Why We Fear Nuclear Power, Not Peanut Butter By Hannah Holmes Why are you scared of nuclear power, but not of a peanut butter sandwich? Simply put you're off your nut, some gurus of "risk assessment" might say. Anyone with half a brain would be scared silly of a peanut butter sandwich. . But you're not. And if I continue to pummel you with statistics that say you're more likely to die from the natural carcinogens in peanut butter than from living next to a nuclear power plant, you'll eventually knock me down and stuff jelly up my nose. When the captains of the nuclear industry originally offered the peanut butter equation, it didn't make them very popular with environmentalists and others who think we rely too heavily on half-tamed technologies and chemicals. The environmentalists, in fact, wanted to knock the captains of the nuclear industry down and stuff jelly up their noses. But the peanut butter equation illustrates a point: When scientists bang on their calculators, they come up with a list of things that kill lots of people, but don't scare us much. . Likewise they can produce a list of things that don't kill many people, but of which we live in dread. Consider these disparities, for instance: * Scientists rate nuclear power as fairly safe; lay people are horrified by it. * Scientists think X-rays are moderately dangerous; lay people aren't so worried. * Scientists rate swimming as rather hazardous; lay people consider it rather harmless. What can explain this chasm between what we're scared of and what we should be scared of? Well, if "risk assessment" takes the objective view of a hazard, then its sister science, "risk perception," examines the subjective side. And it has revealed a method in our madness. Risk perception seems to attract scientists with a frisky approach to research. One experiment, for example, involved dipping a dead, sterilized cockroach into a glass of juice, then noting the percentage of people who wouldn't drink. . In another trial researchers observed that people refused to put on a sweater worn by someone who committed a moral offense, or by someone with an amputated foot! Using these and more orthodox approaches, risk-perception researchers have identified some general rules that cause us to greet danger with a yelp or a yawn. As stated by Carnegie Mellon researcher Baruch Fischhoff, "We probably do have our priorities screwed up, but there's usually some reasonable reason for it." * Natural risks are less scary. Perhaps this explains why we loathe nuclear power but ignore the radioactive threat of natural radon gas. * Risks imposed on us seem worse. We can decide if we want to risk swimming, but when a hazardous waste incinerator sprouts next door we feel powerless and panicky. * Risks with an obvious benefit are less daunting. One reason we give appreciative ratings to X-rays and surgery is that we focus on the payoff. * Risks associated with complex technologies and catastrophes are greater. This is partly because the media dwell on catastrophes. If each day's headline read, "One in 50 of You Will Die in a Car Crash" (and this is an amazing, true fact), we'd think twice about risking our necks in those death traps every time we need a donut. In light of how we estimate risk, our fears don't seem quite so silly. . They reflect our notions of fairness and our desire for control over our lives. They reflect emotional truths, and for $95 any psychologist will tell you nothing on the planet is less silly than an emotion. And that explains the big smile on my face every time I tempt fate by eating a peanut butter sandwich in the car on the way to the pool. Vocabulary Framing, n. Your expectations, and the context you're in, "frame" your perceptions: The same odor that smells revolting in a sewer may smell exquisite in a gourmet cheese shop. Hannah Holmes throws caution to the winds of Portland, Maine. Her numerous contributions to Discovery Online include this month's "Hitchhikers' Guide to the Hubble." She also writes for Escape, Outside, Sierra, Backpacker, Eco Traveler and Women's Sports and Fitness. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Illustration: Brian Frick | Copyright © 1997 Discovery Communications, Inc.