On the Treatment of Uncertainty and Variability in Making Decisions About Risk


Address correspondence to Vicki M. Bier, 3270A Mechanical Engineering Bldg., 1513 University Ave., Madison, WI 53706, USA; tel: 608/262-2064; fax: 608/262-8454; bier@engr.wisc.edu.


Much attention has been paid to the treatment of dependence and to the characterization of uncertainty and variability (including the issue of dependence among inputs) in performing risk assessments to avoid misleading results. However, with relatively little progress in communicating about the effects and implications of dependence, the effort involved in performing relatively sophisticated risk analyses (e.g., two-dimensional Monte Carlo analyses that separate variability from uncertainty) may be largely wasted, if the implications of those analyses are not clearly understood by decisionmakers. This article emphasizes that epistemic uncertainty can introduce dependence among related risks (e.g., risks to different individuals, or at different facilities), and illustrates the potential importance of such dependence in the context of two important types of decisions—evaluations of risk acceptability for a single technology, and comparisons of the risks for two or more technologies. We also present some preliminary ideas on how to communicate the effects of dependence to decisionmakers in a clear and easily comprehensible manner, and suggest future research directions in this area.