Following recent events at the Fukushima power plant in Japan, the UK government elected to postpone the publication of Sir David King’s report outlining the benefits of nuclear power. Across Europe, reviews of nuclear safety have been launched in several countries, with Angela Merkel declaring a three-month moratorium on plans to extend the lifetime of nuclear plants in Germany. Now, if you’re concerned about the use of nuclear power, you may be tempted to celebrate this spreading wave of atomic cold feet. Yet, regardless of one’s personal stance on nuclear energy, perhaps it is these knee-jerk reactions from governments across Europe which should actually be our main cause for concern.
These reactionary tendencies demonstrate an inherent short-termism on the part of government and lay bare the populist motives underlying decisions which really ought to be made on a rational, disinterested basis. At the root of this problem is the issue of communicating risk. In light of the events at Fukushima, the perceived risk of nuclear power has vastly increased in the minds of the general public. Of course, in reality, no causal link exists between events in Japan and the likelihood of accidents occurring at European nuclear power plants. Events at nuclear power plants geographically isolated from one another are mutually exclusive, meaning that an incident at one does not affect the likelihood of an incident occurring at another.
Nevertheless, the decisions made by European governments on this issue are somewhat understandable. Communicating risk is a notoriously tricky business, and governments are not generally held to have the best track record in this department. A prime example of this here in the UK would be the government’s reaction to the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Ultimately, this pandemic proved to be milder than feared and there have recently been questions raised about the government’s handling of this issue. MP Paul Flynn compiled a report last year for the Council of Europe, criticising the amount of money ‘wasted’ on unused vaccines. He said: “They [the WHO] frightened the whole world with the possibility that a major plague was on the way. The result of that was that the world spent billions and billions of pounds on vaccines and anti-virals that will never be used. It is huge waste of money.”
However, during the BBC’s 2010 Reith Lectures, former president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, rightly defended the government’s record on swine flu. He argued: “If we apply to pandemics the same prudent analysis whereby we calculate an insurance premium – multiplying probability by consequences – we’d surely conclude that measures to alleviate this kind of extreme event actually need scaling up.”
Now this raises an interesting point. If we consider the occurrence of an event to be a simple binary possibility, then we can calculate risk as follows:
Risk = (probability of event occurring) X (expected consequences of event)
Thus, events with high expected consequences, even if they are unlikely to occur, can still be described as being high risk. As such, government spending on vaccines during the 2009 swine flu pandemic is completely defensible. In fact, one could even argue that government efforts did not go far enough. To take an extreme example: the probability of an asteroid hitting the Earth is relatively low, but, as the value of the expected consequences tends towards infinity, the risk is still tremendously high. Consequently, we need to invest more money in mitigating the risk of these ‘high consequence low probability’ events.
But perhaps science communicators can turn the question of risk into an advantage when it comes to tackling the great issue of our time: climate change. Well-funded climate change deniers would have the public believe that the underlying science is unreliable; that climate change is unlikely to occur. Of course, anthropogenic climate change is a fact, and it is important that scientists and science communicators alike emphasise this at every given opportunity. Yet, even if we were to hypothetically accept the denialists’ claim that climate change is unlikely to occur, could we not still make an argument for investing in renewable energy sources on the grounds that climate change is a high consequence event? Thus, even if the denialists’ erroneous claim, that the probability of climate change occurring is minimal, were to be accepted, climate change’s huge potential consequences would still make it a risk worth taking action to defend ourselves against.
So, by embracing risk, rather than shying away from it, science communicators can inform people and help them to make considered decisions about the chances we choose to take. Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying “god does not play dice”. But we certainly do. As such, it would seem to be the job of science communicators to ensure that we at least enter the casino with our eyes wide open.
Andrew Purcell is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, London. He is also the Editor of Imperial’s I,Science magazine.