Cultural Understandings of Risk and the Tyranny of the Experts
66 Pages Posted: 7 Jul 2011 Last revised: 13 Mar 2013
Date Written: July 7, 2011
Every year, law-makers and agency regulators, with the input of industry experts and scientists, make hundreds of decisions about how to regulate conduct and allocate resources to address various types of risks that threaten the well-being of American citizens. In fact, managing and minimizing risk is one of the most important tasks of today’s policy-makers. In spite of this fact, most actions are taken without systematic consideration of the preferences of the very people whose welfare is at stake. There are two reasons for this. First, the dominance of Traditional Risk Analysis, with its emphasis on statistics and cost-benefit analysis, has downplayed the role of values and subjectivity in risk management. The result has been that risk decisions have been based upon the erroneous assumption that empirical data and mathematical calculations alone are adequate bases for risk decisions. There has been virtually no acknowledgment that ex ante consideration of the convictions and passions of the public is valuable. In fact, a number of scholars have argued that because individuals become emotional about potential harms, scientific experts should make all risk decisions without any public involvement at all. Another consequence of the focus on traditional risk analysis is that no comprehensive model of public risk perception has been developed. Existing theoretical perspectives and methodologies have not offered a comprehensive model, and each has suffered from limitations of one kind or another. This Article argues that law makers cannot adequately manage risks without understanding how members of the public view and react to these risks. In an effort to provide specific guidance for future risk decisions, the Article synthesizes past risk perception research and theory in order to offer a comprehensive risk perception model. This model should serve as a tool for risk managers and policy-makers, and a catalyst for future normative risk management debate.
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