Issue No.10 Autumn
(November 2005)


ENS News

ENS President's Contribution

Informing the Public

ENS Events

Etrap 2005

ENC 2005

PIME 2006

Topnux 2006

RRFM 2006

Topseal 2006

Topfuel 2006

Member Societies & Corporate Members

Hurricanes Give a Boost to Hydrogen Economy

Finland's Olkiluoto 3

YGN Report

10th Anniversary of German YG

European Institutions

European Energy Policy

ENS World News

Nuclear frontline of climate change battle

Winning the battle

ENS Members

Links to ENS Member Societies

Links to ENS Corporate Members

Editorial staff

ETRAP 2005

ETRAP 2005
23-25 November 2005 in Brussels


RRFM 2006RRFM 2006

RRFM 2006
30 April - 3 May 2006 in Sofia, Bulgaria

























Listening to others

Informing the Public

The European Commission published last June its 2005 edition of the Eurobarometer survey. The aim was to analyse the opinion of European Union citizens on the subject of nuclear energy, and radioactive waste in particular (see the ENS President’s comments on it in this issue of ENS News). I would like in turn to use this study as a starting point for addressing the difficult problem of public information. Two observations found in the survey will provide the material needed. First, the level of information given to the public on radioactive waste is still very low, albeit improving. Second, to quote the report itself, “only a quarter of citizens of the European Union feel that they are well-informed about radioactive waste”. I could jump at this opportunity and renew a call for increasing our efforts to provide quality information to the public. The incentive to do so would be all the stronger because the survey also indicates that, on the whole, better information on nuclear energy goes hand-in-hand with greater public acceptance. However, as I will try to explain, things are not quite so simple. Focusing on the need for receiving adequate information betrays a serious misconception about what the public is actually prepared to do.

The crux of the matter lies in the allocation of a scarce resource: time. There are simply too many issues competing for everybody’s attention. As we all know from first-hand experience, we cannot afford to investigate personally all of them. In most cases, we resort to short-cuts to form our opinions. An insight into the mechanisms at play is provided by an examination of the workings of democracy. Barring the special case of referenda, the electorate does not vote on actual issues, it votes for politicians instead. Voters, therefore, replace a time-consuming problem (What should my stance on this issue be?), with a heuristic one that requires a much smaller time investment (Whom should I trust to tackle the issue on my behalf?). Why would such a heuristic procedure work at all? This question actually goes beyond the special case of ballots. It can be applied to all situations where people are influenced by others. Let us, therefore, call for greater generality. You have the “Speakers” - those (e.g. politicians) who influence - and the Principals (e.g. voters), who are influenced. Two social researchers,1 who have investigated the matter, claim that for the heuristic process to work satisfactorily, the following three conditions must be met:

  • There is a verification process enabling the Principals to assess the quality of information dispensed by the Speakers

  • The Speakers face a penalty if they lie

  • The cost a Speaker is willing to incur to make his or her views known can be assessed by the Principals. This cost will be interpreted as an indication of the value attached by the Speaker to the outcome he is promoting, a high cost being interpreted as high personal interest

Such a context provides clues, which enable the Principals to decide for themselves whom they should trust. This context, however, is not created just by chance. Institutional measures are needed to make it happen. A concrete example of an institutional framework designed to solve the problem of trust is that of a judicial court. The Principals (the jury) do not know the Speakers (the parties), nor were the Principals present during the events that gave rise to the trial. The latter can, nevertheless, form their own educated opinion based on the facts presented to them. This is because two of the three above-mentioned conditions are met, namely the legal process ensures that all statements made will be cross-examined (the verification process) and that penalties will be applied to anyone who is caught lying.

Now, let’s apply the same analysis to the pro and anti-nuclear debate and see how each side of the argument scores in terms of trust rating. Reading the daily news over an extended period of time has led me to deduce the following:




Level of verification



Penalty for lying/being mistaken



Cost of making public statements


Negative or nil

The above appraisal is based on the institutional factors at play in the nuclear debate: regulatory authorities and groups of sceptical scientists submit the nuclear industry to a high level of scrutiny, while the press is quick to condemn it for any error revealed. Conversely, the statements coming from the anti-nuclear camp are not subjected to any form of official vetting. Furthermore, it is a well known fact that the press tends to publish them without much regard for their appropriateness. Consequently, the positions of the pro and anti-nuclear camps appear to be completely asymmetrical:

  • The pro-nuclear camp has a strong incentive to provide accurate information but does not look trustworthy

  • The anti-nuclear camp has little incentive to provide accurate information but does look trustworthy

It so emerges that the Principals are applying a heuristic process to a situation where the conditions for its successful application are not met. Such a situation hardly qualifies as a satisfactory framework for debating any issue, not to mention one as important as the future of the planet. The answer lies in applying either of two equally unlikely options. Either the balance of the institutional framework in which the debate is taking place is restored or the danger of the heuristic route is removed thanks to much better informed Principals. On the institutional front, I cannot see how a Regulatory Authority could effectively impose fines on the anti-nuclear lobby each time it makes a statement that contradicts the facts. It seems also difficult to imagine a union of concerned scientists spending its time highlighting in the press fanciful claims about anything being OK for the planet provided it is not nuclear. On the information front, we have just seen that people are not prepared to invest much time in acquiring knowledge about energy matters. To reverse this situation, education would have to be somehow made compulsory. It could be decided for instance that a minimum level of knowledge would be required to enable people to participate in public consultations. This would constitute another type of institutional measure, but one that would certainly not be popular.

Listening to others

In conclusion, whatever the route one follows in practise, institutional measures will be first needed to ensure a more balanced and rational debate. The ideal development would be the emergence, only in a second phase, of a well-informed public that would not need any shortcuts to help it shape its opinions. Now that really would be a giant step forward for humanity.

1 Arthur Lupia and Mathew D. Mccubins, The Institutional Foundations of Political Competence : How Citizens Learn What They Need to Know in Elements of Reason, edited by Arthur Lupia, Mathew D. Mccubins and Samuel L. Popkin, Cambridge University Press, 2000.


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