March 25, 2011 11 Comments
With the disaster in Japan, people are wary of the dangers of nuclear power. But is public attitude for energy safety reflecting actual risks? The PEW Research Center released a poll last Monday finding a record low level of support for increased use of nuclear power.
Opinion about expanding the use of nuclear power has fluctuated in recent years. However, the current measure matches a previous low in support for increased nuclear power recorded in September 2005 (39% favor, 53% oppose).
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted March 17-20 among 1,004 adults, finds little recent change in opinions about other energy policies – with one notable exception. With the recent surge in gas prices, support for increased offshore oil and gas drilling continues to rebound.
If people want to reduce energy use, great. If they think shifting energy production to other sources like coal and oil is safer, that’s a problem. Via Andrew Sullivan, I came across this excellent illustration:
Per unit of energy produced, nuclear power is safer than oil or coal by an order of magnitude. For “every person killed by nuclear power generation, 4,000 die due to coal, adjusted for the same amount of power produced.” Of course, there are differences from country to country and you can look at the study itself to find out more relevant details. But even so, the truth isn’t close to reflected in public opinion. The chart’s creator, Seth Godin, tries to figure out why:
Vivid is not the same as true. It’s far easier to amplify sudden and horrible outcomes than it is to talk about the slow, grinding reality of day to day strife. That’s just human nature.
I think that any time reality doesn’t match your expectations, it means that marketing was involved. Perhaps it was advertising, or perhaps deliberate story telling by an industry. Or perhaps it was just the stories we tell one another in our daily lives. It’s sort of amazing, even to me, how much marketing colors the way we see the world–our reaction (either way) to this chart is proof of it.
I’d agree that marketing and presentation plays a huge role in public perception. I am, after all, a communications director for my job.
But I want to stress the importance of human cognitive biases. As Godin points out, vivid visual disasters will have a disproportionate impact on people. But I think immediacy is one of the most important factors. When there’s an oil spill or a nuclear meltdown, people see the direct dangers of the power source. But much of the danger of coal comes from its emissions and longer-term damage. It’s more difficult for us to make the connection between a cause and effect when there’s more time between them.
But then, that’s why we do science and collect data. The challenge is getting us to internalize the scientific findings rather than just their inaccurate generalizations. Charts like these can help.