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 skinny@online.discovery.com.

                Illustration: Brian Frick |
                Copyright  1997 Discovery Communications,
                Inc.