Thursday, 26 August 2010

Communicating risk and uncertainty - don't blame your audience, just communicate right.

I’ve just finished running a workshop for a group of scientists from across Europe on communicating science to policymakers. I’ll write more later about the lessons I was teaching, but first, I wanted to comment on a point that scientists raise with me time and time again training sessions like this – that it’s difficult to communicate uncertainty to non-scientists because they don’t understand risk.

I don’t know if that statement is true or not. But regardless, I do know that it’s not a helpful thought to hold onto if you want or need to communicate uncertainty effectively. Because as a communicator, while we know that the knowledge, experience, thoughts and values of our audience influence how our message is processed, we also know that there is nothing we can do about these personal influences, beyond understanding them as well as we can. To be a good communicator you have to let go of your frustration about other people’s preconceptions and instead focus on controlling the things you can control – your message, your understanding of the audience and your choice of the way you package and send the message. That way, you have the best chance of communicating well and getting your audience to understand what you have to say.

And it is possible. It’s difficult and takes time, thought and effort, but I think it is possible to communicate risk effectively to non-scientists. A good example is the work that Defra and colleagues did around the launch of the UK climate projections earlier this year.

The projections give extremely complicated statistics about the range of climate changes that the UK may experience in future and the extent to which these are supported by the latest evidence. Understanding the meaning of these projections hinges upon understanding the precise meaning of a set of probabilities. Specifically, that the percentage probability assigned to each climate scenario is a measure of how sure the researchers were that a change will happen, rather than the percentage chance of it occurring. Complicated eh? Important to get right though, because getting it wrong risked the media and public interpreting a 90% probability of a temperature rise of 4 degrees as meaning that there is a 90% chance of temperatures rising by 4 degrees (ie is highly likely), when in fact it meant that the researchers were 90% confident that the temperature rise will be less than 4 degrees– that it’s highly unlikely to be 4 degrees or higher in other words.

Determined to get this vital and powerful information right, the team involved communications experts early on and devoted significant time to drafting and drafting briefing notes and media releases. This wasn’t a half hour job, but instead took weeks and weeks of drafting, checking, consulting and redrafting until they had a way of explaining these complex statistics and probabilities clearly and simply.

The results – well you should judge for yourself, from the briefing note that we helped develop, the press release that Defra’s press office produced and of course the media coverage that it generated.