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.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Cultural cognition of risk and perceived risks of nuclear

In a bit of a departure from the typical discussion, I wanted to delve deeper into a topic of some personal interest to me and of particular relevance to nuclear communication - that of risk perception by the public. As a scientist, people like me are trained to view risk in objective, impersonal terms - i.e., evaluating risk in strictly scientific, quantitative terms. One of the unending sources of frustration for the technical community is in the fact that this is not how the general public perceives risk - in fact, quite the opposite. Many times, people will blithely accept particular risks - driving, air travel, smoking, certain recreational activities - and yet recoil in horror at the unarguably lower risks presented by technologies such as nuclear energy (especially in comparison to energy alternatives such as coal and even natural gas).

Often, it's the first inclination of technically-minded folks to simply dismiss these people as irrational, even stupid. And yes, this is certainly easy - even satisfying (particularly on days when I'm feeling especially curmudgeonly...). It's also terribly unproductive. In light of this, I wanted to dig deeper into the idea of how public perceives risk, drawing on an established body of literature (again, perhaps most famously through projects like the Yale Law School's Cultural Cognition Project).

Understanding "perceived risk"

A particular school of thought in the social science of risk perception, known as the Cultural Theory of Risk, purports that the relative perception of risk - and ultimately, the determination of "acceptable" risk, is governed by cultural factors exogenous to strictly technical evaluations of risk alone. In other words, despite the fact that flying is safer than driving, people perceive the latter to be less safe due to other, outside factors. Thus a key element in understanding how risk is perceived by members of the public (i.e., the "non-technical" community) requires understanding the factors which tend to weigh upon evaluations of risk - in other words, factors which promote perceived risk. These include:

  • Involuntary exposure
  • Lack of personal control
  • High/catastrophic consequences 
  • Inequitable distribution of risk
  • Lack of familiarity
  • Lack of perceived benefit
  • "Dread" factors (e.g., cancer)
  • Irreversible consequences

In this way, risks of higher probability but more moderate consequences (e.g., natural gas explosions, coal waste accidents, etc.) are viewed as more "acceptable" despite much lower probabilities of harm from sources such as nuclear accidents. By the same token, risks which are mundane and taken up voluntarily - think smoking, etc. - are viewed as acceptable despite well-known and demonstrably higher probabilities of harm. 

Values and risk perception

An outgrowth of the Cultural Theory of Risk (or perhaps simply an alternative model altogether, although arguably not entirely incompatible) is the theory known as Cultural Cognition of Risk, which posits that deeply-held values influence how risks are perceived and processed by members of the public - and thus, which risks are seen as more prominent. Cultural Cognition (and the Cultural Cognition Project) seek to explain gaps in public perception of risk by looking at the correlations of risk perception to values - in other words, looking at why different political and cultural groups show wide disparities in perceived risks of large social issues, such as global climate change and other divisive issues.

value axisCultural Cognition divides value systems into two main axes. Roughly speaking, the vertical axis corresponds to values about how social goods (wealth, power, duties, and entitlements) are distributed, with "hierarchical" orientations favoring their distribution according to relatively "fixed" social markers - age, sex, race, etc. - and thus seeking to maintain these orderings. Conversely, egalitarian values tend to reject the idea of ranked hierarchies in the distribution of social goods. Along the horizontal axis is the relationship of the individual to society - leftward emphasizing a higher emphasis upon individuals and competitiveness, rightward emphasizing group solidarity over the individual. (An example of this can easily be observed in Eastern versus Western cultures, and in particular the expectations of individuals with respect to their societies.)

For those familiar with the Nolan Chart, or its variant, the Political Compass, there is a relatively intuitive mapping between the values proposed by Cultural Congition and the Personal/Economic liberty axes in each one (i.e., at the top left would be considered "conservatives," bottom right "liberals", bottom left "libertarians," and top right "populists"). Thus, the familiar partisan splits in nuclear energy support begin to grow more clear as one draws associations between the commonly held values of self-identified liberals, conservatives (and of course, libertarians!).

