Science Online 2012 is over, and I must admit that I’m still full of all the inputs, impressions and ideas that almost overloaded my head during those three days in North Carolina. Knowing were to start and were to end when giving highlights of the (un)conference is difficult. A blog post on my general reflections of the conference is coming up, but first I thought I’d just touch upon one of the themes I encountered at #scio12.
Risk. How do we communicate it? What is it really? What happens when a calculated, objective risk on paper is processed by a human mind? This is big challenge when communicating science – and perhaps especially in communication health research. Two of the sessions I attended at Science Online focused on risk. The first one, “Science Communication, Risk Communication and the role of social networks”, moderated by David Ropeik was a great session. David Ropeik pointed out that risk may very well be something that can be calculated to a percentage but to people it is a feeling. And feelings operate differently – and are not rational. I myself experienced that today. Being nearsighted I had a preexamination today for later lasic surgery. I had in advanced received a small folder explaining the procedure and of course – the risks. Even though the risks are relatively small, and despite the fact that I know several people who have had it done and are very happy with the result, when I read the small information brochure, I did all of a sudden have a feeling of “yikes – is this risk too big?” “How much is 1% really?” “If there were a hundred of me out there would one have worse eyesight after the procedure? Or would it look different if it was a hundred different people and not a hundred me? It is true, risk is a feeling. I felt like asking the doctor if he would do it if it was him. I wanted his feeling on this too.
Risk really is a challenge to communicate. And perhaps particularly in health, because disease and sickness is something that is very real to us and easy to imagine. In this regard, social media can be a challenge. Things have the potential to spread like viruses when they go online. Rumours of risk a radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant made friends and family in Denmark fear for my wellbeing when I was in Kobe, Japan although I was more than 600 km away from the Fukushima plant. People in Denmark even feared that with wind coming in over Denmark from Japan they would too be at risk, if the situation got worse. And fears like that may be reinforced with unimaginable speed once they go viral.
So how do you balance communicating the facts when you at the same time risk steering fear? Are there ethical obligations to communicate all available research or the opposite – should researchers be obligated to hold back certain kinds of information in the interest of public health, and the interest of the individual? Communication in public health is central, and reflecting on how to deal with risks should be a requirement for any public health researcher or professional (and for journalists too!). The web’s role in this is tricky. It is important to get the facts out there – and try to illustrate the proportion of risk, but the web also provides a fora where you can find confirmation of the risk of almost anything you like.
The discussions at Science Online didn’t give answers to how with deal with risk, and there most certainly is no magical solution. But the discussion triggered reflection, which should be required by all public health professionals when they communicate, whether to the public, to a journalist, at decision maker etc.
And as an end note: I did decide to go ahead with the lasic surgery – after carefully evaluating the risks and interpreting the doctors attitude and behavior. So in April, when I am without glasses, I will hopefully be able to say that it was worth the risk 🙂