The Social Amplification of Risk

I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?

Harry Callahan, “Dirty Harry”, 1971

Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Police Department wasn’t just any old Harry, he was a dirty one. The film in which he made his first appearance established that fact in its title and then proceeded to illustrate with a number of entertaining cameos designed to appeal to all who can fantasize. For good measure, the film also featured a number of supporting characters who offered their own theories as to how he had earned his epithet. These ranged from his predilection towards hating all ethnic minorities equally (but “especially the spics”) through to his reputation for having to deal with all of the dirty jobs that a career in policing has to offer. Moreover, it is abundantly clear that he was not one to abide by the rules. To put it plainly, he fights dirty. And if there is a quote that encapsulates, more than any other, his penchant for the unorthodox approach, it has to be his famously impromptu lecture on risk analysis. Yes, if there is only one message that you come away with after watching a Dirty Harry film, it should be that an awful lot of compliance can be encouraged simply by combining a good dose of epistemic uncertainty with a vivid description of consequence.

The reason why such a strategy should be so effective is, of course, because decision-makers will often be influenced more by the perception of risk than its reality. With the prospect of losing one more head than is strictly advisable, the ‘punk’ will have been very aware of just how lucky he needed to be, and yet Callahan was suggesting that he was in no position to calculate probabilities. In such circumstances, uncertainty aversion displaces risk aversion as the aversion du jour. You can still call it a risk-based decision if you like, but the fact is that it was to be a decision based upon feeling rather than calculation, and the snarling Harry had done his best to raise the sense of peril.

Of course, this technique for encouraging compliance is not restricted to maverick cops in neo-noir action thriller films. Basically, it can be discerned in any situation in which the precautionary principle is being invoked. All you need to do is draw attention to a plausible outcome with serious and irreversible consequences (like getting you head blown off or cooking a planet to death) and then make a big thing of the uncertainties. And the great thing is that, because one is dealing with risk perception, one can crank up the apparent scale of risk by using all sorts of cognitive trickery. The IPCC knows all about this. In fact they even have a term for it; they call it the ‘social amplification of risk’, and by their own admission they have been at it for years.

I first came across ‘social amplification of risk’ when reading Chapter 2 of the IPCC’s Assessment Report 5, Working Group 3 (AR5 WG3): Integrated Risk and Uncertainty Assessment of Climate Change Response Policies. It is a document that highlights the IPCC’s “recognition that decision makers often rely on intuitive thinking processes rather than undertaking a systematic analysis of options in a deliberative fashion”. As a consequence, the IPCC insists that “it is appropriate that climate change risk management strategies take into account both forms of thinking when considering policy choices where there is risk and uncertainty”. The reader is then treated to a full account of why such strategies are needed and what form they should take. For example, there is talk of “entry points for the design of decision aids and interventions”, “choice architecture”, and other ways to frame climate change information and response options in ways consistent with the communication goal and characteristics of the audience”. It’s all a bit grubby if you ask me. You might even say it’s just a bit dirty and quite a lot harry, particularly when you get to the bit where they propose the application of:

“…social cognitive theory to develop a model of climate advocacy to increase the attention given to climate change in the spirit of social amplification of risk.”

Obviously, the IPCC is not referring to the amplification of actual risk here, only to its perception. Furthermore, we see that, for the purposes, social amplification is actually a good spirit to be conjured up with the help of social cognitive theory. Okay, it’s playing dirty, but for the best of possible causes: climate advocacy.

The essential point, as far as the IPCC is concerned, is that punks who rely upon ‘intuitive thinking processes’ will often feel luckier than they should. So what you need to do is implement a bit of social amplification; just enough to elevate social levels of concern to a point best suited for the IPCC. The IPCC only wants to save the world, after all, so what’s the harm in that?

The harm, of course, is that this is a million miles away from science. In fact, it’s a million miles away from legitimate risk management. It’s just Dirty Harry pointing a .44 Magnum and saying ‘do you feel lucky’, whilst the good citizens of San Francisco look the other way. We like Dirty Harry because he gets the job done whilst openly flouting the rules. He epitomises what can be achieved when the gloves are removed. But let us not forget that he is an anti-hero. He’s not the Messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy, and it would not do for us all to behave like him. It certainly ill-behoves a supposedly respectable organisation, set up as a vehicle for the formulation of science-based international policy, to go around behaving like a self-appointed vigilante wearing a badge.

Fortunately, Dirty Harry is a fictional character invented for us to play out our personal fantasies, so we don’t have to worry too much about his questionable methods. Unfortunately, the IPCC is very real. So when it starts to play dirty, and does so brazenly, we should be asking questions.

No, I mean it. We really should.

via Climate Scepticism

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December 21, 2022 at 03:18AM

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