The central thesis of Cultural Cognition is that risk perception tends to be oriented along lines that remain harmonious with one's social values - risks which appear to challenge one's social values are minimized, which risks which speak to concerns of social values are heightened. Many of the topics studied under these lines of thought tend to include divisive social issues such as the role of gun ownership, abortion, nanotechnology, and indeed, nuclear power (in particular, nuclear waste management). Thus Cultural Cognition theory posits that differences in perceived risk due to major social issues comes from a reconciliation of information about risk with deeply-held personal values, thus explaining the gap in risk perception between different groups.

Education alone is not enough

Bringing this back to the subject of nuclear, it seems like once we understand what drives perception of risk, this should be enough to influence such perceptions more in line with actual facts. Yet one of the most discouraging findings in the literature on cultural cognition of risk is in that simply educating people is insufficient on its own, despite the naive assumption that such efforts bring about familiarity, thus diminishing outsized perceptions of risk. Why is this? Cognitive dissonance. For individuals already negatively predisposed toward a subject (i.e., nuclear energy), the presentation of new information produces an uncomfortable state of dissonance, which the natural mental reaction is to resolve. Typically this is done by dismissing the conflicting information and seeking reinforcing information from "trusted" sources, thus perhaps illustrating why, in spite of repeated debunking, some myths just won't die. And indeed, this is something we've seen before - again and again.

Going yet further, proponents of the Cultural Cognition hypothesis posit that educating participants on topics to which they were begin previously uninformed can actually produce a polarizing effect in attitudes. An example of this is a study in participant attitudes in nanotechnology, where most individuals have little starting information. The presentation of educational materials on the risks and benefits of nanotechnology actually had the effect of polarizing these individuals, despite the same information being presented - again implying that education on its own does not necessarily lead to broad accord.

Does this mean education is hopeless? Not at all - but what it does mean is that education must be carried out in a way which minimizes cognitive dissonance, namely by engaging with the value system of the listener.  That is, in presenting information in such a way which affirms rather than challenges the deeply-held values of the audience, said persons are more likely to be open to processing this new information and challenging previously-held beliefs.

In my last post, I alluded to the fact that individuals holding an "individualist" value persuasion were more likely to be open to evaluating risks of global climate change if nuclear power is presented in this context as the solution to climate change, rather than regulation. (Joe Romm, are you listening?) In this case, it is a matter of a message speaking to the values of the listener - individualists tend to be more prone to considering technological solutions to social problems and disinclined to solutions which encroach upon private, market-oriented mechanisms to social ordering. 

As a personal aside, I will say as someone with a similar worldview, the connection between nuclear energy and climate change made a similar impression upon myself - that is, in evaluating climate change as a problem to be solved through human ingenuity rather than imposed impoverishment, a discordance is removed - it is possible to reconcile a concern for climate change with previously-held values.

Obviously, this works with different value orientations as well - those with egalitarian value systems can arguably be brought around to support nuclear energy if it is seen as affirming egalitarian social values - two examples which come to mind are those of energy poverty and the inherently unequal outcomes of climate change, which would disproportionately impact the world's poorest nations (i.e., those incapable of adapting to climate change through economic and technical means).

Summing it up

To summarize - providing education and facts are good, useful even - but on their own insufficient without presenting those facts in a context which engages with the deeply-held values of the audience. To produce actual engagement - and even inducement to support - requires a producing a context of facts compatible with the values of those one is trying to reach. In other words, for the case of nuclear, it means going beyond education and comparative evaluation of risk (again, to emphasize, both of which are valid in and of themselves) and placing these within the framework of how this speaks to the values of the audience.

For individualists (who the research shows already tend to have a lower perceived risk attached to nuclear energy), this might mean presenting nuclear energy as a practical solution to climate change - something which has the spillover benefit of bringing about thoughtful consideration of the issues of climate change itself. For communitarians and egalitarians, this might mean both engaging in a demonstration of how nuclear energy can serve to mitigate much larger, more inequitable risks while meanwhile also honestly engaging concerns over safety and inter-generational equity issues like waste management. In other words, validating these concerns while demonstrating that these are issues which we take seriously and continue to devote considerable attention to.

None of this is a silver-bullet solution for engaging with the public, but it provides an illuminating context for which to facilitate a more productive discussion over energy.

