This paper argues that danger is real, but risk is socially constructed. Risk assessment is inherently subjective and represents a blending of science and judgment with important psychological, social, cultural, and political factors. In addition, our social and democratic institutions, remarkable as they are in many respects, breed distrust in the risk arena. Whoever controls the definition of risk controls the rational solution to the problem at hand. If risk is defined one way, then one option will rise to the top as the most cost-effective or the safest or the best. If it is defined another way, perhaps incorporating qualitative characteristics and other contextual factors, one will likely get a different ordering of action solutions. Defining risk is thus an exercise in power. Scientific literacy and public education are important, but they are not central to risk controversies. The public is not irrational. Their judgments about risk are influenced by emotion and affect in a way that is both simple and sophisticated. The same holds true for scientists. Public views are also influenced by worldviews, ideologies, and values; so are scientists' views, particularly when they are working at the limits of their expertise. The limitations of risk science, the importance and difficulty of maintaining trust, and the complex, sociopolitical nature of risk point to the need for a new approach—one that focuses upon introducing more public participation into both risk assessment and risk decision making in order to make the decision process more democratic, improve the relevance and quality of technical analysis, and increase the legitimacy and public acceptance of the resulting decisions.

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