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A great quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson courtesy of the Scientista Foundation and I Fucking Love Science that relates to science and controversies in science – Facebook quote

IMG_1452.PNG(Image taken by Sapphicscientist of the post from the Facebook site of the Scientista Foundation who shared I Fucking Love Science’s image of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s tweet)

Last night I had a fabulous opportunity to attend the University of Queensland final of the Three Minute Thesis competition. The final was held at a lovely historic building, Customs House in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland.

Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) is a research communication competition developed by The University of Queensland which challenges research higher degree students to present a compelling oration on their thesis and its significance in just three minutes in language appropriate to a non-specialist audience (Three Minute Thesis). It is a fantastic example of science communication – taking a complex scientific topic and transforming it into an engaging, accessible and lay audience appropriate story.

The competition, held in a spectacular room complete with a dome, was hosted by a local radio host. Students from the faculties and institutes presented their 3 minute presentations to the audience.

A gut feeling helps Megan win Three-Minute Thesis competition showcases the winner of the final and her research into pre- and probiotics and kidney disease.

Afterwards I had the opportunity to attend a cocktail reception on the outside terrace. One of Brisbane’s most famous bridges, the Story Bridge, was lit up with purple lights. The moon rising behind the bridge was a sight to behold.

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In my previous post (Risk Communication and the ‘Raw’ Milk Controversy – Viewpoints) I discussed briefly what happens when risk communication fails – risk information vacuums are created. According to Powell and Leiss, 2004, who analysed risk communication and its failures, these risk information vacuums can be filled by other sources. These include -

  • Fears and concerns that form a substantial consensus in the public opinion arena
  • Interest groups peddling their own information and perspectives on the risk issues
  • Media reports that form the public framing of risks
  • Soothing and placating words from politicians

Has there been risk communication failures in the ‘raw’ milk controversy? From my research on the topic, I think there has been some failings from both the expert (scientific, public health and medical) and general public sides. These could include –

  • Experts expecting the public to understand epidemiological statistics and research reports on food-borne illness infection linked to ‘raw’ milk consumption
  • Experts expecting the public to understand the inherent risks involved in consuming ‘raw’ milk
  • Experts failing to understand that individuals what to make the choice of consuming ‘raw’ milk themselves (i.e. In relation to legal and legislative restrictions around the sale of ‘raw’ milk)
  • The public expects experts to give them the facts and allow them to make their own informed decisions about whether to consume ‘raw’ milk or not
  • Experts can been seen as condescending and treat the public as ignorant
  • The public feel they lack a say in the ‘raw’ milk debate
  • The public distrusts government and industry experts who they believe will not give them all the facts
  • Key Failure – both sides do not listen nor value the input from the other side.

I do however agree that the side of the experts (with scientific, public health and medical knowledge) should not consider anecdotal and testimonial accounts presented by ‘raw’ milk advocates to be of equal standing. Rigorous scientific research needs to be conducted to verify these claims. In this context I can see why experts do not accept the public’s information and viewpoint.

Coming back to what fills the risk information vacuums caused by failures in risk communication. The following appears to play a role in filling the vacuum/s in relation to the ‘raw’ milk controversy –

  • Public fears over food-borne illness
  • Public concerns over the safety of food
  • Sensationalised media reports, government websites and individual testimonies on the perils of consuming ‘raw’ milk, including personal stories of illness and the human toll of consuming ‘raw’ milk
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocacy groups providing advice to consumers about the safety of ‘raw’ milk
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocacy groups peddling conspiracy theory ideas about government control over food and what people can choose to eat
  • ‘Raw’ milk advocacy groups lobbying for producers of ‘raw’ milk

There is likely to be many more elements that fill the rusk information vacuum in relation to the ‘raw’ milk controversy. As I discover these, I will discuss them.

References
Powell, D. & Leiss, W. (2004). Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk (2nd edition). McGill-Queen’s University Press. Quebec City, Canada
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In my previous post entitled Risk Communication – An Introduction, I introduced some of the key concepts involved in risk communication. I plan to apply these concepts to the ‘raw’ milk controversy / debate.

The first key concept that helped frame in mind the various elements at play in this controversy was that of there being two risk assessment viewpoints. According to Powell and Leiss, 2004 in their book entitled ‘Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk’, the two viewpoints are -

  • Expert – comprised of scientific and technical knowledge, including quantitative information
  • Public – uses ordinary language, in context with individual experiences and includes qualitative information

In my analysis of the ‘raw’ milk controversy so far, there is clearly a distinction between the expert viewpoint and that of individual citizens and the collective general public. In this controversy, experts (governments, public health officials, epidemiologists, policy and law makers, industry, and regulatory bodies) clearly state their view on the consumption of ‘raw’ milk and the risks involved in consuming ‘raw’ milk. These experts communicate the risk of contracting a food-borne illness from ‘raw’ milk along with the symptoms and complications of these food-borne illnesses, explain why the process of pasteurisation is important, and advise the general public not to consume ‘raw’ milk. Epidemiological, public health and medical studies and data inform the experts’ message they communicate to the general public.

