We Need the Right Words to Weather the Storm

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By Baruch Fischhoff
Sunday, October 2, 2005

In an emergency, our future may hang on a few words, provided by someone in authority, as we face a fateful decision. The clock might be ticking quickly, as when a severe storm approaches, or slowly, as when we ponder treatment for a severe illness.

Good information doesn't make the world better, but it does tell us what we're up against. The back-to-back calamities on the Gulf Coast have shown what can happen when people have bad or incomplete information to act upon. Sadly, many of the problems there were predictable, given how official communications were managed and how rampant rumors became. Preparations could have been a lot better had state, local and federal authorities spoken with a single voice and made sure that their words were being understood.

There are lots of things that might be said in advance about any looming risk, whether immediate or long-term. Far from the action, it's interesting to think about how oceanic loop currents may (or may not) affect hurricane intensity or how tighter airport security does (or does not) reduce the odds of a terrorist attack or how dietary fat may (or may not) affect cancer risk. But when we need to make a quick decision, what we really need are the most critical facts, such as:

· Will there be enough gas available on the evacuation route?

· Is the third rail still active when the lights are out in the Metro?

· Is vaccination at all effective after exposure to smallpox?

· How dangerous is the fallout from a dirty bomb?


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