Risks are not just about numbers

Jessica Nihlén FahlquistOn a daily basis, we are informed about risks. The media tell us that obesity increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases and that we can reduce the risk of Alzheimers by eating the right kind of food. We are confronted with the potential danger of nanoparticles and mobile phone radiation. Not to mention the never ending discussion about nuclear power. Some news are more serious than others, but we cannot avoid risk information as such.

In addition to the media, government agencies inform the public about risks. The Swedish National Food Agency encourages people to eat fish because of its potential to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. But we should also reduce the intake of wild-caught salmon and herring due to the health risks associated with mercury.

Contemporary society has been described as a risk society, simply put a society preoccupied with risks. We invest a great amount of our common resources in risk management and communication. Sometimes, it appears as though risks are communicated in a hasty way. As soon as a risk is “found,” it is assumed that the responsibility of the government and possibly of the media is to inform the public. It is not acknowledged that what is considered to be a risk is not always straightforward and value neutral.

Whereas experts define risk as probability multiplied by negative outcome and weigh risks against benefits, several studies have shown that lay people conceive of risk in a much more complex and nuanced way. According to the expert notion, a risk is acceptable if the benefits outweigh the risks. However, individual lay people include other factors, for example, whether risks and benefits are distributed fairly and whether the risk has been taken voluntarily or it is one person exposing another to the risk. Studies in risk perception have also been acknowledged by ethicists and philosophers, who point out that not only do factors like voluntariness and fairness de facto influence people’s notion of the acceptability of risk, but we should care about these values. They are normatively important.

These insights about risk as ethically relevant and value-laden should influence how risks are managed and communicated in society. One example is how government agencies view risks and benefits in the case of infant feeding. Breastfeeding is seen as the best option in terms of risks and benefits. Mothers are expected to breastfeed their babies if they want to do what is best for their baby. Scientific and value-laden statements are mixed in the information provided to new parents. Women, adoptive parents and male gay couples who cannot breastfeed are negatively affected by this message. Women who cannot breastfeed oftentimes feel guilty and think that they are harming their babies for life by not breastfeeding. This should be taken into account when communicating with parents-to-be and new parents. The relationship between government agencies and ordinary people is inevitably unequal and the former should take responsibility for the effects of risk communication.

Another example is the H1N1 virus and the Pandemrix vaccination program in Sweden in 2009. The government informed the public that the vaccine was completely safe and that everybody should get vaccinated for solidarity reasons. After some time, it turned out that a group of teenagers had their lives more or less destroyed because they got narcolepsy probably due to the vaccination. This deserves a thorough ethical discussion.

There are currently signs that some people now hesitate to have their children take part in the regular vaccination program, including protection against, for example, measles. The regular vaccines are much more tested and substantially safer than Pandemrix. The opposition against vaccines are generally based on misconceptions and deficient studies. However, instead of mocking “ignorant” people and thinking that it is possible to change the perception and attitude of anxious parents by informing more about numbers, the anxiety and the lacking trust should be taken seriously. A respectful dialogue is needed.

This does not mean that the opponents of vaccination have the same and as accurate information as proponents of vaccination, who have science on their side. However, risks are not just about numbers!

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Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist

We care about communication - the Ethics Blog

 

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