Article - Issue 28, September 2006

Lloyd's Register Lecture 2006

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Sir Robert Worchester © Mark Crick

Sir Robert Worchester © Mark Crick

This year’s lecture,‘Public Perception of Risk’, was given by Professor Sir Robert Worcester KBE DL, founder of MORI, on 26 June 2006.

Dr Scott Steedman, an Academy Vice-President, chaired this year’s event, which took place at the Royal Society. He introduced Sir Robert Worcester as a man who has spent a lifetime studying people’s perceptions, as founder of Market & Opinion Research International (MORI).

Sir Robert began his lecture by stating that three elements affect the public’s perception of risk: opinions, attitudes and values. Opinions are frequently modified by contact with family and friends, and exposure to the media. Attitudes run deeper but are nevertheless open to change when exposed to new information from respected and trusted sources. Values, he continued, run much deeper, and are based on the ‘core feelings’ that have been acquired through discussion, argument and education. It is rare, he said, for anyone over the age of 25 to change their core values. Sir Robert then went on to consider ‘perception’. He had come across a useful definition of the word from the Greek philosopher Epictetus, who said: “Perception is truth because people believe it”. “That is the problem” Sir Robert said,“because [people] can be wrong, and you can objectively know they are wrong, but, if they do not trust you to correct their misimpression, you will lose the argument.” He went on to refer to the Jenkin Report from 2000, which said that science and engineering “are at risk if we do not learn how to have a dialogue with the public and learn that we can no longer work alone on the issues that we believe are the most important”.

The lecture then turned to consider general views about public trust. Sir Robert said it is generally held that trust in a number of authoritative groups, such as doctors, politicians, scientists, civil servants and the police, has fallen over the past ten years. In fact, he claimed, it is rising – the perception that it is falling has come from the media. The nuclear debate was touched upon as a case study, and the lecture concluded with the advice that to gain the trust of the public,whatever the context, consistency, reassurance and transparency are critical. A general debate followed, in which the nuclear issue was discussed in some detail in the light of Sir Robert’s views.

Further reference

A full transcript of the lecture plus the visual presentation can be found at www.raeng.org.uk/Lloyds2006

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