1) “Scientists need to be proactive, and to communicate clearly to the public when health or safety is at stake.” And what does that mean, exactly, in the case of a region like that perched on the Cascadia subduction zone (which runs along the coast of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and northern California)? It is “a region woefully under-prepared for the scale of disaster that will come,” notes Windh. The probability of a giant Cascadia quake going off in our lifetime, she adds, is about one in three. What then shall we do? I’m not sure anyone knows, but there is no solid evidence for the view that scientists as a class have a better track record than the business community, the political class, or the average Mom and Pop at risk assessment and the identification of realistic responses thereto.
Scientists would do well to give the theses of a provocative book by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers, careful consideration. The problems Douglas and Wildavsky posed some 30 years ago remain on the table. I realize that devotees of the hard sciences have trouble learning from devotees of soft sciences like anthropology (Douglas) and political science (Wildavsky), but it’s time they do.
2) It is unconscionable that scientists do not “make any specific effort to correct misconceptions” that members of the press and policymakers create in the process of manipulating scientific knowledge for specific ends. I could not agree more. In particular, however, it is essential to correct misconceptions created by those thought to be sympathetic to points of view concerned scientists feel are important. Overblown alarm, which may be the case with respect to global warming, is one problem. A lack of sufficient alarm, as may be the case with respect to the specter of a massive quake going off in the Cascadia zone, may be another.