‘Perception of risk’ by Paul Slovic, Part 1: How do people process risk?

I was recently put on to an important research paper by Universal Genes, “Perception of Risk” by Paul Slovic. This paper is a review of the literature (at the time) surrounding the public perception of risk, and how the public comes to its opinion on how risky a technology or event is. Because so much is covered by this paper, I’m going to do a couple of blog posts on it, just so I can do it justice.

This first post is more about some of the big take home messages of the paper, about how the public perceives risk, the next couple of posts will be more about specific aspects of the issue.

An important part of understanding the perception of risk is how people come to accept it. Society, when asked, rates the risk for all activities as too high. But if the technology or activity is seen as being ‘highly beneficial’ then the risks are tolerated. Some early research indicated that the voluntary nature of risk is one of the most important factors in people’s perception of how risky it is. People were found to be 1000 times more likely to find a risk acceptable if they see the action as voluntary.

To understand better how people perceive different technologies, and how this affects the level of risk perceived, a study was conducted. Risks were compared based on how highly they rated on two scales: how unknown the technology was, and how much dread the technology inspired. The ‘unknown’ factor is based on how delayed adverse events could be from a certain event or technology (which no doubt creates the arguments against GMOs, as there is always the question of ‘how do we know if wont affect us in however many years). The ‘dread’ factor came from how likely people though the technology could result in a catastrophic mishap, lack of control, potential fatalities and the inequitable distribution of risk. In the groups of people interviewed, the ‘dread’ factor was seen to be most important in a persons perception of the risk involved.

Technologies like nuclear power scored highly on both scales. When the technologies that were rates were analysed for how much regulation there was on them, there is a clear relationship between how high they scored on both scales. The higher the dread or uncertainty, the more likely that they would be highly regulated (or that there would be loud calls for more regulation, see nuclear power and GMOs).

Fear of the unknown seems to be playing a big role here, and Slovic goes in to a lot of detail about the factors that influence risk perception. I’ll cover that in the next post.

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Nuclear power and climate change

One of the main points of contention in the nuclear power debate is the use of nuclear power as tool to fight climate change.

On one side you have the proponents of nuclear power, who bill it as a stable, low-carbon energy source, that is available at all times of day, with minimal carbon output, high cost-efficiency and established technology.

On the other side you have the anti-nuclear movement, who say that nuclear power is a stopgap, ‘bandaid’ technology, that comes with too many health and safety risks, that is slow to build and in the end puts out as much carbon, because it takes so much industry to build the plants and store the spent fuel.

What the anti-nuclear movement would have is an immediate transition to renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal, where available. The reaction of nuclear proponents is that these technologies are either restricted to certain parts of the world (like geothermal), take up far more land area than a similar capacity nuclear plant (like solar), or are intermittent and that there isn’t the technology to store captured energy (like wind and solar).

The problem is, is that there are ‘experts’ on both sides of the debate, who seem to be able to find information to support their own arguments while disproving their opponents. Also, any organisations weighing in on the debate tend to get ignored due to perceived conflicts of interest.

Even the IPCC is not above the squabbles of the nuclear debate, as outlined in this article, the position of the IPCC regarding nuclear power has varied greatly over time. In the first IPCC report, nuclear was listed as an important tool in creating a low-carbon energy system, then over then next five reports, the opinion veers away from nuclear until the most recent report, where it is again being encouraged as a pragmatic option while the technology needed to make renewables more reliable is developed. Much of this wavering seems to be related to the public opinion of nuclear power in the EU, which reflects the impact the nuclear debate can have on supposedly independent bodies.

Somehow — and I’m really not sure how — something needs to give in this debate, there needs to be some sort of consensus. While there is still all this indecision around nuclear, little work is going to be done on increasing our nuclear energy generating capacity. Maybe if both sides of the debate worked together instead, there would be progress in some direction.

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Silent spring, Castle Bravo and modern environmentalism.

Silent spring is a famous book written in the 1960s that addresses the concerns of pesticide use and the detrimental effect that this can have on human health and the health of the environment. Written by Rachel Carson, the book details the effects of human development on nature, the dangers that pesticides pose to organisms that are not the target animal, the threat of bio-accumulation on human populations and the emerging threat of insect resistance to those pesticides sprayed to limit the spread of malaria.

Silent Spring is seen by many as the birth of the modern environmentalism movement. I discovered this thought while researching my last blog post on Castle Bravo, through and article titled: ‘The link between Castle Bravo and modern environmentalism’. This article is really less about environmentalism, and more about Silent Spring, but the evidence is still there. As it says in the article, Rachel Carson needed something “real” to compare the insidiousness of pesticides like DDT with. She found it in the experiences of the Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukyuru Maru, which was only about 140km from the blast site of the Castle Bravo test site when it went off. The men crewing that vessel all experienced the effects of radiation sickness, and one of them died.

