What if?/Gotta die sometime

Dr. Robert DuPont got a phone call one day to ask him about nuclear power. His specialty is phobias, people whose behavior is restricted by all the what ifs in their lives. A journalist persuaded him to watch 11 years of media coverage on US nuclear power, coverage dominated by what ifs. From a PBS interview:

[F]ear is very important, because danger is around the corner. And fear is a way of signaling that there might be a problem ahead. It’s a reaction to the possibility of a predator lurking behind that bush when you’re out walking. So I think being able to anticipate dangers is very important.

Yet nuclear power’s safety record is excellent. So what accounts for public perception? After all, fear of what ifs doesn’t do us much good.

Well, there are a number of factors. One is that the threat is concentrated. It’s the fear like Three Mile Island. A reporter said off the record that if the public only knew, the East Coast of the United States was almost destroyed. Well, of course, nothing like that happened, but that was in his mind. And he thought about that. So it’s a cataclysmic event that really gets people going. It’s a risk people don’t control. People accept tremendous risk if they control it. But if it’s controlled by somebody else, they can’t accept it. If it’s perceived as needed, people will accepted it; whereas if it’s not perceived as needed, they will dismiss it. The problem of familiarity is probably the most important. And that is when we’re familiar with something, we don’t fear it. But when it’s alien, when it’s unfamiliar, we fear it more.

And on all four counts, nuclear power generates fear. It’s a cataclysmic accident that people are concerned about, some desperate kind of thing. It’s controlled by “them”, the utilities or the government, the scientists, or whoever it is, that is perceived as being the bad guys. It’s unfamiliar to most people. And most people feel they don’t really need nuclear power; that they can get their power from coal or oil or windmills or some other basis. They don’t really need the nuclear power.

photo credit

driving while texting
photo credit DuPont’s work antedates driving while texting.

In contrast to the what ifs toward nuclear power, often our reaction to fear is insufficient. I hear this frequently as, “Well, we have to die of something” when people talk about cigarettes, alcohol, and coal use (direct pollution from coal still kills more people yearly than climate change). DuPont says,

The capacity of human fear to be eroded by repetition, by familiarity, is unlimited. It is just an amazing thing, that no matter what the risk is, if the thing is repeated over and over again, there’s no fear. There’s no protection from the fear. People will continue to do something over and over again, even if it has a terrible probability of a disaster.

And the single best example of that is cigarette smoking. Everybody knows cigarette smoking is lethal. There is no question about that. It’s not debated. It’s known that it’s lethal. And we have 55 million people who not only voluntarily smoke, but who pay billions of dollars, $40 billion a year, for the privilege of killing themselves with this known lethal agent. Now, if fear were really protecting us, you couldn’t have any smokers. It would be impossible. So you realize that fear is a very imperfect shield against health risks….

So simply getting rid of fear is not a health-promoting goal. What’s important in both cases is to have the fear be realistic; that the fear fits the facts of the risk. And from my point of view, the contrast is very clear. With respect to drug abuse, we want more fear; and with respect to nuclear power, we want less fear in terms of a public health or the public interest goals.

So what can we do?

It’s quite remarkable to me, the number of Americans who hold anti-nuclear views. For them it’s like motherhood and apple pie. I mean, they don’t even get to the point of asking a question of what it is that’s going on. It’s just taken for granted.

Perhaps the first step for anti-nuclear power people is to ask a question. “What about nuclear waste?” is a statement, what are your questions?

Nuclear phobia–phobic thinking about nuclear power: A discussion with Robert L. DuPont was published in 1980, and is now out of print.

Chinese coal pollution
image credit. China is more dangerous than the US, where National Academy of Science estimates 10,000 die from coal power pollution each year. Chernobyl (pdf) has killed 50 – 60 so far, with up to 4,000 more deaths possible over the next 6 decades from that initial exposure.

nuclear power plants
scary? image showing water vapor, from an anti-nuclear site

Sometimes people tell me that they are also opposed to people dying from coal power. But nationwide, is there is much fascination with the sins of coal power? Texting while driving gets surprisingly little attention among the public compared to concerns about brain cancer from cell phone radiation, even though brain cancer rates have declined since 1987.

