Is expert jargon just a way to confuse the man in the street?

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The language of scientists is prone to cause confusion among lay people. It is intended to be accurate, but often causes misinterpretation. The most common complaint is that scientists never state anything in unambiguous terms, but rather "on one hand this but on the other hand that". This is due to different use of language. In fact, an ambiguous-looking statement may contain much more truth than something stated as a hard fact in newspapers.

What is safe?

In general language it may be stated that an expensive car is a safe car. To a scientist this is not true at all. Around 50,000 people die in traffic accidents in Europe every year, and all kinds of cars are involved. Moreover, the exhaust gases of even the best cars are dangerous for health, and therefore no present car is safe. But a good car may be safe in a relative sense, as compared with an old rusted hulk. To lay people then, safety means relative safety, in comparison with something else they know. Scientists would often see safety as absolute safety, which is not even theoretically possible.

This difference is much more problematic with chemicals than with cars. As science would not deem any chemical as absolutely safe, many citizens will interpret all chemicals as being dangerous. The man in the street does not have any personal experience with which to base his comparison – and this is different from his knowledge of motor cars. Therefore the risk[1] of chemicals appears to be such that a personal likelihood to get ill or die is very high. Whenever a child is born with developmental defect, or an adult is diagnosed to have cancer, a cause is often sought in the emissions of a nearby factory or energy plant. This happens even if the likelihood of disease would be relatively high in all populations, with or without industrial emissions. In such circumstances, the likelihood of there being one particular source is not very high.

Serious developmental effects occur in more than one child out of a hundred, and up to every third person is likely to contract cancer without any apparent external cause. Legislation and authorities aim at much lower risk levels. Experience has shown that a risk of serious health consequences of more than one in ten thousand has always led to varying degrees of stringent regulations to minimise the risk.

Safer than something else

Perhaps the most effective way of telling people how dangerous something is, is to compare it with something else they know better. Fifty thousand deaths from traffic accidents in Europe means that calculated over the entire lifetime there is one in a hundred chance that you will die in a car crash. This is very high risk level indeed. Environmental tobacco smoke would cause a lifetime risk that is somewhere between one in a thousand and one in a hundred. Even this is a very high risk, and it is very good idea to discourage smoking indoors as much as possible. Without any control measures, this would mean tens of thousands of premature deaths per year in Europe.

Carcinogenic chemicals are often regulated according to a principle that the risk may not exceed one in a million during the whole lifetime of a person. If five million people (e.g. the whole population of Finland or the state of Minnesota) would be exposed over their whole lifetime to the maximum allowed level of a chemical, there would be one extra cancer case in about 15–20 years. This is because in such a population somewhat over 50,000 babies are born per year, and it would take 15–20 years for one million babies to be born. In this population of one million babies, there would be one extra cancer case during their whole lifetime. In the same population there are some 25,000 cancers per year, most without any known reason.

Voluntarily accepted risks are often very much higher. Smoking is believed to cause the premature death of every other smoker, in other words the risk is one in two. The risk from unhealthy diet may be about equal to that of smoking. Thus a smoker takes a risk that is 50,000 times higher than the risk accepted for him or her by health authorities e.g. when regulating levels of chemicals in drinking water.

Many people do not realise that also the risks of smoking and risks of unhealthy diet are chemical risks in the broad sense. Tobacco smoke is a mixture of many chemicals, and food is nothing but chemicals: fats, proteins and carbohydrates – all are simply chemicals.

Assessment of risks is very tricky, but it seems to be even trickier to convey the message in a relevant form to the general public.

Notes and references

  1. Even the word risk illustrates well the different concept for different people. One explanation is that risk is a likelihood of unwanted consequence. Risk includes both the likelihood of something happening, and the seriousness of the thing that happens. If a car accident is a hundred times more likely than an accident of an aeroplane, but the car accident would kill two people, and the aeroplane accident 200 people, does this mean a similar risk? In a hundred car accidents the same number of people would be killed as in one aircraft accident, and a car accident is a hundred times more likely. However, an air accident is considered more dreadful, and it is regulated much more strictly. This has led to the situation that flying is about hundred times safer than driving a car.

One level up: Perception of the risks around us

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