Carson used their experiences to talk about what she felt was the growing threat of pesticide use. This speaks to the huge emotional impact the events of Castle Brvo had around the world, that this simile was so effective at spreading the message about the dangers of pesticides. Silent Spring is now considered one of the best non-fiction books of the 20th Century, and is given credit for the birth of modern environmentalism.

The movement it inspired is credited with the development of the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is ironic given the EPA supports the use of nuclear power, even more so now since the introduction of the ‘Clean Power Rule‘, and the associated attempts to lower the amount of carbon released through energy generation.

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The Castle Bravo incident

In my previous discussion of the disasters of the nuclear age, there was one that I probably should have mentioned. To be honest, I had never heard of it. That itself speaks volumes about the influence of certain mindsets on the nuclear debate. The incident I’m talking about came to be known as the ‘Castle Bravo’ incident, and it remains the worst example of US caused nuclear contamination ever.

You may never have heard of Castle Bravo, but you probably heard of its flow on effects. Ever heard of Godzilla?

Early in the morning of March 1, 1954, the USA detonated the most powerful weapon it has yet detonated. The ‘Bravo’ test of Operation Castle, this bomb was designed to study the efficacy of ‘dry fuel’ fusion nuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs). Originally planned to be around 5 megatons in power, the actual blast was on the order of 15 megatons.

Photo of the Castle Bravo test fireball, an immense fireball seen from a great distance, the sky is dark because of how bright it is.

The Castle Bravo explosion from 30 miles away. Los Alamos National Laboratory.

This highlights some of the problems in the scientific culture at the time (and to a lesser extent, today), as the scientists involved were completely sure that what they had planned would happen. A vast miscalculation about the behaviour of the fuel resulted in the enormous blast, but this miscalculation had further effects as the safety protocols developed for the test underestimated the strength of the explosion. In the ensuing chaos, many military personnel were exposed to high levels of radioactive fallout.

In addition to the size of the explosion, there was also a meteorological miscalculation, that resulted in the fallout cloud drifting towards the Marshall Islands, instead of away from them. The populations of the effected islands are still unable to return. A Japanese fishing vessel was also hit hard, with one man dying, which caused a significant political issue with the US.

Because they messed it up so much, the US government was forced to go public about the test, in one moment revealing the extent of their nuclear research to the USSR, but also revealing to the world the terrifying strength of nuclear weapons (especially the effects of radiation and fallout).

The Castle Bravo test is said by some to be the first incident to spark ‘radiophobia‘ around the world, with the dangers being made visible through the suffering of the Japanese and Pacific Islander bystanders and the members of the military who were inadvertently exposed.

In terms of the nuclear power debate, as I said in my previous post, these events have the power to impact the public in a way that cannot simply be undone by presenting facts. Too often, such as in the case of the Chernobyl or Sellafield, the public (or the government) is assured of the safety of a particular scenario, and it is only after problems have developed that the scientists critically evaluate their work (if ever). To combat radiophobia and the negative impacts of these sort of events, much more needs to be done than just reiterating facts at people.

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Ecomodernism and nuclear power

Ecomodernism is a environmental philosophy that can be seen as a bit of a reactionary development to the radical  philosophies of mainstream environmentalists.

Proponents of ecomodernism, like their environmentalist colleagues, fight for the reduction of the human impact on the world. However, the ecomodernist movement favours the use and development of technologies that will allow humanity to do so. By this I mean that the ecomodernists do not reject growth and technological development in the way that many ‘greenies’ do. Ecomodernism promotes the use of GMOs, agricultural intensification, synthetic foods, water desalination and waste recycling. In regards to energy production, they favour ‘de-carbonizing’ energy, by switching to high energy-density energy sources, such as nuclear power. They also reject the idea of ‘organic’ agriculture and many renewable technologies, because of their inefficient use of space.The idea of ecomodernism is that we are going to have an impact on the Earth no matter what we do, but if we can be as efficient with that impact as possible, the world will benefit in the long run.

The main point of contention this movement finds is with the ‘degrowth’ and ‘steady-state economy’ movements, which argue for a reduction in growth and technological inputs. Many challenge the ecomodern rejection of renewable energy, especially in light of their plan to ‘de-carbonize’ the energy grid. Where these criticisms seem to fall down is that they don’t take into account the aspirations of developing nations around the world. It is all very well and good to say to developed nations that they need to stop expanding and put all their energy into being ‘in tune’ with nature, but for us to tell people in a developing nation that they have to stop growing, and not use any of our technological developments seems to be a form of classism and quite paternalistic.

