Have you ever tried to get someone to listen to reason?
You might have noticed that pouring facts, numbers and information on people, and hoping it will make them change their mind, rarely works. Further, they might even dig deeper in their own position. This is often frustrating for both sides of the argument.
Yet there is a perfectly good reason for this to happen. We filter and process the world around us mostly through feelings, and they are based on our previous experiences. We make decisions based on how they feel like.
Our feelings and beliefs, and the experiences they are based on, are an integral part of us. No matter how much it frustrates a number-loving and analytical mind, it is precisely the cold, hard data and numbers that usually gets the cold shoulder from the recipient.
Shooting, or not shooting, the messenger
It matters tremendously who it is that challenges our current world view. If it comes from a person we look up to, who shares our values and with whom we feel like we are part of the same tribe, we are much more open to re-evaluating our views.
The exact same message, told by someone who has different values and who belongs to another tribe, loses much of its power, and can even be counterproductive. It is my subjective observation, but this kind of tribalism seems to have grown in recent years.
If this holds true, and much of the evidence says it does, then it would be more important to communicate shared values instead of focusing on hard facts.
Shared goal, different means of getting there
It has been educational and interesting to participate in the nuclear energy discussion while coming from the environmentalist side of things. The shared values and goals are quite clear: worry over climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty and the general well-being of the environment. And when one inspects nuclear energy through these values, comparing it to the alternatives, it actually does much better than it is often given credit for.
”It is more important to communicate shared values than to focus on facts.”
But nuclear has an enormous historical baggage. Throughout the decades, we have managed to attach a surprising amount of negative feelings to nuclear. And as the nuclear-environment -discourse goes, it has been horrifying to see that simply working in the nuclear industry is often enough reasons to close the person out from the discussion. This is often done by labelling and name-calling someone as a “shill” for the industry (whether she works for the industry or not), which is then used as grounds for dismissing anything she says.
Smell the roses and feel the love, brothers and sisters, please
The nuclear industry also needs to take a long, hard (or maybe soft?) look at the mirror. Their communications have been straight from a data-engineers daydream, devoid of any feeling or values, and have rarely been open.
One big part of the problem is that there is no unified “nuclear industry.” Nuclear operators are often utilities that also have lots of other energy sources in their portfolio. Maybe they own coal fired power plants, natural gas turbines and wind parks. Why would they risk their reputation by defending something as controversial and emotional as nuclear energy?
For decades there was no reason for anyone to defend nuclear. Already in the 1970s, the benefits of nuclear power were hushed on the grounds that bringing them up would have meant admitting the problems with the coal plants that the same utilities also owned.
But now we have that reason. Climate change is a fundamental, even existential, risk for human civilization. It is as real for the people and their families working in the energy utilities as it is for the rest of us. And it is people who make decisions and people who communicate to other people, not corporations or other organizations. Without people, those organizations and businesses would be just a pile of meaningless paper gathering dust in a drawer.
Rauli Partanen is an award-winning science writer on energy and the environment.