The strategy persists even today. In the aftermath of Japan’s nuclear crisis, many nuclear-energy boosters were quick to cite a study commissioned by the Boston-based nonprofit Clean Air Task Force. The study showed that pollution from coal plants is responsible for 13,000 premature deaths and 20,000 heart attacks in the United States each year, while nuclear power has never been implicated in a single death in this country. True as that may be, numbers alone cannot explain away the cold dread caused by the specter of radiation. Just think of all those alarming images of workers clad in radiation suits waving Geiger counters over the anxious citizens
of Japan. Seaweed, anyone?
At least a few technology promoters have become much more savvy in understanding the way the public perceives risk. The nanotechnology world in particular has taken a keen interest in this process, since even in its infancy it has faced high-profile fears. Nanotech, a field so broad that even its backers have trouble defining it, deals with materials and devices whose components are often smaller than 1/100,000,000,000 of a meter. In the late 1980s, the book Engines of Creation by the nanotechnologist K. Eric Drexler put forth the terrifying idea of nanoscale self-replicating robots that grow into clouds of “gray goo” and devour the world. Soon gray goo was turning up in video games, magazine stories, and delightfully bad Hollywood action flicks (see, for instance, the last G.I. Joe movie).
The odds of nanotechnology’s killing off humanity are extremely remote, but the science is obviously not without real risks. In 2008 a study led by researchers at the University of Edinburgh suggested that carbon nanotubes, a promising material that could be used in everything from bicycles to electrical circuits, might interact with the body the same way asbestos does. In another study, scientists at the University of Utah found that nanoscopic particles of silver used as an antimicrobial in hundreds of products, including jeans, baby bottles, and washing machines, can deform fish embryos.
The nanotech community is eager to put such risks in perspective. “In Europe, people made decisions about genetically modified food irrespective of the technology,” says Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan and an editor of the International Handbook on Regulating Nanotechnologies. “People felt they were being bullied into the technology by big corporations, and they didn’t like it. There have been very small hints of that in nanotechnology.” He points to incidents in which sunblock makers did not inform the public they were including zinc oxide nanoparticles in their products, stoking the skepticism and fears of some consumers.
For Maynard and his colleagues, influencing public perception has been an uphill battle. A 2007 study conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School and coauthored by Paul Slovic surveyed 1,850 people about the risks and benefits of nanotech (pdf). Even though 81 percent of participants knew nothing or very little about nanotechnology before starting the survey, 89 percent of all respondents said they had an opinion on whether nanotech’s benefits outweighed its risks. In other words, people made a risk judgment based on factors that had little to do with any knowledge about the technology itself. And as with public reaction to nuclear power, more information did little to unite opinions. “Because people with different values are predisposed to draw different factual conclusions from the same information, it cannot be assumed that simply supplying accurate information will allow members of the public to reach a consensus on nanotechnology risks, much less a consensus that promotes their common welfare,” the study concluded.
It should come as no surprise that nanotech hits many of the fear buttons in the psychometric paradigm: It is a man-made risk; much of it is difficult to see or imagine; and the only available images we can associate with it are frightening movie scenes, such as a cloud of robots eating the Eiffel Tower. “In many ways, this has been a grand experiment in how to introduce a product to the market in a new way,” Maynard says. “Whether all the up-front effort has gotten us to a place where we can have a better conversation remains to be seen.”
That job will be immeasurably more difficult if the media—in particular cable news—ever decide to make nanotech their fear du jour. In the summer of 2001, if you switched on the television or picked up a news magazine, you might think the ocean’s top predators had banded together to take on humanity. After 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast’s arm was severed by a seven-foot bull shark on Fourth of July weekend while the child was playing in the surf of Santa Rosa Island, near Pensacola, Florida, cable news put all its muscle behind the story. Ten days later, a surfer was bitten just six miles from the beach where Jessie had been mauled. Then a lifeguard in New York claimed he had been attacked. There was almost round-the-clock coverage of the “Summer of the Shark,” as it came to be known. By August, according to an analysis by historian April Eisman of Iowa State University, it was the third-most-covered story of the summer until the September 11 attacks knocked sharks off the cable news channels.
All that media created a sort of feedback loop. Because people were seeing so many sharks on television and reading about them, the “availability” heuristic was screaming at them that sharks were an imminent threat.
“Certainly anytime we have a situation like that where there’s such overwhelming media attention, it’s going to leave a memory in the population,” says George Burgess, curator of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History, who fielded 30 to 40 media calls a day that summer. “Perception problems have always been there with sharks, and there’s a continued media interest in vilifying them. It makes a situation where the risk perceptions of the populace have to be continually worked on to break down stereotypes. Anytime there’s a big shark event, you take a couple steps backward, which requires scientists and conservationists to get the real word out.”
Then again, getting out the real word comes with its own risks—like the risk of getting the real word wrong. Misinformation is especially toxic to risk perception because it can reinforce generalized confirmation biases and erode public trust in scientific data. As scientists studying the societal impact of the Chernobyl meltdown have learned, doubt is difficult to undo. In 2006, 20 years after reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was encased in cement, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report compiled by a panel of 100 scientists on the long-term health effects of the level 7 nuclear disaster and future risks for those exposed. Among the 600,000 recovery workers and local residents who received a significant dose of radiation, the WHO estimates that up to 4,000 of them, or 0.7 percent, will develop a fatal cancer related to Chernobyl. For the 5 million people living in less contaminated areas of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, radiation from the meltdown is expected to increase cancer rates less than 1 percent.