The ‘rational’ viewpoint of the ecomodernist movement seems to be a bit of fresh air in the environmental debate, although it is not without its valid criticisms. Maybe this is a different framing of the issue that will be more successful in convincing people who consider themselves environmentalists to be more open to the benefits of nuclear power?

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The ecomodernist manifesto: Link

Criticism of: Link


A lot of what I’ve been talking about on this blog, especially related to the emotional aspects of the nuclear debate, can really be boiled down to one particular issue: ‘radiophobia’.

In a strictly medical sense, radiophobia can be defined as the irrational fear of ionizing radiation (the type of radiation associated with nuclear power/bombs). This definition is most often applied to those who are irrationally afraid of X-rays, in a medical context.

What radiophobia is more often used to denote, especially in the nuclear debate, is the pervasive negative emotion associated with all kinds of nuclear technology.

Studies have shown that there is a long term emotional impact of large events, like Chernobyl, and there is growing coverage of the same radiophobia developing in Japan.

This negative opinion tends to colour people’s ability to calmly and rationally evaluate facts associated with the debate. Many cite radiophobia as the reason that people have a disproportionate response to the perceived risk of technologies that use radioactive materials. With proper safety in place, nuclear technology is not more dangerous than any other, and is often safer than many (such as coal, see the early posts on the science of the nuclear debate).

Despite the rational safety level of nuclear power, the disproportionate negative response tends to develop anti-nuclear campaigner’s arguments to the point where they become a ‘special pleading‘ fallacy. Special pleading is a fallacy where an exception to the normal rules is requested, for no valid reason. In the nuclear debate, this manifests itself in people who reject the use of nuclear technology for safety reasons, despite the evidence that nuclear is safer compared to other technologies.

In identifying this fallacy though, I am not trying to attack the completely legitimate feelings of those who have suffered though or know those who have suffered through radiation based incidents. Although the argument itself is a fallacy, the very real emotion behind it should be respected, and those who aim to debate in this arena should think about the impact of their words and how best to communicate their ideas before stepping up to the plate.

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Experts in the nuclear debate

In class last week, we had a discussion about experts, and their role in scientific controversies.

First of all, what do people designate as an expert? If you listen to those who are concerned with evidence, lack of bias and rational choices, these experts must fulfill a variety of criteria. Most importantly, they should be currently publishing in their field, their field should be highly relevant to the items being discussed and they should be free from commercial interests.

While most people will understand the need to be free of commercial interests, comparatively little thought is given to the question of the expert’s expertise.

By this I mean, someone may be an expert in, say, nuclear reactor design, and then try to opine on the ability of renewable energy to cover the base-load energy demand in a region. Unlike what TV scientists like Dr. Samantha Carter (a physicist with a remarkable ability to do biological, geological and pathological research) lead us to believe, scientists who are experts in one particular field, do not have the requisite expertise to comment on loosely related fields, and they shouldn’t be allowed to.

In my example, above, the nuclear physicist should be considered an expert when the debate surrounds the safety of modern nuclear reactors, or the efficiency of the nuclear reaction itself, or even the costs associated with building a nuclear reactor, but as soon as that physicist comments on how well renewable energy works, they have ceased to be an expert, and merely become an educated commentator.

Unfortunately, this is the sort of ‘expert’ we see on both sides of the nuclear debate. This is partially because the arguments for and against nuclear power cover a wide variety of scientific fields and sub-disciplines, and most formal debates want to limit the number of participants. These debates (like the one I posted a couple of weeks ago, from TED) often rely on the drawing power of ‘celebrity’ scientific personalities. While these people may be experts in their respective fields, their opinions tend to become much more emotional, and combative, as they tend to argue similar points in the opposite directions. Where an expert would have an advantage in this part of the debate would be to be able to cite the most recent and relevant literature, to move the argument on either way.

In the TED video linked in an earlier post, we saw a debate between two people who were put forward as ‘equals’: Mark Z Jacobson and Stewart Brand. But this is not what was actually going on. Mark Z. Jacobson is a civil and environmental engineer and the director of the Atmosphere and Energy Program at Stanford University, where he researches the environmental impacts of different technologies on the environment, so far so good. Stewart Brand, however, is not an expert; he studied biology at university in the 1960s, but is really famous because of his involvement in the Whole Earth Catalog, a series that promoted communal living in the 1970s. From there he has been involved in many different projects, but his current position seems to be campaigning for a pragmatic approach to addressing climate change. I’m not saying that he is not an important figure, but he attempts to use rational arguments for most of this debate, which is lacking in an ethos angle, when you know he does not have the credentials to back them up.

There is another common type of debate seen around nuclear power, one where there are no experts. Often this comes in the form of ‘debates’ on news shows, that pits two commentators against each other. Obviously, this sort of debate lacks any rigour or accountability, but it is often used because it draws a crowd.

Say something controversial.