Alexandra Freeman is Executive Director of the Winton Centre for Risk & Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge.
Catastrophic risks may be high impact (by definition), but are – fortunately – very rare. However, Dr Freeman argued, this makes them particularly difficult for us to mitigate against effectively. Communicating risks clearly is always a challenge: context, framing and different methods of visualisation can all make a number seem either large or small, giving the communicator a lot of power over the audience’s reaction. It is therefore possible to make people care or not care about a risk purely by the way it is communicated – but is it possible to communicate in an unbiased fashion, with the aim only of giving a ‘realistic’ view of an event occurring? Communicating low probability events raises even more challenges: we all find numbers at the extreme ends of scales very difficult to image and compare. One potential communication aid is a ‘risk ladder’ helping put rare events in the context of other more familiar events, which the Winton Centre is just beginning to research.
This talk was given at 2018’s Cambridge Conference on Catastrophic Risk (CCCR2018), the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk’s major international conference, supported by the Templeton World Charity Foundation. It focused on four challenges faced by research communities focused on existential and global catastrophic risk research: Challenges of Evaluation and Impact; Challenges of Evidence; Challenges of Scope and Focus; and Challenges in Communication.