Communicating Health Risk Uncertainty: Myths and Fallacies
Cindy Jardine1, S. Michelle Driedger2, Lisa Given3
1Centre for Health Promotion Studies, School of Public Health, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada; 2Dept. of Community Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; 3School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada

Communicating the uncertainty associated with environmental health risks is a continuing challenge within risk communication theory and practice. A systematic review of the peer-reviewed literature in 38 databases representing various health-related and communication disciplines (including public health, psychology, sociology, education, business, agriculture, and environmental science) was conducted to consolidate and integrate the knowledge currently available on this area. Additional search strategies included a key journal search, key author search (109 noted risk communication authors), and a book (catalogue) search. Articles were screened and evaluated based on established criteria for determining the quality of the both the study and information. One of the results from this review was the identification of common “myths and fallacies” about communicating health risk uncertainty that have arisen in practice and research, but have been shown to be unfounded. These include misperceptions and misunderstandings about the varying nature of risk uncertainty, people's ability to understand uncertainty, and when and how to communicate uncertainty. The bases for these “myths and fallacies” are explored, together with the evidence demonstrating how changing paradigms and practice will improve both the communication of uncertainty and trust in risk managers. Finally, evidence-based recommendations for communicating the uncertainty associated with environmental health risk are summarized, including advice on best methods, channels and timing for engaging the public in a dialogue about risks with various types of associated uncertainty.

Keywords: Risk communication; Uncertainty; Environmental health risk; Systematic review

Biography: Dr. Cindy Jardine is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Health Promotion Studies, School of Public Health at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. She has a diverse academic background, with a PhD in Medical Sciences (specialization in Public Health Sciences), MSc in Environmental Science/Engineering (both from the University of Alberta), and BSc (Honours) in Zoology from the University of Manitoba. Dr Jardine's research interests are in the areas of environmental health risk communication, risk perception and risk management. Her work also involves exploring means for developing an informed public debate on contentious risk policy issues, and providing opportunities for public participation in risk decision making. Much of her research has involved working with Aboriginal communities in northern Canada to better understand their risk perspectives and risk communication needs. Dr. Jardine is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Qualitative Methods.