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Apples, oranges and risk communication

Inspired by some fascinating discussions at Yesterday’s StrevaProject meeting, in today’s blog I am going to borrow an exciting concept from the world of literature: the metaphor! I’m using my metaphor to write a short play about risk communication and understanding risk communication (my plundering of the Humanities knows no bounds).

The beauty of this metaphor is that you can apply it to any kind of information exchange around a risky situation. In my head I am applying the metaphor to the communication of scientific information either before or during a volcanic crisis, what are you thinking of?


Risk manager: I’m hungry and also a little thirsty. I could really do with an orange to help me out.


Scientist: Da-nah! I’ve got an apple!

Risk manager (deflated): oh

Scientist: I think you are hungry and need this apple, it’s what I could find. Take it!

Risk manager: OK. Thanks.


Scientist: Hmmmmmmmm…….. that didn’t go very well. I can’t be explaining it clearly enough. Let’s try again!

Scientist: I’ve got an apple. YOU NEED IT. Here, I have prepared a handy factsheet that explains really clearly why the apple is great. [general applause from audience of scientists]

Risk Manager (thinks): I don’t really like apples. I’m also a little bit thirsty. (says): Thanks.


Scientist: Hmmmmmmm…..I’ve a funny feeling they think they need an orange. I know, I’ll make it seem like an orange.

Scientist: I’ve got an apple, and look I’ve painted it orange because we’ve known each other a while now and I think I know what you need! It’s an apple that is a bit like an orange!

Risk Manager: hmmmmmmm….. well thanks, then [pauses] Look can we talk about this; I’m not sure about the apple.

Scientist (thinks): Oh no! They want me to join a FOCUS GROUP. They are probably going to make me talk about how I FEEL about APPLES. I can’t do this. This is messing with my objective INTEGRITY, they are trying to make me give them an orange and help them juice it. Well, I simply won’t (says): Look, you need an apple pal, just take THE APPLE.

Risk Manager ( Sighs): OK. Let’s talk about this down the pub then.

[walk offstage, pause, drink, chat, beer, social capital social capital, re-enter stage]

Scientist: Well look, if it’s the orange you really want; the problem is I can only give you a few segments and just explain what the rest probably looks like. In the meantime the apple will also help a bit.

Risk Manager: Now you are talking…let’s take it from there.


I wrote this play because at our meeting we performed a simple ranking exercise about priorities during a volcanic crisis and good communication consistently ranked very highly across the diverse group of experts present. It is important. And yet, sometimes we seem to be content to react instinctively about what works best; and nervousness about objectivity and dialogue around scientific information abounds. Plain old experience of what works counts for a lot in these situations, but, given how important it is, there is a lot we could do to gather evidence for what works and develop and test hypotheses. Perhaps communication processes deserve a similar level of analysis and respect to that which we give our physical data.

The theory [*]  tells us somewhat that the final approach in my play should work best, but I don’t think we fully understand if it does; why it does and what works best in different volcanic contexts. It makes it an exciting field to be in!  As part of the StrevaProject we hope to carefully gather and analyse evidence for the communication of risk to those affected by volcanic eruptions. Follow our progress with @StrevaProject

(*) If you are new to this game here are a couple of papers. A link to a starter for ten and another to a paper that summarises some of the thinking on volcanic risk communication from an earlier interdisciplinary project (SPIDER Network, website sadly now defunct).