Nuc Eng

Reference Info

The Role of Human Nature

Getting the facts right and communicating them are important and necessary. But that is not sufficient. If we are to get beyond the 'telling' and get into the 'listening', we need to consider the mind set of the listener. Consider Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, currently Chair and Chief Scientist of Greenspirit Strategies. He is wont to say "I'd been against at least three or four things every day for 15 years, and I decided I'd like to be in favor of something for a change." Thinking about what we need to do in order to get on with life forces us out of our inner mental world and into reality. The mindset one has makes a profound difference to how one thinks and acts. Let's have a look under the hood, so to speak.

  1. The central role of the mental model
    • "It is common for some participants in risk debates to blame the lack of public support on poor understanding.  Such "dumb-public" arguments have been a frequent element in debates about the risks of nuclear power, genetically modified organisms, and the electric and magnetic fields associated with electric power systems.  However much some participants might wish all disagreements to be the result of ignorance or factual misunderstanding, the reality is that they often spring from fundamental disagreements about political power, institutional trust, or the ethical appropriateness of contested activities.  A clearer understanding of the facts may allow a more focused debate, but it will not typically resolve such underlying disagreements."
      "Risk Communication: A Mental Models Approach" By Millett Granger Morgan
  2. On motivation
    • Edward Deci of U of Rochester on SDT (Self-Determination Theory) at suggests that there are 3 dimensions to motivation:  competence, relatedness and autonomy (a person is motivated to do something if she is good at it, if the activity is meaningful or matters in some way, and if she has decided this herself).  In the current context this means that they must be able to think, want to think and not be told what to think.  That last factor is germane. 
  3. On the role of emotions and fear.
    • Bloom's hierarchy of the learning domain defines:
    • We can toil away in the cognitive domain till we are blue in the face (as in Joe Friday's "just the facts m'am") but it will do no good unless the audience is actually listening, willing to internalize the input, compare it to values already held, and is open and receptive to new ideas that likely will displace older and deeply accepted (fully internalized) beliefs.  We engineers have a pretty good grasp and are quite comfortable in the cognitive (knowledge) domain.  We're not so adroit in the affective domain. 
    • There is no point in shouting from the rooftops when people are huddled in the basement.
    • Worth considering: People like and remember stories. It has been said that incorrect stories are not countered or corrected so much as they are replaced by better stories.
    • Consider your own deeply held beliefs. Maybe we should be asking ourselves what it would take for us, as individuals, to change our belief system so that we get some idea what we are up against. What would it take for you to change those beliefs? What would drive you to feel the need to reassess your beliefs? Maybe the best we can hope for is to get other people to think through their belief systems with us.  Maybe the penny will drop then. 
    • People are not really interested in buying your story per se but they are interesting in having their problems solved. The corollary to this is that you will likely get more buy-in if you don't try to sell. That is why I say that what we nuclear folks need to do is engage in conversations to help people think about the issues correctly.
  4. On Uncertainty
    • Dealing with Uncertainty (pdf) by Mary Douglas, Emeritus Professor, University College London is quite an accessible paper that jarred my thinking and that is usually a good thing. We technical type are all for getting the facts out because we believe that the facts plus rational thinking are the essence of making sound decisions.  The author points out that access to more information has been shown to usually create MORE uncertainty, not less.  [my take: No one can be an expert in everything so as more and more aspects of an issue come out, the individual feels less and less certain.  Invariably experts disagree and bringing in more and more experts just makes it worse.]  But agreement or closure requires certainty.  The author says that culture creates certainty by creating taboos, setting strong norms, closing off debate, etc.  This flies in the face of our devotion to the modern post-industrial empowered, free-thinking individual - our hero of the modern age.  We are stuck, it seems, in this contradiction of our firmly held belief in enlightened rational thinking as a key element in our belief system and the fact that we as a society need and create certainty by closing off free thinking.  [my comment: try challenging someone's cherished belief and you will quickly see what she is getting at.]  The author concludes that all is not lost.  In fact, she suggests that what we are doing is actually quite rational.  Our current cultural belief in rational thought is our way of bringing certainty to our society.  It is a powerful belief that we can use as a motivating belief to create certainty and agreement.  [my take: In short, it is pretty much a universal belief in our society that if we sit down together and work on our differences honestly we can find a way forward .  That shared belief is 'solid' common ground.  Yes the more we discuss the issues the more convoluted the discussions will get and the more the uncertainty will grow and the farther we will seem from agreement.  But we will sort it out in the end, such is our faith in our belief in rational thought.  The alternative is to believe in the rule of force or some other form of having others make our decisions.  I'll leave it to another time to ponder just how delusional we are or not.] This paper helped me understand a bit better the culture we live in and the audience we wish to 'educate'.  I highly recommend it.
