President’s Message / Message du président
Communication. We all need to communicate. We communicate feelings, states of mind, opinions, questions, advice, facts, and a countless abundance of other thoughts each and every day. We communicate with each other, with our pets . . . We may even frolic in the forest communicating with nature! You get the point.
Communication is not always simple. We often encounter barriers to communication—language barriers, physical or emotional barriers, and barriers resulting from having different levels of understanding of a given subject. Every day we strive to overcome these communication barriers.
If communication is so important in our day-to-day lives, why is it sometimes difficult for radiation protection and health physics experts to adequately explain radiation risk to the public and the media? Simply put, scientists and engineers have a hard time drawing a “line in the sand” and saying, “below that line we are safe” and “above that line we are at increased risk.”
We are good at understanding the technical side of radiation exposure, statistics, and uncertainty, but we are often not good at translating these important technical concepts into readily digestible (yet accurate) explanations for the non-technical expert.
We understand bell curves and hypotheses, and we can synthesize and understand the abstract. However, this detailed understanding is often what prevents us from saying that something is “safe.” It is extremely difficult to convey the concept of “safe” versus “unsafe” when we rely on a partially scientific hypothesis called the linear non-threshold (LNT) hypothesis as our basis for risk estimation.
I say “partially scientific” because we have a pretty good idea of both the deterministic and the stochastic effects at high-dose and high-dose-rate ionizing radiation exposure. However, at low-dose our knowledge is based on “fairy dust and dreams,” tied to an unscientific assumption that zero risk only happens at zero-dose.
Of course, this has been the subject of some rather animated discussions at conferences, workshops, and meetings around the world dealing with the effects of low-dose radiation. It is clear that even within the ranks of radiation protection professionals, communicating these ideas is difficult!
So, what can we, as professionals, do to improve our chances of communicating risk and benefits from radiation exposure to the public and the media? A few ideas come to mind:
- First, know where you stand on radiation-risk issues.
Although professionals may have differing opinions about risk at low-dose, whether there is a low dose threshold for stochastic effects, and the credibility of hormetic effects, we must ensure we understand the issues to the best of our abilities, and we must relay our understanding confidently. Even if your opinion is different from those of other professionals, ensure you understand the other opinions and can talk about them.
- Second, practise talking risk/benefit in plain language.
Practise talking to both experts and non-experts about radiation risks and benefits. Make sure you can have a reasonable and realistic discussion about relative risks. Being confident in your knowledge and still showing consideration for your audience will give you credibility.
- Third, take courses related to communication.
There are a number of places where you can find short professional development or continuing education courses in technical-risk communication. Seek them out and brush up on your knowledge. Likewise, there are great resources in peer-reviewed literature on this subject. One example is an excellent article entitled “Communicating Radiation Risk: The Power of Planned, Persuasive Messaging” by Jessica Wieder (Health Physics, Vol. 116, No. 2, February 2019).
So, my president’s message for us all is to reflect on where we stand with respect to low-dose radiation risk and to think about how we can better communicate both risks and benefits to a wide audience!