Risk and uncertainty are part of modern life, but why does the possibility of terrorist bombs on aeroplanes, a new generation of nuclear power stations and a flu pandemic trigger public distrust in the powers-that-be? What can the government do to re-build trust in politicians and scientists?
Risk researchers say the answer lies in emotions, not reason, especially when the perceived risk is related to health, the environment, new technologies and energy. "There is a lot of evidence that concern about risk is directly related to lack of knowledge and the extent to which the event is dreaded," says Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby, Director of the Economic and Social Research Council Social Context and Responses to Risk Network (SCARR) at the University of Kent. "And trust always involves emotion as well as reason."
"The way that information about a particular risk is transmitted and interpreted by various audiences is also important in determining how people respond," Peter Taylor-Gooby explains. "Government should be certainly thinking about building trust, but it is very difficult to do. People need to feel they are being taken seriously and it would help if there was more reporting back after public consultations. Transparency is the key, particularly when mistakes have been made."
How people handle uncertainties in relation to topics including unemployment, pensions, GM foods, health care and nuclear power is the subject of an event to be held at the University of East Anglia on September 7th. Researchers from a number of social science disciplines will present their latest findings at the Coping with Uncertainty event in Norwich during the British Academy Festival of Science.
"Every day we probably take some routine risks without thinking like driving to work or taking an escalator but we also have to take serious decisions about jobs, marriage or buying a car without enough information and certainty to make a rational
Contact: Annika Howard
Economic & Social Research Council