I’m interested in how people challenge this tendency in ourselves and others to apply worry disproportionate to actual risk.

3 Responses to “What if?/Gotta die sometime”

  1. Jack Gamble says:

    It is an undisputable fact that falling Taco Bell signs have killed more members of the US public than nuclear power plants. Why then is Greenpeace not campaigning against Taco Bell signs? Why is Alec Baldwin not hosting meetings to stir up anti-Taco Bell Sign fears?

  2. Keith Helmuth says:

    For an understanding of how the nature of risk has changed under the conditions of “super-industrialism” see the work of Ulrich Beck: “Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity,” “World Risk Society,” Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk,” Ecological Enlightenment: Essays on the Politics of the Risk Society.” See also “Ulrich Beck: A Critical Introduction to the Risk Society” by Gabe Mythen.
    Beck observes that human adaptation has moved from being concerned primarily with natural hazards to now dealing continuously with manufactured hazards – hazards that appear as the result of the pursuit of progress and the decision making associated with this quest. With the advent of hydro-carbon, chemical, nuclear,genetic, and nano technologies the ecological and social context of risk has become total.
    Quoting and paraphrasing Beck, the conditions that define the risk society are as follows:

    1. The hazards and risks of super-industrialism cannot be delimited spatially, temporally, or socially; they encompass nations-states, international alliances, and all social classes, and, by their very nature, escape from and operate beyond the efficacy of the institutions designed for their control.

    2. The hazards and risks that now accompany the deployment of these totalizing technologies are potentially catastrophic to the degree that collapse of civilization, and even the annihilation of the human species, as well as many other species, is a logically foreseeable outcome.

    3. The risks introduced by unlimited deployment of these technologies are beyond accountability. They are not subject to the prevailing rules of causality, guilt, and liability. Manufactured risk – risk generated by decision making – has become both total and anonymous.

    4. This total and anonymous risk is incalculable and, therefore, neither insurable nor compensable. No one can be held responsible and compensation for the level of damage that can accompany the failure of these technologies is impossible to calculate.

    In thinking about risk, and our reaction to it, a distinction needs to be made between those that are partial and accountable and those that are total and anonymous. Psychologically, we can deal with the former, but the latter are beyond our ability to accommodate. They are not subject to rational calculus. They become lodged in a mythological dimension of consciousness. The effect is the “return of the demonic.”

    Only this time, the demonic is the invention of the human, and the fact that we all know it is manufactured makes it unbearable.

    This is the existential situation of living in the era of super-industrialism. It is not so much a question of why some people fear one kind of risk and not others, but of why some people think a reasonable accommodation can be made with the industrial-commercial system that has created an environment of total and anonymous risk, and others insist that a fundamental error has been made in human adaptation that must be called to account and corrected.

    The new demonic can be defined as that which operates without limitation, that which once under way has no built in feedback guidance mechanism of limitation. The symbiotic relationship between technology and the capital regime of unlimited wealth accumulation is the “perfect storm” for the return of the demonic. As things are going, it may destroy itself, before it destroys and unravels earth’s biotic systems. Or it may take down much of the biosphere, and, thus, destroy itself in the process. Neither scenario is pleasant to contemplate.

    It is not “fear” in the ordinary sense of gaging risk that is at work here. It is the realization that the industrial-commercial system is a badly, and perhaps, fatally flawed mode of adaptation. This is more than fear – it is panic. “What in the world do we do now!”

    Those who have not made the link between super-industrialism and the capital regime of unlimited wealth accumulation can rationally accommodate and tinker hopefully with the technology. Those who have made the link are urgently searching for the hinge factors of change that can dramatically alter both the economics and technology of industrial civilization.

