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Risk Communication and Narratives of Risk


“Risk is a fire: If controlled it will help you;
if uncontrolled it will rise up and destroy you.”
Theodore Roosevelt

From October 3rd to October 8th, 2016 the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Technische University Dresden, Germany hosted an Interdisciplinary Summer School on the topic of “Risk Communication and Narratives of Risk”, funded by the Excellence Initiative of the German federal and state governments.

Bringing together interdisciplinary and international circle of participants with backgrounds in Environmental Sciences, Literary Studies, Media and Film Studies, Food Chemistry, Business and Economics, Political Science, Linguistic was created a stimulating atmosphere for discussions, intensive exchange by means of field-specific perspectives and methods used in grappling with the topic of risk. This summer school was one of the measures of TU Dresden’s Institutional Strategy that enables researchers at the top of their field to receive special education, interact with peers and develop international co-operation projects. Considering our planet as a laboratory of risk the summer school strived to answer on the following questions “How can expert knowledge and risk communication be better negotiated?” and “How does one analyze and communicatively consider the semantics of risk and risk narratives?” are central to the Summer School “Risk Communication and Risk Narratives”.

In the course of the summer school interdisciplinary lectures and discussions on the topics of “Modern Times, Safety and Risk Narratives”, “From Risk Assessment to Risk Governance: The Wealth of Risk Concepts”, “Perception of Climate Change Risks by Environmental Sciences and Sociology Narratives of Risk with examples of nutritional risks”, “The Role of Art in Emotional-Moral Reflection on Technological Risks and Imagining and managing security risks; from threats to vulnerability” were presented by the lecturers of Technical Universities of Dresden, Berlin and Vienna.

19 participants from Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Ghana, Egypt, Italy, Nigeria China, India, Cameroon, Nigeria and Armenia had opportunity to present presentations and took part in group works.
In her presentation Anush Beybutyan, expert on coverage decisions and documents relating to the Aarhus Convention participated in this event and presented some interesting facts about the Armenian alphabet, which contain accurate knowledge about the chemical elements. Each of the Armenian alphabetic letters represents a numerical value. The sum of the numerical values of letters used to write the name of each element equals the Atomic Number of that element. But only in 19th century this information becomes known all over the world. If knowledge was perceived by the public in time then maybe our world today would be more developed. To keep information and not use it and disseminate is also a risk.

In the course of their activity the Armenian Aarhus Centres are also dealing with risk. During the public discussions and hearings permanently organized by the centers sometimes raises issues in connection with the communication about risks. Differences in risk perception are related to a diversity of factors. In addition to scientific factors, social factors also have a significant impact. Participatory and dialogical processes are thus needed in risk communication to combine technical expertise, rational decision making, and public values and preferences.

Risk communication occurs whenever there is an exchange of information among interested parties about the nature, magnitude, significance or control of a risk. A significant gap was observed between the risk perception of the experts practicing risk assessment on the one hand and the public on the other hand. One of the main problems in traditional risk communication is ignoring the fact that different perceptions and perspectives are relevant and should be respected. Mutual understanding and participation are necessary to create trust in order to solve problems that are both scientifically and socially complex.

The centers separated three main goals for involving public participation in decision-making processes

• Environmental problems are looked at differently depending on differences in personal background. Differences in risk perceptions are based on differences in the problem definition.

• All forms of knowledge (science, intuition, experience, values) are relevant and should be taken seriously.

• As a consequence of the complex character of environmental research, scientific controversies and uncertainties are inevitable.

Aarhus centers try to change the traditional one- way risk communication restricted to the dissemination of information from experts to the public, to more modern, two-way risk communication, with a focus on participation and cooperation between scientists, policy-makers and the public. Centers organize panel discussions bringing together representatives of local authorities, scientists, experts, mass media and local residents.

The experts tended to present their own views as objective and rational assessments of the real risks, whereas the views of laypeople were presented as a false understanding of reality resulting from a subjective, intuitive, emotional and irrational perception. The public therefore needed to be ‘educated’, in order to fill the observed ‘perception gap’,

The risk communication faced severe difficulties since there was a growing lack of trust and credibility in science and policy amongst the public. A broad-based loss of trust in the leaders of major social institutions and in the institutions themselves has occurred over the past three decades after some major technical disasters occurred in the world.

Government, science and industry long shared the belief that communication about risks was unnecessary as long as those risks were controllable and kept at acceptable levels. However, risk control appeared far from easy, as risks were no longer unwanted side-effects of production, but an inherent characteristic of our modern industrial risk society.

Anush Beybutyan