By William Rish, PhD  |   March 22nd, 2016
Issues associated with environmental risk are being used to support polarized views, sometimes masking more relevant issues that need resolution. At the heart of the disparity is that technical assessments of risks are often very different from the public perceptions of those same risks.  This public perception of a risk is often what advocacy groups will utilize to support their agenda.  This keeps the discussion emotionally charged and one that will not be swayed by technical reports and empirical data. 
Now, I want to be very clear about something.  The emotional reaction to risk is real and has to be responded to.  We do not, nor have we ever advocated the dismissal of public perception when we undertake an environmental risk project.  We are in the business of measuring and reporting and most importantly - communicating.  Our metrics, numbers and results are useless if we cannot communicate them in a manner specifically tailored to the needs of those impacted. It is important to remember that risk is defined by many people as when there is a perception that harm may come to something they value.    
There is a growing body of study on risk communication, perception and acceptance. Universities now have programs that specialize in the field.  Unfortunately, while our knowledge of risk communication grows we are still ineffective in practice.  “Facts” can be helpless in the face of perceptions.
Risk communication must be based on understanding the different “languages” spoken.  Translation must occur between those involved in their psychologically and socially grounded perception and the science of risk measurement and analysis. This translation can result in a more effective and interactive approach that is based on DIALOGUE.  Only then can exceptional listening, mutual respect and conversation replace the typical dynamic of “lecturing” about technical risks.  Improved risk communication practices can help ease anxiety, build trust and support informed decision making.
We must move away from the typical risk communication model characterized by the scientific expert presenting “facts” to "educate” community members.  This method has failed time after time and always results in frustration.  Better risk communication is critically needed and we know the way. 
William Rish, PhD, HullRAC Director
William (Bill) is a Principal and the Vice President of Hull's Environmental Market at Hull.  He also directs The HULL Risk Analysis Center (HullRAC) and has over 30 years of experience in risk assessment, decision analysis, and environmental consulting. 
Bill has been on the forefront of environmental liability evaluation, including the development of probabilistic techniques for quantifying environmental liability associated with contaminated sites in financial terms, and is published expert and expert witness in risk assessment and uncertainty analysis.
Bill received a Ph.D. in Engineering and Public Policy from Carnegie‑Mellon University.
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