    This is a much bigger question than who is fearful of what technology and why. Even if all the anti-nuclear folks were to be convinced that their fears were irrational, and they all rallied to the support nuclear power, the existential anxiety that flows from living in a world risk society would not change. In fact, it would be come worse, because it would be somewhat denied.

    Overcoming fear of a technology that is central to a cluster of technologies that, together, have created a world of manufactured, total, and anonymous risk is an odd thing to do if you if your hope is to see human adaptation retrofitted into a mutually enhancing relationship with the integrity of earth’s ecosystems.

    What I have characterized as the return of the demonic is, perhaps, the result of a misalignment between imagination and intelligence that has been fueled by the enormous satisfaction males derive from power and control. The “demonic,” in this sense, is operational in the world through the agency of men organized socially for the accumulation of wealth and the exercise of power.

    I hazard a guess that no comparable social organization of women would have created the kind of world we have now. Think about it: If, for the last 350 years, women had exercised the economic, political, and social initiative and authority that men have exercised, what kind of human world would we now have?

    It seems fair to say, that with regard to the security, nurture, provisioning, and flourishing of community life that we know the human species is capable of, something is off kilter in the way human males have recently employed their drive for world making. This is what has got us into a world risk society. This is probably not a matter of “hard wiring” but more a matter of a long tradition of social conditioning. At least that’s the hopeful view.

    I very much suspect that overcoming the fear of nuclear power is playing into this long and unfortunate tradition of male domination, resource enclosure, and wealth accumulation. If it seems that’s the price we have to pay to keep the lights on, take a look at the work of Walt Patterson. Go to http://www.waltpatterson.org Walt Patterson is a nuclear physicist who has become one of the UK’s foremost electrical energy system analysts and planners.

  3. Karen Street says:


    Thanks for writing. I’m trying to figure out what you said, but it sounds like we agree on passion about the environment, and on little else.

    I’m going to begin with questions, just so I can check my understanding. Your comment contains a lot of content, so I will only ask about a few points.

    Environmental concerns

    • About the dangers you see: hydro-carbon, chemical, nuclear,genetic, and nano technologies

    By hydrocarbons you mean fossil fuels? foods? using biomass for power and fuels? heating and cooking with wood?
    By chemical you mean???? Fertilizer and pesticides? plastics?
    By nuclear you mean nuclear power?
    By genetic you mean transgenic crops?

    What is the danger you see in each of these? For example, do you have a picture of nuclear waste stored in Yucca Mountain turning us all into mutant frogs, one answer I received to this question, or the whole kit and kaboodle killing < 10 people, as another anti-nuclear power person responded? How big are the numbers, and what specific concerns do you have for each?

    It's not obvious: I've seen no issue on which a majority of those who are anti-nuclear agree, including the dangers of nuclear waste or terrorism/proliferation. On a number of issues, such as the harm from nuclear waste, people appear to project their fears. No one I know has ever seen an analysis showing that nuclear waste will actually kill someone (yes, it's very radioactive for decades and still radioactive hundreds of thousands of years from now, but will anyone die?) When I listen to people produce scenarios for nuclear waste (as I once did, myself), I am reminded of other times when the fears do not come from facts:

    1) I asked ten people to name the danger of MTBE pollution, just after we had read weeks of warnings that this gasoline additive was polluting ground water. I heard back 2 "causes birth defects" and 8 "causes cancers". Actually, MTBEs in large quantities can be tasted by 15%?? of people, and it makes the water unpalatable. In the absence of information, we project our fears onto what we read.

    2) Mugabe told Zimbabweans that American food aid, from transgenic crops, would make them sick. In the absence of information, they filled in the blanks: American food would give them AIDS.

    Environmentalists trying to establish the importance of their advocacy do well when they do not explain themselves on the dangers of nuclear power, because filling in the blanks produces much scarier scenarios than an accurate written report could.


