Sabine Roeser, a philosopher, provided a thought-provoking talk at TEDx Delft on the importance of including emotions in debates about risky technologies. Though my initial response to the early part of her talk was defensive, I kept on watching and ended up concluding that I agreed with the vast majority of her message. Though it is not a short piece and will never go viral, I recommend that you set aside the time to watch the video if you are interested in effective communications and effective decision making on complex topics involving judgements about risk and technology.
My hope is that you have watched the video before scrolling down to my commentary; if you haven’t, this is a spoiler warning. In case your time is limited and you want to skip around to the key segments, I have added time stamps in the discussion below.
Sabine Roeser starts her talk by singing the praises of the technology that brings instant communications, travel and shelter, but then points out that there is no technology without risk. Out of all available images to demonstrate that technology can be risky, Sabine chose to use a picture cooling towers that may or may not be a part of a nuclear power plant installation and a picture of a devastated landscape with people wearing what appear to be World War II era gas masks.
With those images in the background, Ms. Roeser asked if nuclear energy was “just great” and then stated that “nuclear power plants can explode.” All that had already occurred within the first minute and 22 seconds of her talk. You can see why I was initially defensive.
Sabine goes on to describe the conflict about risky technologies that occurs between the public and the experts. In the interest of time and getting to the point of her talk, she generalized to describe the experts as making emotionless decisions based on complex scientific concepts like “quantum physics” and the public as making decisions based on emotions and gut reactions generated by “fear, anger or disgust”.
After acknowledging that neither the public nor the experts rely solely on either emotion or objective reasoning, Sabine points to enlightening psychological research showing how people who have no emotions at all make really lousy decisions. Emotions like “sympathy, compassion, feelings of responsibility, shame and guilt” help people to understand wider implications of practical decision making. As Ms. Roeser says (7:10), “leaving risk judgements to people without emotions would be a huge mistake.”
She then goes on to make the following important statement:
(7:25) “Now you might ask, what does risk and technology have to do with morality and ethics? Everything. Technology is great, but technology can also be risky. Technology affects our well-being. It shapes the way we lead our lives. Technology has values incorporated into it.”
Sabine points out that traditional cost benefit analysis does not take into account whether the benefits and the risks of the technology are fairly distributed and balanced; in some cases a small number of people get most of the benefits while a different group of people assumes most of the risks. Spreadsheet-only cost benefit analysis does not allow a cell or formula that accounts for fairness.
Then came the statement that provided the “ah ha moment” and completed the process of making me realize the value of her research.
(11:30) We can appeal to our emotions and train our emotions in order to critically assess our initial emotions. For example, in the case of nuclear energy, our fear of nuclear energy should be corrected by compassion for victims of coal mining and climate change.
As Sabine counsels, debates about risky technologies (13:50) “should not ignore emotions”, they should start with emotions to find the moral values about technology that people consider important. By starting with emotional responses, it might be possible to identify misinformation that can be corrected, but it is also possible to identify fears and apprehensions that are based on real concerns that must be addressed before the technology can be deployed.
Once again, Sabine referenced nuclear energy as an illustrating example, mentioning concerns about the impact of waste on future generations as a legitimate issue that must be addressed in an emotionally accessible way.
Watching this video reminded me of the importance of understanding emotional responses and in using factual information that will appeal to people who tend to make judgements based on reaction instead of deep thinking. In other words, it brought me back to my belief that the nuclear industry needs to recognize the importance of taking advantage of the skills that can be acquired on Madison Avenue and in business marketing classes to share correct, but emotionally accessible information about our technology.
From long association with people who work hard to remove emotions from their own thinking processes — I am, after all, a former career naval officer with a large base of friends and acquaintances with a similar background — I understand that there is an ingrained distrust of marketing, advertising and salesmanship among certain segments of the population. I recognize that those segments have had a large influence on the established nuclear industry. We tend to want to do our jobs well and believe that people should figure out for themselves that our technology is better than any available alternative.
Our competitors, however, figured out a long time ago that they could obtain emotionally positive responses for their products with colorful pictures, brief video, and appealingly short statements. They have captured widespread acceptance through reminding people about the benefits frequently enough that they accept the risks as something worth taking.
Some of the professional opponents of nuclear energy have also recognized the importance of appealing to emotions like fear and concerns about the unknown. They have experienced substantial success in spreading misinformation based on those appeals largely because the industry has not effectively countered with its own legitimate, emotionally appealing story.
We have to stop trying to achieve success without comparing our technology to the other ways of generating power and without explaining the sense of responsibility for others that drive us to work as hard as we do to make nuclear energy more accessible to more people.
Nuclear fission is worth my time not simply because it provides useful heat, but because it provides useful heat that is better than any alternative way of producing that heat. One thing that is a little difficult to explain is my own sense of being responsible for others. Starting at a very young age, continuing through my formal education at the US Naval Academy, and on through my career as an officer (and as a parent) I have been inculcated with the notion that I have been gifted with privileges that come with a heavy dose of responsibility. From my very first days at the Academy, we were reminded that “Rank has its privileges (RHIP) and rank has its responsibilities (RHIR).”
I feel a moral responsibility for the health, safety and prosperity of people who had the misfortune of being born in poverty; lower cost, cleaner and more accessible energy is a great tool for improving their lot in life.
Generational responsibility is high on my personal list of priorities. I invested in raising children; I have spent a fair portion of my career in training young people, and I have one extant grandchild with another on the way. I come from a long-lived family and can reasonably expect that my grandchildren will be alive at the turn of the next century. If we do not change our current course and speed, we will have run out of accessible oil and natural gas in the US by then.
I often worry about the long term impact of continuing to dump at least 30 billion tons of fossil fuel waste into our shared atmosphere every year. I am no climate expert, but I have experienced the negative impacts of routine air pollution. I believe the warnings of the thousands of people who are climate experts.
It makes deep emotional sense to me to use an available alternative that produces power that is even more reliable and potentially less costly but does not include the negative risks of dumping huge quantities of gaseous waste products. Some of those inevitable waste products — like CO2 — have a steadily increasing concentration because the removal term is inherently lower than the addition term in the differential equation.
My well honed sense of fairness contributes to my status as a fission energy fan. When society agrees to enable companies to build nuclear power stations, the benefits are widely shared in the form of cleaner air, lower cost electricity, reliable power, and large work forces each of whom collect salaries that are sufficient for raising families.
The stories from nuclear plant workers at Vermont Yankee that Meredith Angwin has been posting on Yes Vermont Yankee are not unique. Most of our nuclear power stations have similar work forces that are also active in their local communities. That is the kind of people that the industry attracts, with its durable, productive power stations that sometimes employ two or three generations of hard working technical and professional employees.
Based on numerous conversations with my colleagues who are nuclear energy professionals, my emotional reasons for working hard at my craft are not unique, but, as an industry, we have done a poor job of sharing those particular bases for our career decisions with the public.
We have a moral imperative to do a better job of communicating the multiple emotional reasons why we believe that using more nuclear fission energy as a replacement for some of the less advantageous alternatives will make the world a better place. The alternative to success in our efforts is to condemn society to having less and less available power to do work. We will also condemn our fellow citizens to continued dependence on the good graces of the money focused people who tend to dominate the fossil fuel extraction, transportation and distribution business.