Scientists often complain that people are irrational in opposing technologies such as nuclear power and genetic engineering plants. From a statistical perspective, this is very safe, and (therefore) expressed people’s fears can only be explained with emotion, based on ignorance. Electricity from nuclear power has caused far less direct death than coal power, but many people are afraid of it, and almost no one is afraid of coal plants. Similar arguments can be made about GMO plants, which studies have shown are generally safe for most people to eat.
Scientific blindness may be part of the problem. Most of us are afraid of things we don’t understand, and research shows that scientists tend to be more receptive to potentially risky technology than ordinary people. This shows that when people know a lot about such technology, they are usually convinced.
But there are more problems than meeting eyes. It is true that many of us fear the unknown, but it is also true that we can be arrogant about routine risk. Part of the explanation is complacency: we tend not to fear the familiar, and thus intimacy can cause us to underestimate risk. The bipartisan commission that reviewed the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill concluded that complacency – among executives, among engineers and among government officials responsible for surveillance – was the main cause of the disaster. So the fact that experts aren’t worried about threats isn’t necessarily convincing.
Scientists also make mistakes when they assume that public concerns are fully or even largely about safety. Pope Francis, for example, rejected genetic modification in part because he saw it as inappropriate interference in God’s domain; this is a theological position which scientific data cannot deny. Some people reject GM crops such as Roundup Ready corn and soybeans because they facilitate increased use of pesticides. Others have problems with the social impact that can be caused by switching to GM organisms on traditional farming communities or by the political implications of leaving most food supplies in the hands of several companies.
Geo engineering to reduce the impact of climate change is another example. Some concerns about geoengineering – not only among lay people but also among scientists – are more related to regulation and supervision than to security. Who will decide whether this is a good way to deal with climate change? If we do the global temperature regulation project by controlling how much sunlight reaches the earth’s surface, who will be included in “us”, and with what process is the “right” global temperature selected?
Such considerations can help explain the results of classic research on health risk perceptions from a polluted environment, which shows that white women, as well as men and women who are not white, are substantially more worried about these risks than white men. Because most scientists are less worried about risk than ordinary people, we can conclude that white men who are out of their minds are right and others don’t have to bother.
Of course, most scientists are white men, so it is not entirely surprising that their views are in line with the views of the demographic groups they are in. And there is a more important point here: risk is not distributed evenly. Women and people of color are more likely to be victims when something goes wrong (think Marshall Islands or Flint, Mich.), So it makes sense that they tend to be more worried. In addition, women and people of color have historically been excluded from important decision-making processes, not only in science and technology but in general. When you are excluded from the decision-making process, it is not irrational for you to consider the process unfair or skeptical about what it produces.
Can we say whether men or women are more rational about risk? Can we say which group’s views are closer to accurate assessment? Well, here’s one relevant datum: women are more likely to wear seat belts than men.
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