The Hitchhiker’s have be grappling with one of the hardest, and most important questions this month, ‘Education : how do we engage the public?’. Caroline McCalman, provides some perspective.
Three years ago, a few months into my PhD, my colleagues and I in the Nuclear Societies research network at the University of Sheffield were invited to attend the annual get together of the Nuclear Doctoral Training Centres at Sheffield and Manchester, called the Nuclear FiRST Winter School. I presented a poster titled “Nuclear power: why educating the public won’t work”. I had thought (naively, as it turned out) that this was merely mildly provocative and that it might generate some interesting discussion. Unfortunately for me, at the same event the Nuclear FiRST DTC was launching a new podcast/web-series aimed at – you guessed it – educating the public about nuclear power. I was unprepared for the virulent backlash my poster received and I ended up retreating to a corner of the room with a warm glass of bucks fizz.
In the social sciences, one of the methodologies available to a researcher is observation – and with the benefit of a few years and some more experience between then and now, I am able to say that I observed first-hand some difficult truths about the viewpoint of many (not all) operating within the industry and academic disciplines linked with nuclear power. Firstly, that there is an almost universal feeling of being woefully misunderstood by the general public and an assumption that if only the public ‘understood’ then many of the perceived obstacles in the path of a nuclear future might be dissolved overnight. Secondly, that obviously the problem is that the general public misunderstand or dislike nuclear power because they have not had the benefit of being provided with the ‘correct’ information with which to make a decision hence the need for better “education” on nuclear issues for the public. Thirdly, and finally, I discovered that although in the social sciences this thought process – referred to as the ‘information deficit model’ – has been discussed and mostly mocked for years, in the ‘hard’ sciences and technical fields it is still assumed to be how the world works. Oh – and that pointing this out doesn’t win you any friends.
Now – please don’t misunderstand me! I am not saying that embarking on a comprehensive program of public engagement meant to raise greater awareness of nuclear issues with the public is a bad idea – I think this sorely needs to happen, and I am aware that various interested parties (this blog, for example) are working towards this end. What I am saying is that we cannot make the aim of such a program to be greater acceptance of nuclear power, or greater acceptance of a geological disposal facility. One cannot simply assume that feeding people more information, even if it is information that’s been carefully crafted by a pro-nuclear organisation, will result in the opinions of the wider public eventually coinciding with those of the information providers. J Public is generally savvier than we give them credit for: given the widespread suspicion towards authority in this country, it is likely that even if such a public engagement program were to spark J’s interest, they’d probably go looking for other information in order to check the accuracy of what was presented.
Those interested in looking further into the literature behind this notion of an “information deficit model” and why it doesn’t work could make a pleasant start by reading Susan Owens’ and Louise Driffill’s paper ‘How to change attitudes behaviours in the context of energy’ (2008) and also Burgess, Harrison & Filius (1998) ‘Environmental communication and the cultural politics of environmental citizenship’. But possibly the most convincing argument for why a public education program should be approached with extreme caution that I have found is a paper by Liu & Kerry Smith (1990) documenting the outcome of a national risk-communication programme that disseminated the facts about the risks associated with nuclear power plants in Taiwan. Because Taipower (Taiwan’s state-owned power corporation) had “agreed to delay planning the plant until it established a greater degree of public consensus on the plant’s merits”, the company organized a national debate with the express aim of changing public attitudes on “the safety of nuclear power and the need for a fourth plant” which ran from April to July 1989 (p. 332). The comprehensive program of events included 100 debates and discussions at universities and cultural centres, 50 public lectures, a series of television programs and articles in newspapers. The authors used stated risk perceptions gleaned from interviews with households before and after the debate to build a picture of the effects of the debate on attitudes towards nuclear power in Taiwan. They found that “even though respondents were not firmly committed to their prior perceptions of a nuclear power plant’s risks the debate did not reduce concerns. Instead, it increased respondents’ perceptions of the seriousness of risks posed by nuclear plants” (pp. 332-333). Results at the individual level suggested that “the debate was not a major factor in these changes of attitude” (p. 333).
So what can we glean from my extremely brief synopsis of the Taiwan case study? Simply, that although a comprehensive public engagement programme could certainly galvanise debate and discussion on nuclear issues, the instigators of such a programme would need to be alert for the possibility that the outcome could further entrench nuclear’s status as an energy pariah. If the aim is simply to raise awareness and get people talking, then fine. If the aim is to try and actively mould the public’s attitudes into either a pro-nuclear or an anti-nuclear shape, be prepared for unexpected (and possibly unwelcome) outcomes!
Burgess, J., Harrison, C., & Filius, P. (1998). Environmental communication and the cultural politics of environmental citizenship. Environment and Planning A, 30(1), 1445–1460.
Liu, J. T., & Smith, V. K. (1990). Risk communication and attitude change: Taiwan’s national debate over nuclear power. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty. 3, 331-349.
Owens, S., & Driffill, L. (2008). How to change attitudes and behaviours in the context of energy. Energy Policy, 36(12), 4412–4418.