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Cultural cognition--plus lots of other relevant things-- & nuclear energy: experts *get it*

Came across a great blog on public perceptions of nuclear risk at the Neutron Economy & then found a thoughtful reaction to it at Areva North America: Next Energy Blog.

In addition to being well-crafted and informative, the posts were immensely heartening.

Written by and for people who do work relating to nuclear energy, both displayed keen awareness of the science of public risk perceptions and science communication. (Cultural cognition was  featured, but was--very appropriately--not the only dynamic that was addressed.)  

What's more, rather than the frustrated hand-wringing and finger-pointing that experts (and many others) often (understandably but not helpfully) display when confronted with public controversy over risk, both evinced an uncomplaining, matter-of-fact dedication to making sense of how the public makes sense of the world.

From Neutron Economy:

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....

[I]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.

From Areva North America: Next Energy Blog

So, “pure” facts don’t tend to change our minds very often. And surprisingly, presenting facts alone when encouraging a new perspective can often result in the opposite effect on people who disagree....

Which naturally leads to our next question, “If cultural influence is so strong on perceiving facts, is trying to educate people of the beneficial facts about nuclear energy hopeless?”

We agree with Steve’s answer, “Not at all.”

But the key is to frame our factual and technically accurate answers within the cultural framework understanding of those we are trying to engage.

Reading these words made me believe that it is not at all unrealistic to anticipate that the practice of science will in the not too distant future be happily and productively integrated with the science of science communication.

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Reader Comments (1)

Hi Dan, thanks for the kind words! I can say that I was personally introduced to the aspects of public perception of risk from a very forward-thinking professor in my own department (Dr. Man-Sung Yim), who was also my graduate adviser. While my background is in nuclear engineering rather than social science, I find the issue of public perception of risk to be pretty fascinating, and my thought here is that these are the kinds of topics which are indispensable if we are trying to have a productive conversation about energy. Too often it falls into the trap of, "Well, they (non-technical folks) are simply being irrational." Even if that's true... so what? Where does that get us? This is why issues like risk perception are so important, in my opinion - I can only hope more people in my field come around to this idea.

April 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Skutnik

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