Do remediation experts have what it takes to explain empirical uncertainty?

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Journal Article
Remediation Journal, 2017, 28 (1), pp. 73 - 86
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Words matter in risk communication, and experts’ choice of words is critical when remedi-ation risks are being explained to nonexperts. In risk communication studies, communicationgaps between experts and nonexperts are investigated but there is lack of primary research. AnAustralian project addresses this shortcoming through research into communication about therisks of contaminated land remediation, and this paper provides some of its findings. Seventeenexperts completed a questionnaire about the meaning of some scientific terms, and analysis foundthat they have capacity to improve communication through their selection and use of language.When experts undertake risk communication, the language they use may increase or reduce com-munication gaps. When the topic is uncertainty about health risks, communication gaps about theextent of uncertainty may reduce the effectiveness of social engagement, leading to unintendedconsequences such as cost overruns. This situation makes for a good case study since remedia-tion is about benefit as well as risk, and communication about benefit, while desirable, may notalways be achievable. The study suggests how to improve risk communication by exploring theaccuracy, clarity, and depth of expert language. It identifies attributes of language that can bridgegaps in knowledge and understanding and characterizes them as integration mechanisms. Theseare defined as knowledge forms and mental processes that support cooperation between differentepistemic communities to achieve mutually agreed outcomes. Two integration mechanisms aresuggested. Bridging content addresses communication gaps through the selection of content (whatknowledge is selected). Bridging process addresses communication gaps through the use of lan-guage (how knowledge is explained). Bridging content and bridging process can be expressed throughcognitive and experiential platforms, or a blending of both, so whether words are positioned in thescience-based or mental model of risk communication, a utility value can be found in their quality,whether reflected by accuracy or the power to communicate meaning.
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