Posted: December 7, 2006
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Article SummaryDave Johnson’s fascinating article (“Asbestos Risk Politics,” available on this site) quotes me briefly on the risk communication implications of the story. When he sent me a draft for comment, Dave noted, “It’s got politics, greed, scandal, harassment, but no sex.” This is my complete response to him.

Asbestos Risk Politics

In December 2006, Dave Johnson wrote an article on “Asbestos Risk Politics” for his ISHN Ezine (Industrial Safety & Hygiene News). When he sent me a draft for comment, Dave noted, “It’s got politics, greed, scandal, harassment, but no sex.” This is the email I sent him in response. The published article, also on this site, quotes me briefly.

Of the many risk communication principles illustrated, two stand out for me:

When a policy recommendation changes, it is important to say so.

Otherwise, people whose “mental model” makes use of the earlier policy get confused; the prior policy is a bigger barrier to absorbing the new one if it’s ignored than if it’s acknowledged and the policy change is explained. Even people who don’t know about the earlier policy get confused – and suspicious – when they later find out that there was one, it was different, and the new one was announced without reference to the old one.

This is a common error even in areas much less politicized than asbestos safety. When the CDC changed its recommendation for when to use masks in doctors’ waiting rooms, for example, it failed to mention the old policy. Lots of nurses simply dismissed the new one as some kind of mistake.

When a conclusion or recommendation is controversial, say so. Review the evidence in both directions, and explain why you come down on the side you’re on.

The research support for this one is overwhelming. In the literature on one-sided versus two-sided persuasion, for example, one-sided persuasion is superior only for audiences that are firmly on your side already, and for audiences that are unaware of the other side and will continue to be unaware of it. For those who know a position is controversial (and aren’t already on your side), acknowledging the other side is essentially a prerequisite to having any impact at all. And for those who will later be exposed to the other side, acknowledging it is an opportunity to inoculate the audience against it; “rebuttals” that have been addressed in advance are likely to be dismissed (“Yeah, they told me you’d say that”) while rebuttals that come as a shock are likely to be seen as evidence that the initial communication was dishonest (“Wow, they sure kept that a secret!”).

It sounds like this second lesson applies to both OSHA asbestos communications – the earlier reassuring one apparently neglected to say some experts think the risk is serious, while the later alarmist one neglected to say some experts (including those who prepared the earlier OSHA statement) think it’s not so serious.

There are other risk communication lessons to be drawn from this chain of events, but these two are crucial, I think.

Copyright © 2006 by Peter M. Sandman

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