A couple of days ago, Andrew, an Atomic Insights contributor pointed me to Dr. Peter Sandman, a man who built a career out of helping large organizations improve their ability to communicate about risk. I want to thank Andrew for helping me to put a name to a topic that I’ve been wanting to study – outrage management.
I’ve been searching for a way to improve our ability to calm the fears that have made investments and careers in nuclear energy more risky than they should be. In the 1980s, Dr. Sandman formulated an equation for risk.
In his formula, hazard is the classic measure that risk assessment professionals have been taught: risk = consequences x probability of occurrence. Outrage is a measure of the risk that people believe an activity entails. It is just as real and may even be more measurable than hazard even though it does not normally result in any blood, injuries or dead bodies.
After all, anyone who has engaged in an exercise in probabilistic risk assessment understands that practitioners call some of the numbers associated with computing the hazard of rare events SWAGs (silly, wild ass guesses). (Aside: Some of my distinguished friends who engage in risk assessment insist that the source of their numbers as “expert elicitation”, but I like to tease them a little. End Aside.)
In contrast, outrage is often quite visible and measurable to an accuracy of several decimal places. At its extreme, outrage can result in injuries (people being trampled by a panicked crowd trying to leave a place of perceived danger), illness, and even death. It can cause long term negative effects and entail huge economic costs.
According to Dr. Sandman, outrage management is the type of risk communications effort that is needed when the risk of an activity is dominated by outrage. Even if there are rarely, if ever, any dead bodies, –indicative of a low level of hazard — nuclear energy often tops the lists of risky activities in polls that ask people to rank a set of activities.
I believe that nuclear professionals have a moral imperative to make vast improvements in our ability to manage and reduce outrage to a level that is more commensurate with the demonstrably low hazard of our technology. Our technology should be serving people, not causing them to live in fear or causing them to avoid beneficial applications because they have been taught to worry about what might happen if magical forces make layers of steel, water and concrete disappear or if “hot particles” somehow find their way, undetected, into their bodies.
As a semi-retired consultant who has many decades worth of valuable experience, Dr. Sandman has been searching for a way to try to build a lasting legacy that will continue after his inevitable passing. He has gathered a deep well of useful material, including presentations, articles and recorded videos on his web site so that they are freely available to interested people.
Yesterday, I wrote a post for ANS Nuclear Cafe about outrage management; Dr. Sandman took the time to read that post and send me a critique that resulted in me rewriting the post this morning to include a frank discussion of Fukushima. Here is what he told me about that post:
One point that is in my field: There’s nothing in your post that’s different from what you might have written before Fukushima. I grant you that there aren’t a lot of documented Fukushima deaths; that the principal health impacts of Fukushima so far are psychological; that arguably unnecessary evacuation exacerbated the damage. (So did government and industry dishonesty.) Still, Fukushima was a watershed. Three Mile Island really did little or no harm; Chernobyl happened in what was essentially a developing country with primitive safety precautions. But Japan is at least as cautious about matters nuclear as the U.S., and almost by definition as much harm as happened there could happen here. I would question the credibility of any nuclear risk expert who didn’t recalibrate after Fukushima, and of any nuclear risk expert who didn’t mention Fukushima when opining about the risk.
I am going to leave you with a sample video that explains three risk communications games and then go back to my own crash course on outrage management so that I can try to do a better job of calming fears and reducing risk.