Trying to Calm the Public

Why is it that the efforts to calm the public after Japan’s nuclear disaster didn’t work?  To be sure, we all tend to be mistrustful of government officials.  We know they are telling us what they want us to believe, not necessarily the truth.  But when they tell us they are “confident,” that actually makes it worse.

William Saleton, correspondent for Slate, called our attention to this again last week.  He noted that Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and William Levis, an executive of the industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute, in their opening statements to a congressional committee investigating the safety of nuclear power plants in the U.S., “used variants of the words assure, ensure, and confident 21 times.”

He commented:  “I don’t want to hear the industry and its regulators talk this way after Fukushima. I don’t want to hear confidence and assurances. I want to hear humility and a ruthless re-examination of assumptions.”

He added:  “The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was built and upgraded according to the worst-case assumptions of the industry and its regulators. Those assumptions have just been spectacularly falsified. Our job now is to figure out what they got wrong.”

Saleton concluded:  “the key to nuclear safety isn’t confidence. It’s doubt.”  But his point is not just about nuclear safety.  It’s about all attempts to measure and deal with risk.  (See, “Shaken to the Core.”)

There must me a kind of conventional wisdom among spokespersons and public relations experts about how to handle disasters, a misbegotten script they tend to follow.  I can see the point of being calm and reassuring when there is a tendency for the public to panic and act inappropriately.  If a movie theatre is on fire, the audience needs to move quickly and efficiently to the exits, without pushing or shoving.  But in the face of danger, we are right to be aroused, worried and questioning.  We need facts and plans and actions.  Clichés won’t work, especially when they are repeatedly contradicted by events.

That goes for risk in general.  In hindsight, the empty statements of regulators and government officials that the economy was immune to a financial meltdown seem ludicrous.  They did not question their assumptions.  They believed what they all wanted to believe.  They did not worry enough – or, as Saleton put it, they did not exercise enough doubt.

When it comes to risk, only the ideas that have survived the test of systematic doubt are worth believing.