Monday, April 23, 2012

Risk communication with a tin ear

Quite serendipitously, around the time of my prior post looking at how the public perceives risk when it comes to nuclear energy, two interesting pieces appeared around the same time which serve to reinforce some of the points I had made. (I've been somewhat remiss in getting them only until now, mostly due to both a recent conference and now travel.)

The first, "Risk, Fear, and Nuclear Power" by David Ropeik discusses the role emotions have played in shaping public opinion in a (now-defunct, due to lack of signatures) effort to use California's initiative process to close down its two nuclear generating stations. Specifically, Ropeik brings into play some of the same "fear factors" which I discussed prior, including voluntariness - which is why, he points out, the public accepts radiation from medical sources with little complaint while the same cannot be said for nuclear power. Much of his essay delves into the same issues of how cultural and emotional factors influence and amplify public perception of risks, based risk characteristics (i.e., the factors like unfamiliarity, invisibility, "dread" factors like cancer, trust in institutions, etc.).

The second, "Fear of Nuclear Power out of proportion to actual risks" by Dr. Melanie Windridge serves as a useful companion piece, namely by framing the issue of the impact of public perception of risk - namely, in that how the public reacts to the health risks associated with nuclear is entirely out of proportion with other health risks, including both those from natural and medical uses of radiation as well as health risks associated with other energy sources like coal.

Unfortunately, I think Dr. Windridge's piece, while well-written, also serves as an example of how typically the conversation moves to individuals talking past one another. The aim of her article is to demonstrate how, even in the case of a serious accident like Fukushima, perceived risks tend to be held out of proportion with actual, everyday risks we blithely accept without protest. In this regard, she does quite well; and indeed, it is a refreshing reminder for those oriented in a more "technical" understanding of risk.

As I read it again however, and especially as I read the reader comments (again, perhaps one of the most discouraging things one can do), it becomes more and more clear to me that this piece represents the same mistake being made over and over again in nuclear communication - we're convincing those already predisposed to our position. To wit: those predisposed to hear the message that the public perceives nuclear risks out of proportion to other risks are likely those already predisposed to favor nuclear energy. The people who perceive these risks in disproportionate fashion are not going to be convinced by this alone. (Again, have a look at the reader comments and see if you don't agree. You may however wish to pour yourself a stiff drink first...) To emphasize, Dr. Windridge's piece is extremely clear and well-written but at the same time sails right past half the audience (those predisposed to oppose nuclear), who immediately dismiss anything she has to say.

Slogging through reader comments like these, it becomes again evident in the extreme that there are two completely divergent narratives going on here, with their own respective experts and "facts." (It goes nearly without saying that the divide could not be more stark - on one side one are trained nuclear professionals and experts in their field, the other populated by hucksters and cranks. On a personal note, it sometimes drives me positively insane in the regard that in the realm of climate science, there is a loud and well-publicized push-back against "bad faith science" but many of these same individuals remain silent when it comes to attacks on science by anti-nuclear activists.) That being said, none of this matters until the communicator can establish the one thing that matters most with their audience: credibility.

In this regard, despite the valiant efforts of numerous pro-nuclear communicators, we seem to be failing - badly. This is not to say that the efforts have been for nothing - certainly, pro-nuclear communicators have helped to profoundly shape and influence debate, pushing back against a narrative dominated by snake-oil salesmen bent upon selling cockamamie theories of radiation health effects with zero basis in sound science. And indeed, this has tremendous importance in capturing the otherwise "uncommitted" - those whose opinions on nuclear energy tends to be weak in support or opposition.

"Technically correct... the best kind of correct."
But part of the problem - at least as I see it - is that we are failing to directly engage our opponents themselves. In fact, too often am I realizing that nuclear risk is communicated with a tin ear to public perceptions - a fantastic example of this is Andrea Jennetta's recent (and somewhat amusing) rant in the Richmond Times-Dispatch to this regard, castigating nuclear professionals who, channeling the spirit of the bureaucrat - gave answers that were technically correct but contextually useless.

In this case, it concerned a debate over lifting the moratorium over uranium mining in southern Virginia - which to anyone familiar with the region, would be a much-needed economist boon to the region. What resulted instead was an unedifying spectacle involving quasi-religious questions and comments from anti-nuclear activists and tin-eared, highly abstract responses from the nuclear professionals tasked at handling questions from the public.

It reminds me of an old joke about engineers:
A man is flying in a hot air balloon and realizes he is lost. He reduces height and spots a man down below. He lowers the balloon further and shouts: "Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?" The man below says: "Yes, you're in a hot air balloon, hovering 30 feet above this field." "You must be an engineer" says the balloonist. "I am" replies the man. "How did you know?" "Well," says the balloonist, "everything you've told me is technically correct but useless to anyone."
 Of course, then there's the real punchline:
The man below says "you must be in management." "I am" replies the balloonist, "but how did you know?" "Well," says the man, "you don't know where you are, or where you're going, but you expect me to be able to help. You're in the same position you were before we met, but now it's my fault."
It again reinforces a point which I made previously which I am coming to realize the importance of - technically correct simply isn't enough - we, as nuclear communicators, must speak to values. One of the greatest scandals in nuclear communication has been in allowing the anti-nuclear opposition to take the field entirely unopposed in dressing their arguments in the ethics of care and concern - namely by painting both nuclear operators, and by association, nuclear advocates - as cogs in a rapacious, uncaring capitalist enterprise. (Not that there's anything wrong with capitalism...)

[Aside: I recently spent the evening with some very good friends of mine, one of whom works closely with the medical profession. She pointed out to me how much some of these same issues of risk communication overlap in the issues of public acceptance of vaccines - or rather, overcoming a small but dogged vaccine refusal movement. Fundamentally, many of the same issues are at play here - a series of parallel "experts" and a contingent doggedly set against the mainstream scientific establishment. What is at stake here is perhaps yet more important than the challenges faced by nuclear energy, given the dynamics at play with phenomena like herd immunity. But fundamentally the same issue is at play, that being the need to engage with individuals, particularly by addressing values as a means of understanding how to reach these individuals in order to accurately convey relative risk. End aside.]

tin manA great number of nuclear professionals are in this line of work precisely because they care about creating a better world for their families and children (myself included). However, one likely reason nuclear professionals have ceded the issue of personal concern to the anti-nuclear activists has likely been a victim of technical culture - technical arguments are won and lost not over demonstrated concern or espoused values but upon facts alone. Engaging with the public thus almost requires a deprogramming for some - allowing technical experts to express their humanity and concern alongside their sound technical arguments.

No doubt, some resistance comes from the perception of falling into the same trap as the anti-nuclear movement - preying upon appeals to emotion rather than logic and couching arguments in terms of clever sound bites rather than in actual, robust appeals to science. Yet it doesn't need to come to this (and indeed, over the long run I believe strategies which focus upon this are doomed to failure as they serve to further undermine trust by coming across blatantly manipulative.) But falling down on the other extreme - communicating with a complete tin ear with regards to the audience - is clearly doing the nuclear movement no favors, either.

What it again fundamentally comes down to understanding the values of the audience. It means understanding why certain experts and arguments seem to hold sway (rather than simply dismissing these folks as cranks - again, something very hard not to do sometimes). Ultimately, it involves a great deal of listening - something which is not that easy, given the nature (and yes, ridiculousness) of some of the arguments put out there. But if nuclear advocates expect to sway those not already favorably predisposed toward nuclear energy, this is what it's going to take.