As we write, Hurricane Isabel is out in the Atlantic Ocean, probably heading for the east coast of the United States. And in Singapore, a young virology grad student with a fairly mild, mostly non-respiratory illness has been triply confirmed as being infected with the SARS coronavirus.
During the week that these two news stories have been on our radar screen, several officials from the U.S. National Hurricane Center and the Singapore government have said that it is “too soon to speculate” about them.
Both of these organizations have well-earned reputations for world class risk communication. The National Hurricane Center scientists have long been masters of the rhetoric of uncertainty. During this past spring’s SARS outbreak, and again this fall, Singapore health officials proved themselves masters of transparency and caution, resisting the temptations of secrecy and over-confident over-optimism.
But we think they’re a little confused about speculation.
“It is still too early to even speculate which parts, if any, of [the] eastern coast of the United States may get affected by Isabel,” National Hurricane Center forecaster Jack Beven told the Associated Press on September 13, under dozens of headlines like “Hurricane Churns Toward Atlantic Coast.”
But it wasn’t really too soon to speculate – to think carefully, consider, guess, conjecture. It was decidedly too soon to come to a firm conclusion; too soon for certainty. It was perhaps too soon even for actionable hypotheses, too soon to cancel picnics or haul in lawn furniture, too soon to duct tape the windows (though not too soon to buy the duct tape). But too soon for contingency planning? Of course not!
Hurricane predictions (and weather forecasting generally) are all about speculation, obviously – responsible speculation: speculation that acknowledges uncertainties, that assesses which possible outcomes are likely and which are not, and that considers what sorts of preparations should be begun now and what sorts should wait for better data.
Two days before Beven said it was too soon to speculate, prominent tropical meteorologist William Gray carefully speculated about Isabel for USA Today: “This is going to be a tricky business.... There’s probably a more than 50% chance of hitting the U.S. The thing is, where is it going to go? Nothing’s going to kill it.”
A more interesting – but still typical – phenomenon occurred in Singapore the other day. People were naturally speculating (hypothesizing) that the virology student might have caught the SARS virus on the job, since other researchers at his lab worked with live SARS virus. A Ministry of Health spokeswoman “urged the public not to speculate and to wait for the results,” The Straits Times wrote.
Meanwhile, the director-general of the agency that oversees the lab said lab exposure could not have happened. “There is absolutely no way he could have been given the wrong virus,” the official told The Straits Times. This is truly irresponsible speculation – because it is speculation masquerading as certainty, prematurely over-confident speculation.
Interestingly, nobody complains much about speculations (even over-confident ones) that are on the optimistic side. Argue that bad things might happen, and you’re likely to be criticized for speculating. Argue that bad things might not happen – or even that they won’t happen – and you’ll escape the criticism. “It’s too soon to speculate” is almost always used to admonish against alarming hypotheses and conjectures, rarely against reassuring ones.
Good open public speculation, reported in the media, is like a moderated internet group or listserv. Everyone is free to ponder the possibilities, both likely and far-fetched. Officials and experts weigh in with what they think; they tell us what is actually known and unknown, how they are going to find out more, and when they might know. They also counter the truly improbable rumors – ideally rebutting the wildly over-optimistic speculations as emphatically as the wildly alarming ones.
What officials and experts shouldn’t do is try to squelch public speculation or refuse to answer speculative queries. This drives speculation underground into the alternative free-for-all universe of SMS text-messaging and unmoderated internet forums – the post-Gutenberg rumor mill.
In “Fear of Fear,” we wrote that official failure to acknowledge the public’s fears actually worsens those fears. We pointed out that officials are making a conceptual error here, imagining that public fear is joined at the hip to panic, when in reality there is a wide spectrum of fear responses, most of which are tolerable; some are even useful.
Exactly the same argument apples to speculation. Suppressed, unacknowledged, and unexamined public speculation can lead to increasingly scary (even paranoid) guesses. Last winter in Beijing and Guangdong, where there is very high mobile telephone usage, text message rumors about an unnamed and unreported respiratory disease were so numerous and so frightening that they eventually caught the attention of WHO doctors monitoring the world for new outbreaks. And just as fear need not turn into panic, speculation need not turn into premature certainty or premature action. Leaders who attack the public for speculating at all forfeit much of their ability to help guide the public’s speculation.
In “Fear of Fear” we also suggested that officials’ intolerance of public fears results in part from the officials’ own unacknowledged, projected fears, and from their irritation at the extra burden a fearful public imposes on them. This, too, is true of speculation. Risk managers and crisis managers have no choice but to speculate; risk is all about bad things that might happen. At some point they have no choice but to make decisions and take actions based on their speculations. Their discomfort with needing to act on uncertain information (speculation) gets projected onto the public, which they then accuse of having an excessive appetite for uncertain information and excessive willingness to act on it. As for the irritation, it too is part of the hidden meaning of “it’s too soon to speculate.” (“Don’t bother us with your annoying amateur opinions.” “Don’t stir each other up and make our work harder.”)
Our leaders would do well to separate out their nervousness about their own obligation to speculate and their irritation at dealing with public speculation from their fear that the public will speculate its way to prematurely certain and unnecessarily alarming conclusions. They need to deal with their projection and irritation problems themselves; then they can more calmly and effectively help the public bear the uncertainty inherent in speculation.
Officials and experts are right to advise the public that speculation isn’t the same as knowledge. They are right to explain what actions it might be wise to take now even though the information is uncertain, and what actions they think should await better information. They are right to warn that the worst case scenario isn’t usually the likeliest scenario.
But they are wrong to tell people that it is too soon to speculate ... ever. It is never too soon to speculate.
- Speculation about uncertain information is natural. People are going to do it. Media are going to do it. Instead of criticizing the fact that people speculate, help guide the speculation.
- Speculation about uncertain information is helpful. It helps people prepare logistically – figure out what they need to do now and what they may need to do soon. It also helps people prepare emotionally.
- Officials and experts should speculate responsibly. That means paying due attention both to worst case scenarios and to likelier and less dire possibilities; it means putting strong emphasis on the uncertainty of the data and the tentativeness of the conclusions; it means addressing explicitly the question of which actions should wait for better data and which should be undertaken now.
- Officials and experts should encourage the public and the media to speculate responsibly as well.
- Officials and experts should be alert to the reasons why they may be tempted to be too critical of public speculation: their fear that the public will seize with too much certainty on an excessively alarming scenario; their irritation at the extra work public speculation causes them; their projected distress at their own obligation to speculate, and sometimes to act on speculative information. They should be alert also to the bias that makes them see alarming speculation as speculative, but not reassuring speculation.
Copyright © 2003 by Peter M. Sandman