Laurier researcher studying risk perception
Baby bottles, water bottles, plastic food containers are often, to our relief, labeled “BPA free.” In the past several years, debates over the safety of bisphenol A (BPA) have continued and countries have either banned the substance outright or specifically for use by infants and children. Simon Kiss, assistant professor in Journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus, was intrigued by how BPA became such a hot-button issue, especially in Canada.
Initially, Kiss was interested in the way Canadian media covered the BPA controversy more intensely than the United States and other countries. One Canadian reporter had called attention to the risks after interviewing a number of scientists, beginning a wave of media coverage “exposing the risk” of BPA in baby bottles.
In response, Kiss looked at a great number of research studies that seemed not very robust in establishing BPA’s harm at current levels of exposure. Moreover he found that most regulatory agencies including the FDA, the World Health Organization and the European Food and Safety Authority as well as most toxicologists are not persuaded that there is a threat to human health.
“I read way more toxicology than any political scientist ever should,” Kiss said.
He wasn’t persuaded that BPA posed a serious risk. The question remained of why, then, did Canadian media coverage identify BPA as a “pressing concern to human health?”
“This got me interested in why there are fears,” he said. “Why are people afraid of truly minute levels of chemicals?” His investigation led him tothe larger field of the politics of risk and risk perception, looking in a broader way at why some things seem to be risks while others are not. He sees a “total mismatch between what are actually risks and what are seen as risks in public and political discourse.”
Kiss has formed the general conclusion from his earlier work that a person’s perception of risk is first and foremost an experience of underlying ideology.
According to his research, Kiss says we We construct the particular “risks” we identify based on our vision of society. For example, if we choose to value an egalitarian society, with less technological intervention in the natural world, we are likely to see risk in chemical products that are part of that intervention. But if we choose to value a more traditional, hierarchically structured society, we’ll see risks from crime or gay marriage or technologies that undermine traditional roles. The crucial thing, for Kiss, however, is that people first choose a vision of the good society and risks are constructed that flow from that commitment.
Last summer, Kiss and Andrea Perrella from the Laurier Political Science department on the Waterloo campus worked with the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP) to survey asking Waterloo residents about fluoridation in the public water supply. One of the things they were testing was whether questions developed by Yale professor Dan Kahan clearly linking cultural outlooks with beliefs about risks would explain Canadian perspectives as well. This didn’t work so well.
Kiss now has a Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant to develop a similar survey structure that asks questions sensitive to the Canadian cultural context.
Canadians and Americans have different political cultures. In addition, in the US, two clear dimensions of ideology emerged through Kahan’s research. Canadian culture may not be as simple and may be more multi-dimensional. Collaborating with Perrella at Laurier, two researchers from the University of New Brunswick, and Professor Kahan, they are using focus groups to develop made-in-Canada survey questions to look at correlations between culture and risk perception.
The ultimate results of their research “could help us explain why some people see risks and others don’t, regardless of logic, scientific evidence, and personal experience,” says Kiss.
In the larger arena, they are hoping to develop a mechanism that will help “policy-makers make sure that chemicals and other products that are really dangerous are limited, but that beneficial things are brought to market, adopted, or accepted.”