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
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.
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.
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.