It's risky to miscommunicate risk

In a previous post, I asked that we take caution how we communicate a certain risk. That example talked about the location of the "Valley Fault System," previously called the Marikina Fault, which obviously presents a certain disaster risk. One problem was that risk wasn't quantified then -- how close should one be to the fault lines to be at risk? It wasn't very clear, but people could readily assume that if they are clearly not along the fault lines, they should be safe. If they're not sure, they should consult PHIVOLCS (not PHILVOLCS, by the way), who can provide information on distance of a certain property from the nearest fault line.

[Also, we can't fault people for thinking that way. When someone tries to communicate risk, that person knowingly or unknowingly is taking up responsibility for how people might perceive that risk. It is not people's fault if they misunderstood risk. Another way of saying it is that it is obviously irresponsible to blame people if they misunderstood the actual risk after we had supposedly already communicated it. In this sense I say that it is risky to miscommunicate risk.]

I recently read this article on Resilient Urbanism, a collaborative blog, entitled "On the 'Top 10 Riskiest Cities' and Getting Mauled by Bears," written by David Lallemant. The long and short of it (as I saw it, and considering only its relevance to the current article) goes:

1. A well-respected institution publishes a top 10 list of the riskiest cities in the World.
2. There are plenty of issues in how risk was quantified (use of absolute population at risk, selected few hazards considered, what constitutes a "city", and so forth).
3. Certain high-risk but low-population cities are not on the list -- which might lead people to think that these cities are not so high-risk after all.

Another example that I can think of are these unofficial meteorology/weather enthusiasts (i.e. not exactly educated in the field of meteorology and weather forecasting) making their own forecasts based on different sources of information (usually from outside the Philippines) without proper interpretation of such information, and expecting that the Philippine authorities on meteorology and weather, namely PAGASA, should be able to prevent all natural disasters (note: not natural hazards) from happening.

For example, one "enthusiast" was complaining that PAGASA should already warn people about tropical cyclones or low pressures areas (that have high potential to become a tropical cyclone) east of the Philippines even if they are still outside of the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR). One forming in February was a particular cause of concern. In the end, the LPA died a natural death even before it could make landfall in the country. The enthusiast did well however to try to clarify that a TC forming in February is not unlikely.

Another enthusiast warned about (unfounded) very extreme conditions for a certain period of time. I forgot if he warned of very hot temperatures, or very stormy weather. Said period of time passes, and everything was normal.

The above two climate/weather examples show a miscommunication of risk on the opposite side of the spectrum from the two I mentioned earlier in the article -- the latter two are inclining towards making a risk prediction too early or too grave, which could cause undue panic, which in turn could cause other types of problems (e.g. panic buying, looting, premature closure of businesses, government services, schools, etc.) -- post-disaster like symptoms when there aren't even any actual disasters yet! ...Or people can go into an "I think I can't do anything about it, so I won't do anything about it" type of denial or complacency.* The former two communicated risk, but intentionally or unintentionally downplays risk for certain populations. Which is very risky!

Anyway, I urge you to read the article -- and tell me if you don't agree (and why) that it is risky to miscommunicate risk. Do you have any other examples were risk might have been miscommunicated?

P.S. No links to said "enthusiast" websites -- we don't want the miscommunication to further, do we?

* Added 30/05/2014

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