Articles A new Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication to tackle the ‘post-truth’ society

A new Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication to tackle the ‘post-truth’ society

The famous mathematics department at Cambridge now has a new centre based within it – the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication. It has been founded by a philanthropist with a laudable interest in the public understanding of risk: he has already endowed Cambridge’s Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk (Sir David Spiegelhalter, who is also chairman of the new Winton Centre) as well as founding the Harding Centre for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin.

So what will this new Centre do?

Well, our principle is that everyone is entitled to a fair and balanced presentation of the known facts on important matters, in order to make their own decisions in life. Those decisions might be personal – such as choosing healthcare treatment – or they might have wider, societal-level impacts such as choosing which policy to support. And we don’t believe that we really are living in a world where people don’t want to hear the truth!

How are we going to achieve that grand aim? Through adding what expertise we can to the growing pool of organisations that share it – organisations like the Alliance for Useful Evidence, Full Fact, Sense about Science and many others in the UK and around the world.

Rapid reactions to numbers in the news

We want to have a loud public voice, and plan to help offer snappy critiques of the presentation of quantitative evidence in the press, in partnership with other organizations such as Full Fact and the Science Media Centre as well as on our own website. We will be offering infographics that present the data clearly (in a way that informs, but doesn’t set out to persuade people one way or the other) and these will be free for the media and others to use, around the world.

Free ‘clinic’ advice for visualization and training for professionals

‘Behind the scenes’ as it were we want to be doing much more. We will have post-doctoral researchers, in association with the Dept of Psychology, researching how people make decisions, and the best ways to present evidence (in a whole range of different contexts). We will be offering free and quick advice for people who have data that they want to present clearly through regular ‘clinics’, and we will be designing training courses to help professionals such as journalists, doctors and civil servants understand, question, and represent quantitative evidence.

Large, collaborative projects

We will also be looking for larger-scale collaborative projects to undertake where we think that we can help make a real difference in an important area. For example, our very first project is to help revamp a website called Predict, which is used around the world to help choose the best treatment regime for women with newly-diagnosed breast cancer. We are working with teams in Oxford and Cambridge to help rebuild the site to include not only more data behind it, but also an entirely new user interface, carefully designed and tested to present the predicted outcomes for individual patients in a way that is clear and understandable both for oncologists and their patients – two groups with very different needs.

As with all our work, our plan with this project is to design it in such a way as to maximise the impact of the work we do. We want the site to be easily translatable into other languages, to be able to use data from other countries, and we want the code to be easily repurposed to produce similar predictive tools for a wide range of other diseases. In short, we want to use our resources to help kick-start others – to allow them to take our initial tools and research and use them to develop their own projects… as long as they always stick to the same principles of offering a fair and balanced view of all the available evidence.

We’re a tiny core team at the moment, but we are currently growing: for instance we are about to interview for a post-doctoral psychologist to help study the presentation of evidence around society-level decisions, and we plan to keep growing as much as we can, putting in grant applications for big joint collaborative projects. So, if you want some quick advice on visualization, to be on our mailing list for commentary on numbers in the news, or have an idea for a potential collaboration then do get in touch via wintoncentre@maths.cam.ac.uk

 

Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Remember you can join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.