East Palestine Lesson 2: Uncertainty and Communications

This is a cross-post with the Critical Science Podcast. Uncertainty is something most people struggle with. And when it comes to science, it's unavoidable, but something that gets left out of the conversation. It's time we change that -- we need to own the uncertainty when we speak with the public about what is happening in the real world.


People do not like uncertainty.

Unfortunately, it’s a fact of life, and it’s unavoidable in science.

I recently talked about uncertainty and the fact that it wasn’t communicated well in the aftermath of the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment. You can hear it on the Critical Science Podcast, it’s Episode 12: East Palestine, Ohio and Scientific Uncertainty.

And I’ve embedded it below. Take a listen:

What I’m still struck by, even today, a few months after the tragedy, is that we still don’t know how EPA concluded that the air was safe to breathe (I’m working on finding that out).

To me the big crisis communication lesson is this: leaders on the scene after a tragedy need to honestly and completely convey what we know and what we don’t know. And they need to be clear about how they came to the conclusions that they have so far.

I learned in a college philosophy course that speaking in absolutes is asking for a fallacy or likely committing to a false statement. Why is this important? Because saying “the air is safe to breathe”, although comforting, is an absolute.

So what would I prefer someone in leadership say? I’d prefer something a little more honest. Saying, “I understand there are health concerns about their air, the soil, and the water. We are doing our best to monitor chemicals that we believe are associated with this tragedy to the best of our abilities. Based on our assessments, the air appears to be safe for most of us to breathe. However, know that some of you may still be experiencing health effects from earlier exposures. And know that some of us may continue to experience health effects due to the air, because we do not completely understand or know all of the chemicals that are in this environment due to the chemical spill, and there are likely mixtures of these chemicals that may be impacting your health in ways that we do not yet understand.”

The best answer is not always a short answer. And I’m not saying my response here is the best response. It’s the best I could come up with right now. I’m sure I could make it better.

But the answer I gave here is a more complete answer that addresses our uncertainty about what we do know.

I think that’s the second lesson I take away from the East Palestine, OH train derailment tragedy.

Lyle D. Burgoon, Ph.D., ATS
Lyle D. Burgoon, Ph.D., ATShttps://www.raptorpharmtox.com
Dr. Burgoon is a pharmacologist/toxicologist, biostatistician, ethicist and risk assessor. Dr. Burgoon writes on chemical safety, biostatistics, biosecurity, sustainability, and scientific ethics. He is the President and CEO of Raptor Pharm & Tox, Ltd, a consulting firm.

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