How Not to Calm People Down: Governments at all levels in the U.S. are trying to reassure Americans that they have nothing to fear from the plume of radiation heading east from Japan across the Pacfic. I assume the officials and experts are right about this. But they have a lot to learn when it comes to easing modern public health fears. Perhaps I can help them. You’ve heard of “first responders.” I am a “first panicker.” They’re talkin’ to me. Or trying to. Here are five rules that might help them do a better job.
1. Do Not Be Clintonian: Here’s what President Obama said Thursday–
“So I want to be very clear. We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the United States, whether it’s the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska or U.S. territories.”
Not good enough! Way too carefully crafted. “We do not expect” is a familiar ass-covering government fudge phrase, after all. Politicians routinely say the do not “expect” to do something–say, raise taxes, or run for another term–when they fully expect to be expecting it at some future date. We were not born yesterday!
What are the chances Obama’s expectations will change? 5%? 10% 49%? And how bad could it be if they did? Which brings us to “harmful.” Did Obama mean that he expected the radiation level to increase but it just wouldn’t be a harmful increase? If so, how does he define “non-harmful”–a small increase in cancer risk? This is a man who wants to have a “difficult … democratic conversation” about denying hip replacements to cancer stricken grandmas, remember. He’s comfortable with ignoring some harms on policy grounds.
No, that wasn’t a reassuring statement at all.
2. Do Not Guilt Trip Us: We know our selfish concern for our own situation does not compare with the predicament of the people of Japan. We don’t pretend it does. We’re very happy the wind is blowing East, across the Pacific and toward the distant U.S., rather than towards nearby Tokyo. We just want to know how to adjust to this stroke of luck.
3. Don’t Defend Covering Up: Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations has chastised the head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for presenting a more alarmed view of the Fukushima crisis than the one the Japan government is presenting. She writes:
If the NRC has unique information or scientific analysis that exceeds available Japanese wisdom, it is unfortunate they could not share that urgency in a more discreet fashion with Tokyo. Instead, the NRC has succeeded in further distancing the Japanese people from their own government, raising their amygdala-driven anxiety levels to new highs, and dragging people all over the globalized world into a collective moment of acute fear.
This is most unfortunate.
In other words, don’t tell the public the truth. Be “discreet” and just tell the Japanese government. Garrett forthrightly defends, as sound official policy, deceiving the public about risks. Do not trust information from Laurie Garrett.
4. Give Us the Raw Numbers. Los Angeles’ Air Quality Management District, attempting to soothe our selfishly hyperactive amygdalas, has a web site promising to report any change in outdoor radiation levels, as measured by its very sensitive monitors. Good idea. Here’s the current headline:
No “increased risk”?” Hmmm. Again, does that mean the levels didn’t go up, or that they went up but the AQMD has judged (on what basis?) that there is no added “risk”?** I’m sorry, this is how we Panickers think! Better to just let us have the raw numbers, maybe even a graph. Then officials can add all the information they want to convince us that any small increase is really nothing to worry about. (This article does a good job of the latter.) … Corollary: Don’t sneer at Panickers in anonymous quotes from secretive international bureaucracies, as if only high level officials can handle the truth. At least don’t do this if you are trying to calm the Panickers down. …
5. Tell Us the Alternative Contingency Plan: Why don’t we trust officials? Because we think if the news really was bad, they’d find an overriding Laurie Garrett-like reason not to tell us. That’s the plot of 75% of Hollywood’s disaster movies, but it happens in real life. Why did Mayor Giuliani assure New Yorkers that the air in Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attack was safe? Maybe it was because he didn’t want to sow panic and cripple New York’s economy (and tax base). Why do the Japanese stick with a 12 mile evacuation zone around the stricken reactor while the Americans declare a 50 mile zone? Maybe because there are substantial cities in between 12 and 50 miles that the Japanese couldn’t evacuate if they wanted, and they fear causing a stampede. Same goes for Los Angeles. If officials decided the only safe thing was that everyone should leave town, they couldn’t implement that plan. You can’t evacuate L.A. quickly–there are too few ways out. So they wouldn’t tell us if evacuation was warranted, which means we don’t trust them when they say evacuation isn’t warranted.
That dilemma is probably insoluble in some circumstances. But it’s soluble in others–maybe this one. Suppose what officials would tell us, if the radiation got bad, wasn’t to leave town but simply to stay inside and shut our windows? They could do that! So why don’t they constantly emphasize up front that they do have a contingency plan that they could implement and would tell us about? Then we might believe them when they say that isn’t justified. Officials seem to feel that bringing up worse-case contingency plans will only sow panic, when it is one of the key things that might alleviate panic.
Update: The Obama administration is sitting on some numbers, according to some environmental groups, who have complained. But Obama himself has assured the nation. Isn’t that enough? …
** — If you dig a bit deeper into the AQMD site, it says radiation levels “have not been higher than typical ‘background’ levels seen before the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.” … “Typical.” There’s another one of those words. Is there a range of “typical” levels? Was Thursday’s level at the high or low end of this range? Why not just give us the damn numbers?