Scientific Colloquium
November 2, 2007

                "The Sociopolitics of Risk: Challenges for Risk Assessment"

More than two decades after the emergence of risk assessment as a major scientific tool to guide risk management decisions, polarized views, conflict, and controversy remain 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 talk 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.  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 socially important values, 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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