A passage which struck me while I was researching this topic was when one proponent of cultural rationality (i.e., arguing that emotional reactions to risk have validity as moral, "normative" evaluations, alongside strictly technical, "positive" evaluations of risk) argued that members of the technological community do not have a privileged view of the normative factors associated with risk, particularly with respect to nuclear (the paper was on perceptions of nuclear risk in light of Fukushima) - that is, while members of the technical community have a privileged view of technical facts, they do not have a privileged view of overall assessments of what constitutes acceptability in risk - a normative judgement.

All of this of course is true. In as much, in my mind it is the job of the nuclear professionals (as members of the "technical community") to do our best to provide an accurate technical framework for these evaluations of risk by the public, such that they can make the most sound decisions on risk. Meanwhile it is the job of nuclear communicators and advocates to speak to values, as to produce more fair evaluations of both the benefits and risks of nuclear, particularly in the context of available energy choices.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Minding the (partisan) gap: partisan divisions in support for nuclear

Via NEI's twitter feed comes this story of a new Gallup poll on energy and environmental issues similar to that released by Pew which I dissected a few weeks ago.

Image via Gallup
For the most part, the trends are indeed quite similar - especially in the respect that public opinion on the issue of nuclear energy appears to be quite "sticky," consistently polling at a slight majority of Americans favoring its continued use (and even expansion). Unsurprisingly, support for the expanded use of nuclear energy is riven by partisan divides, with much broader numbers of Republicans favoring its expansion over Democrats.

Indeed, this partisan fissure is consistent with Pew's prior polling, with Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters strongly favoring measures including more stringent environmental regulations and more funding for alternative sources such as wind and solar, with much weaker support for the development of new nuclear or fossil fuel exploration. (Interestingly, support for new nuclear among Democrats is weaker than that of opening up federal lands for oil exploration.)

The Republican side naturally shows the inverse, with Republicans generally favoring policies to expand energy supplies (with the relative strength of support for opening up additional land for oil exploration as Democrats show for conservation and regulatory measures). A notable difference in this poll is much stronger support among Republicans for expanding nuclear energy, being the second-favorite choice among Republicans and Republican-leaners at 64% of respondents favoring, compared to 54% in the similar Pew poll.
% in favor
National AdultsRepublicansDemocrats
Setting higher emissions and pollution standards for business and industry 705485
Spending more government money on developing solar and wind power 695184
Spending government money to develop alternate sources of fuel for automobiles 665181
Imposing mandatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions/other greenhouse gases655082
Opening up land owned by the federal government for oil exploration658449
More strongly enforcing federal environmental regulations644780
Setting higher auto emissions standards for automobiles624976
Expanding the use of nuclear energy526441

Getting back to the issue of "stickiness" in public opinion, while support for expanding nuclear has been steadily growing among Republicans since the early 2000s, among Democrats support appears to be stuck around 40%, after briefly spiking around 2006 (incidentally, around the time of Al Gore's most famous work, An Inconvenient Truth was released).

Given the need to develop new domestic sources of energy and the general drive to phase out dirtier sources like coal, it provokes a nagging question - why such a stark partisan divide over one of the largest clean energy sources in the U.S. by share of electricity (around 20%)? Indeed, it's one thing to expect broad divisions overall (given the relative weight individuals assign to factors such as economics, waste management, safety, and so forth). And indeed, some of the split will be driven by familiarity with energy sources overall (i.e., the feasibility, not to mention practicality of providing electricity from intermittent sources at the caprice of nature). An of course, splits along other lines are perhaps more obvious manifestations of priorities - take the split over fossil exploration. But what explains nuclear?

One explanation (which I will cover in a follow-on post) is the influence of cultural factors - specifically, cultural factors which influence risk perception. There is an entire field of study devoted to this, such as the Cultural Cognition Project at the Yale Law School. Ultimately what it boils down to is that how individuals perceive risk and respond to new information is dramatically influenced by their value systems. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the same patterns of values which tend to divide liberals and conservatives also tend to divide across issues such as the perceived risk of nuclear energy production (along with related issues, such as nuclear waste management).

However, this can cut both ways as well, a matter which should be of key interest to those committed to action on global climate change. A teaser for next time - one particularly interesting finding is those of value persuasions typically found in conservatives that if expanded use of nuclear energy is presented as a necessary solution to global climate change, these individuals become more open to evidence of the risks of climate change, as compared to greater regulatory control over industrial activity - precisely due to the issues of concordance of values. Food for thought.