April 13th, 2012 | 6:29 pm

“Speaking to Values and Nuclear Energy”

We enjoy reading Steve Skutnik’s blog, Neutron Economy, and thought the post there today on culture, perception and discussion around nuclear energy issues was especially insightful. Have you considered this line of thinking before?

Steve makes the observation that we are all culturally bound in our viewpoints, and that we all filter the world through our own contexts of morality, ethics and risk perception, and then develop our opinions — including those on energy policies and the role of nuclear power. The term-of-art for this line of thinking is “Cultural Cognition.”

The facts of any issue that involves understanding, perceiving and quantifying risk are in part colored by our social values. As Steve phrases it, “Risk perception tends to be oriented along lines that remain harmonious with one’s social values – risks which appear to challenge one’s social values are minimized, while risks which speak to concerns of social values are heightened.”

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. As Steve writes: “proponents of the Cultural Cognition hypothesis posit that educating participants on topics to which they were previously uninformed can actually produce a polarizing effect in attitudes.

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.

For those of us looking to make the case for nuclear energy as a key part of an effective U.S. energy policy, Steve’s post is a great reminder to “speak to values.”

It’s a well considered post covering a lot of ground that will reward your reading the whole thing, though you may want to find a comfortable chair first.

Posted in: News | 2 Comments»
  • Steve Skutnik

    Thanks for the promo! I’m a regular reader of the blog – keep up the good work.   

    Meanwhile, I am admittedly a nuclear engineer by trade and not a social scientist, but issues of public perception of risk are incredibly interesting to me, especially given how important public discussions of energy are.

    BTW – by a happy coincidence, David Ropeik has a similar, fascinating discussion regarding this issue in the context of a California ballot initiative to shut down their nuclear units.

    http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-ropeik-california-nuclear-risk-20120413,0,2666015,print.story 

  • arevainc

    Good link. As the article shows, it’s an important concept with real-world impact.