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In the Chamber of Risks: Understanding Risk Controversies.

William Leiss, McGill-Queen's University Press, 388 pages

A March 2001 editorial in the CCPA Monitor states: "One of the recurring complaints leveled against NGO's active in challenging corporate rule is that they are quite effective in stating what they're against, but do a poor job of explaining what they're for--and how they would achieve it.... good, practical, workable alternative policies are hard to develop and even harder to communicate and promote." These italicized words epitomize that realm of "risk communication" as so clearly expressed in Dr. Leiss' laudable text.

At first glance, a social service audience might not find much here, since Dr. Leiss' 10 case studies of recent "risk issues" are taken directly from the realm of the hard, not social sciences -- the "frankenfood/GMO" scare, pulp mill effluent regulation, tobacco sales strategies, the genome project, (that "maze of moral risks"), and so on. Yet his detailed analysis on the "early, middle and mature" stages of "risk communication" management and theory largely concludes with ".... the failure [by big business and government] to recognize that controversies over risks are `normal events' in modern society and as such will be with us for the foreseeable future ..."

This is indeed relevant to social service providers when one considers the Ontario government's lack of consultation on its past "municipal download" legislation, Alberta's handling of health deregulation, or British Columbia's recent evisceration of social programs for cost cutting purposes. One can readily appreciate Dr. Leiss' contention that ".... industry and government ... [still] remain quite poor at managing their involvements with risk issues, that is, the often intense controversies about the way in which risks should be managed".

According to Leiss, professional "risk managers" often initially deny both the inherent risks they undertake, along with the "public's right to know". They then must be forced by advocacy measures to an often reluctant outcome, that "public perceptions of risk are legitimate and must be treated as such, that risk management subsists in an inherently disputable zone ..."

Dr. Leiss does not long speculate on what lies behind so much of this corporate and government denial and secrecy, except that these elites seem so enamored with their own expertise, that their perception of the rest of us is less than kind. They seem blinded and manipulated by their own "intelligence", apparently forgetting Disraeli's axion about "lies, damn lies and statistics."

Leiss' painstaking research peers underneath daily media coverage around risk issues to expose an elaborate, deliberately hidden communication strategy used by corporate executives, politicians, marketing/P.R, firms, "spin doctors" and the like, to put often difficult, value-laden issues in the best light, always in order to advance deliberately pre-ordained market or policy agendas. Such strategies seem necessary in order to make matters palatable to us as citizens or consumers, so that we will in the end come to believe those "experts", thus buying into the product or policy.

His cogent analysis of the risk/benefit of options and decisions or of "hazard and uncertainty characteristics" portrays much of what consists of "assessing risk" as the result of this all-too-human state of denial, and its negative fallout on an increasingly skeptical public.

As Noam Chomsky has done in exposing media communication, Dr. Leiss' scholarly and humane work unrelentingly provides any concerned citizen with a roadmap and recipe to help keep our decision makers honest, and in the end hopefully, our democratic way of life open and relatively propaganda-free.

David Mitchell is a long term social services/social housing program provider in Kingston
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Author:Mitchell, David
Publication:Community Action
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 15, 2002
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