“Your risk is low, because …”: argument-driven online genetic counselling

Argument and Computation 1 (3):199-214 (2011)
Abstract
Advances in genetic research have created the need to inform consumers. Yet, the communication of hereditary risk and of the options for how to deal with it is a difficult task. Due to the abstract nature of genetics, people tend to overestimate or underestimate their risk. This paper addresses the issue of how to communicate risk information on hereditary breast and ovarian cancer through an online application. The core of the paper illustrates the design of OPERA, a risk assessment instrument that applies the UK National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence's guidelines on the basis of (i) the number of relatives on the same side of the family with the same cancer or cancers that are known to run together; (ii) the ages of these relatives at diagnosis and (iii) the closeness of the family relationship with the person who is doing the assessment. By relying on the argumentation theory, we explain how the communication strategy that OPERA implements is essentially based on Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's deductive argumentation by association. By using as premises “facts” (propositions about reality that can be assumed without further justification) and “truths” (propositions that make connections about facts), OPERA delivers its claims with an ex auctoritate causal link aimed at transferring the audience's acceptance of the cause to the effect. Overall, the design of OPERA rests on its capacity to induce users' active processing of risk information through an appeal to their reasoning faculty. In the conclusion, we present some results from a pilot evaluation of users' acceptance of OPERA
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