    Your source on nuclear power is Walt Patterson. Does it make you more comfortable to use sources outside the scientific mainstream? If so, can you tell me why?

    Cultural cognition explains why we can’t trust like-minded people to catch the glitches in our thinking.

    • Which sources do you use to find glitches in your thinking, rather than to confirm your current position?

    Greg Craven in What’s the Worst That Could Happen?: A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate (especially chapters 2 – 4) emphasizes why we are not trustworthy, and why we need to find sources we trust more than ourselves.

    I have learned to respect the process in the science community. No matter what people want to believe ahead of time, nature is the final arbiter. Scientific validation begins with peer review: sharing understanding with the science community must begin with publishing in a peer review journal. Over time, ideas are accepted or rejected (for novel ideas, the scientific tradition requires trying to undermine the idea, from evolution to the Standard Model, as an idea gains credibility only when attempts to discredit it fail). As acceptance becomes widespread, the idea appears in major reports. If scientists writing in a peer review journal do not reject some or all of the thinking in the idea, the ideas have reached another level of acceptance.

    One thing I absolutely love about science is that almost as soon as ideas are proved wrong, they disappear from the scientific discussion.

    • I hear your concern about anonymous risk, for instance, the minor risk from nuclear power which seems more important to you than less anonymous risk, such as arises perhaps from living in a neighborhood with a high crime rate. I can understand this, in a way. We may feel more helpless about 10,000 Americans dying yearly from transportation pollution than 40,000 Americans dying yearly from automobile accidents, since we can usually find the name of a drunk or cell-phone using driver who killed our loved one. The legal system is set up to deal with “fault” in the accident cases, but not in the case of pollution, which we are apparently willing to put up with and even to contribute to by driving as much as we like. Anonymous risk means we can’t get hold of someone to blame/punish for what goes wrong. Yet for me, automobile accidents and anonymous transportation pollution together kill 50,000 Americans annually, and the sedentary lifestyle supported by easy access to cars kills even more a case of people doing damage to themselves rather than others. They all result from our willingness to allow a large number of people to drive.

    High Tech vs Low Tech

    I am struck by the anonymity of other sources of pollution that seem to be widely accepted, such as coal plants and the use of fireplaces and barbecues—are these also a concern for you? Historically, technically simpler sources of pollution have been more dangerous than coal power. We know that the London fogs killed many more than 10,000: in 1952 alone, it is believed that 12,000 died in a long weekend. More than 10,000 died in the London fogs during the first 7 weeks of 1880 (pdf).

    Even today, low technology pollution is a major killer. World Health Organization estimates that well over 1 million die yearly from indoor air pollution, primarily women and children, all from the low-tech use of fossil fuels and biomass, for cooking and heating. I wonder if anonymity is the main culprit, in your thinking, or if you are more alarmed by high-tech than by low-tech dangers to human and environmental health?

    I have campaigned against the use of fossil fuels since 1995, and have not supported biomass replacements because of their dangers. (And yes, I do realize that NO major report sees us eliminating fossil fuels by 2050.) Though I personally love the smell of wood fires, I live without them. Fireplaces are low tech and dangerous to health and the environment, and coal power is fairly low tech and dangerous to health and the environment. Nuclear power and photovoltaics are higher tech and of less danger, though our current manner of making PVs does damage both.

    I look forward to your clarifications. It will be good if we can at least understand one another’s main points.

    Just one comment—it is generally considered impolitic to mention one gender as the moral superior of another, especially when some could read this as women “are too stupid to do science”. I feel that domination of some by others on the basis of gender, race, caste, and so on is bad for the individuals involved, that society ends up with a strong shadow side, and that too much energy is used psychically justifying one’s superior or inferior role and too little with real creativity. I do not feel that a society with women in charge would have somehow bypassed the scientific revolution. Please set me straight if this is not the meaning you intended.