The general public viewpoint of risk is communicated in ordinary / lay language and is in context with the experiences of individual members of the public. In contrast to the expert viewpoint, the viewpoint of the general public in the ‘raw’ milk controversy appears to be less concerned with statistics and ‘expert’ advice, and more focused on the individual experiences of consumers, farmers, food producers and ‘raw’ milk advocates.

In my reading of Powell and Leiss, expectations from both sides (i.e. the experts and the general public), the general public’s perception of the arrogance and condescension of experts, and, the general public’s distrust of experts, creates tension and barriers between the two sides. This obviously creates a polarised and fuelled debate with very different viewpoints and beliefs. In these situations good risk communication can break down these barriers and facilitate productive exchanges between the two sides (Powell and Leiss, 2004). But what happens if good risk communication doesn’t occur?

Powell and Leiss, 2004 states that the failure to implement a good risk communication practise gives rise to a risk information vacuum with a myriad of negative consequences. I will explore these consequences in the context of the ‘raw’ milk controversy in my next post. 

 

References

Powell, D. & Leiss, W. (2004). Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk (2nd edition). McGill-Queen’s University Press. Quebec City, Canada

 

Following on from my post entitled, Risk and the ‘Raw’ Milk Controversy, I am hoping to explore (in a number of posts) risk communication, the various elements at play, and risk communication failures involved in this controversy.

This week, my science communication class had to read selected chapters from ‘Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk’ by Douglas Powell and William Leiss. The book examines the role of risk communication in dealing with public controversies. I will use some of the key concepts from this book to explain risk communication and frame it within in the ‘raw’ milk controversy / debate. 

Powell and Leiss, 2004 define risk as the probability of harm in any given situation and the probability is determined by – i) nature of the hazard, and, ii) extent of an individual’s exposure to the hazard. Essentially, hazards and exposures = overall risk (Powell and Leiss, 2004). 

Risk communication is the process of exchanges about how best to assess and manage risk among academics, regulatory practitioners, interest groups and the general public (Powell and Leiss, 2004). Put simply, communication about how to assess and manage risks between a variety of stakeholders. 

According to Powell and Leiss, 2004 there are two key standpoints / risk assessment viewpoints when risks are discussed – 

  • Expert – scientific and technical knowledge, including quantitative information
  • Public – uses ordinary language, in context with individual experiences and includes qualitative information

Both sides hold expectations of the other. Experts expect the public to understand scientific information and the complexity of the issue. The public expects experts to understand individual effects and want certainty in expert knowledge. 

Good risk communication sits between the expert and public assessment of risk and breaks down barriers to dialogue and cooperation. Failure to implement good risk communication practises lead to the creation of a risk information vacuum where fear, conflicting interpretations of information and poor or little information abounds. It is in this space that -

  • Media reports form the public framing of risks
  • Interest groups fill the vacuum with its own information and perspectives
  • Fears and concerns grow and spread and become a substantial consensus in public opinion (Powell and Leiss, 2004)

With these key concepts defined, I can now discuss risk communication and its failures in the ‘raw’ milk controversy / debate.

Stay tuned!

 

References

Powell, D. & Leiss, W. (2004). Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk (2nd edition). McGill-Queen’s University Press. Quebec City, Canada

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This week in my science communication class we looked at risk, risk communication and its role in scientific controversies. Risk is a major element in the debate and controversy around the sale and consumption of ‘raw’ milk. The risk of contracting a food-borne illness is a key argument against the consumption of ‘raw’ milk. But what are the other components of risk and the communication of risk that play a part in this controversy? I will be exploring this in subsequent posts.

Knowledge in the ‘raw’ milk controversy / debate appears to be based around two broad categories -

  • Expert Knowledge and Information – from Governments, public health officials and scientists
    • Scientific, medical and health information on the risks of ‘raw’ milk
    • Epidemiological data on food-borne infection rates
    • Information disputing the claims of ‘raw’ milk advocates regarding the health benefits of ‘raw’ milk and the antimicrobial properties of ‘raw’ milk
  • Claims and Testimonials – from ‘raw’ milk advocates and consumers
    • Health benefit claims, including reductions of symptoms of asthma and allergies
    • Testimonials from consumers regarding reductions in asthma or allergic symptoms
    • Claims about antimicrobial, immunological and probiotic properties of ‘raw’ milk

In this controversy, knowledge and information from both sides (the expert and the advocate) add fuel to the debate around ‘raw’ milk. With so much information and such clear sides, the general public may form strong opinions and ideas about ‘raw’ milk. This is a concept I will explore further.

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