Risk and Reason: sensible risk assessment

from the early-fact-forum? dept.
MarkGubrud writes "The Sunday Washington Post carried a very thoughtful and balanced article on the problem of risk assessment by David Ropeik of the Harvard Center for Risk Assessment.

Most of us are probably aware that public perception of risk is often wildly out of proportion to the actual magnitudes of various hazards, resulting in sometimes hysterical overreation to minor or non-existent threats (electromagnetic fields, genetic engineering of foods) while other very serious dangers are downgraded or overlooked (workplace hazards, the AIDS pandemic).

Unfortunately, this issue has been politicized almost beyond the pale of reason, with certain ideologues regularly denouncing any research whose conclusions they dislike as "junk science," and certain public interest organizations acting as if they are mostly interested in publicity." Read More for a hopeful scenario. "As Ropeik puts it,

Some conservatives have given "rational risk policy" and regulatory reform a bad name, often invoking a supposed "rational" response ostensibly in the public interest but actually on behalf of the special interests of corporate sponsors out to neuter the power of government oversight. Equally inflexible consumer groups and environmentalists resist rationality because the more fearful something sounds, the more it helps them advance their agenda.

As a model of how to help break this deadlock, Ropeik spotlights the US Environmental Protection Agency's Health Effects Institute:

Some years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency and the automobile industry declared something of a truce in their war over the science of automobile emissions. Instead of each side spending millions on self-funded research the other side wouldn't accept, they each put in 50 percent of the money necessary–a total of $6 million–to create something called the Health Effects Institute. HEI was not created to make policy, but to give policymakers credible, trustworthy scientific information on which rational policy could be based. It was set up to be an impartial scientific review board–an agency of neutral arbiters, outside the government, beholden to nothing but the truth. To conduct its evaluations, it appoints panels of scientists, representing their various fields somewhat as a jury represents the community in a trial, so that no one with an ax to grind can control the process.

This does sound a lot like the "fact forums" Eric Drexler called for in Engines of Creation. According to Ropeik, the HEI has been a success, and he calls for the creation of a similar Risk Analysis Institute, outside government but with partial government funding, charged with assessment of risk in a broader range of issues.

Of course, a lot of people, from both sides of various issues, are going to be suspicious of such public-private partnerships regarding contentious issues. But Ropeik points out that

Setting up the institute outside the government would serve another important goal: Final policymaking decisions would still be made by government agencies, preserving citizens' ability to voice their concerns and use the political process to help shape the outcome.

That means that lobbyists, politics, the media and money would also still have influence. The messy process of policymaking would not change dramatically. But a Risk Analysis Institute's credible analyses, supporting not a specific policy but rational policymaking in general, would incrementally move government decision making toward wiser, more informed choices."

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