    • Related to this is an interesting paper "Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus" by Kahan, Jenkins-Smith and Braman. The study looked at belief responses to info on climate change, nuclear waste disposal and handguns.  Nuclear, it seems, is not unique in this regard.  The paper is about 'the cultural cognition of risk which is the tendency of individuals to form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values.  The discussion is cast in the framework of Bayesian reasoning - you know, the updating of prior probabilities by the ratios of new evidence.  The authors point out that the issue is that the values people use in their mental updating are very subjective. And what values do people use? From Section 2 of the paper ...
      "The cultural theory of risk posits that individuals can be expected to form risk perceptions that reflect and reinforce one or another idealized way of life. Persons whose values are relatively hierarchical and individualistic will thus be skeptical of environmental risks, the widespread acceptance of which would justify restricting commerce and industry, activities that people with these values prize; persons with more egalitarian and communitarian values, in contrast, resent commerce and industry as forms of noxious self-seeking productive of unjust disparity, and thus readily accept that such activities are dangerous and worthy of regulation." 
      I might add, since values are deep seated and an integral shared part of the community culture we live in, they are extremely stable. It is clear that facts are not enough.  To address the above the authors conclude that
      "...To overcome this effect, communicators must attend to the cultural meaning as well as the scientific content of information." 
      Apparently we need to (my interpretation in parenthesis)
      - 1. relate to their cultural values (talk to business people about costs and environmentalists about pollution, for instance)
      - 2. use experts of diverse cultural values (having environmentalists and non-environmentalists supporting nuclear is a good thing)
      - 3. frame the narrative in their terms (conceptually easy, practically hard - for me anyway).
      There, I feel so much better now having detailed why we have not succeeded so far and in making explicit just how steep is the road ahead!
    • See the Authoritarian Followers for some further commentary on the inner recesses of the human mind. Sorry, but it is somewhat depressing. But it does reinforce the notion that it is useless to argue with folks. We should be working with others to encourage critical thinking.
  5. On what people really are against.
    • George Monbiot of the UK Guardian wrote an article on May 2 entitled "Let's face it: none of our environmental fixes break the planet-wrecking project". It is an admission of the ineffectiveness of the green movement. See It is good that people like Monbiot are coming to grips with reality but what I found interesting was the statement in the 4th paragraph:
      "Infrastructure is ugly, destructive and controlled by remote governments and corporations. These questions are so divisive because the same world-view tells us that we must reduce emissions, defend our landscapes and resist both the state and big business. The four objectives are at odds."
      I think this cuts to the core issue that is centrally relevant when we do nuclear outreach. Nuclear requires what we almost universally resist as individuals: government control and big business, ie the loss of the individual. It is an emotional rejection of 'life in the factory' and the seeming loss of control over ones life and all that ails us. Intellectually we know that this very factory is what is responsible for the high quality of life that we enjoy. Emotionally we feel that it is our power to pollute and, worse, the power to sustain large populations that pollute more, that is the problem. So it is hard to accept the notion that the disease will be cured by more disease. We can and should enter into discussions about comparative nuclear risk, cost, low doses of radiation, environmental footprint and so on. But while doing so we need to be aware that the core issue is not nuclear per se. For want of a better label, it is 'life in the factory' that is the issue. One symptom of this is the Outrage that Sandman speaks of.
    • Maybe when we are doing outreach we could, at some natural point in the conversation, bring up the point about 'life in the factory'.  It, at the very least, is a point of agreement - who doesn't feel like a little cog in the machine at some point in our lives.  Sometimes the simple acknowledgement of a worry, a mutual worry at that, goes a long way in breaking down barriers and getting at the nub.  I don't suggest this as a means of selling our ideas or winning people over per se.  I suggest this as a natural way to get at the real issues that bother people, to work with others to come to a mutual understanding, and to finding a path forward.