TAPPING UNUSUAL QUARTERS
Cognitive Dissonance and the Nuclear Debate
The concept of cognitive dissonance was introduced
by Leon Festinger in a book titled A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance
published in 1957, almost fifty years ago. The focus of this book
was on a psychological condition that has certainly been experienced
by all of us: receiving a piece of information that contradicts
previously-held beliefs. Cognitive dissonance is the state arising
from the realisation that one is now faced with an inconsistency
in one’s system of beliefs. How serious is the feeling of
unease resulting from cognitive dissonance and what individuals
do to remove this feeling are the main subjects of interest of
this book and of a lot of ensuing research. One example will at
the same time make the concept clearer and show what it can be
used for. Let us consider a customer who purchases, say, an electric
appliance. This very act is liable to arouse dissonance: the negative
aspects of the action taken, as well as the positive aspects of
alternatives (not purchasing, or purchasing something else) is
dissonant with the decision. The purchaser will have to do something
to reduce the ensuing psychological discomfort. In this context,
one would conjecture that the effort exerted to reduce the tension
should be proportional to the discomfort experienced1.
Many experiments designed to investigate such situations
in controlled conditions have confirmed this hypothesis2. The concept
of cognitive dissonance does not just apply to the understanding
of individual reactions in everyday situations. It can also
be used to analyse cases where the dissonance comes from
a discrepancy between an accepted theory and the occurrence
of new facts that seem to give the lie to the said theory.
It can be confidently predicted that, here also, cognitive
dissonance reduction mechanisms will come into play.
These ideas can be usefully applied to the controversy
surrounding the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Both the supporters
and the critics of nuclear energy have encountered states of cognitive
dissonance. Let us call them Pronukes and Antinukes respectively
for short and give two examples:
The Pronukes gave assurances that the operation
of nuclear reactors would be perfectly safe but were nevertheless
faced with a number of accidents, the most serious of them
being Three Mile Island (for its potential impact) and Chernobyl
(for its actual consequences). Their early response to the
accident argument consisted of compiling risk compendia3 showing
that other industrial activities entail much larger risks.
As for Chernobyl, the standard answer, in the West at least,
is that this accident is linked to a technology and a safety
organisation that are not relevant anymore.
Is one entitled to see in the responses of both
parties mere attempts to reduce their respective states of cognitive
dissonance? Third parties could be tempted to say yes and hence
consider that the Pronukes' and Antinukes' positions are actually
symmetrical. Such an attitude would apparently be justified as
it would conveniently explain why the nuclear controversy has
been inconclusive for so long.
One additional consideration can help to clarify
the issue raised above. When an individual (or a group) is faced
with a discrepancy between theory and observations, two options
are available. One can either adjust/reject the theory to take
account of the new observations or question the validity of the
said observations because they do not fit the theory. In principle,
both options have some value; they are complementary and in their
judicious use resides the essence of scientific progress. In practice,
how have the Pronukes and Antinukes dealt with their respective
problems? By and large, the Pronukes have adjusted their theories
and the Antinukes have questioned the observations. To come back
to the examples provided above,
Three Mile Island
These two examples are typical of what the two
parties usually do. On the one hand, the Pronukes adjust their
theories most of the time through the implementation of practical
measures; additional examples are Generation III reactors, the
Generation IV project, the study of ageing mechanisms, etc. In
one area at least, economics, the Pronukes' attack has been two-pronged:
new reactor designs feature lower costs and the way costs are
computed has evolved to take a fuller account of the externalities.
On the other hand, the Antinukes systematically question the validity
of figures or observations that do not support their basic tenets.
They have done so regarding the economics of nuclear energy, uranium
reserves, the amount of CO2 generated by nuclear power plants,
the environmental impact of reprocessing. They have done so each
time a quantitative assessment relating to nuclear energy was
publicised. What should raise eyebrows is that they always manage
to counter the assessments made by the Pronukes. No human being
is right all the time. This is where the purported symmetry breaks
down: the Pronukes demonstrate their human nature occasionally,
while the Antinukes never go wrong.
Oh, by the way, there's one thing I almost forgot
to mention. The philosophy of knowledge has given names to the
two approaches for dealing with discrepancies between theory and
observations: adjusting theory to facts is called the critical
approach and questioning the facts that do not support the theory
is called the dogmatic approach.
1 This, by the way,
is the reason why seasoned sales attendants will always endorse
your choice whenever they notice that the decision was difficult.
2 See for instance the first chapter of Cognitive
Dissonance: Progress on a Pivotal Theory in Social Psychology,
edited by Eddie Harmon-Jones and Judson Mills, APA Books.
3 For risk compendia, see
ENS NEWS issue no 2, autumn 2003.