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John Lindberg, art4 "The ghost of our minds - Why we fear radiation"

Imagine this: For all your life you've been told that eating an orange will give you a scary disease, if not kill you outright. This is then reinforced by your teachers at school, in films and books, and by stories told by people about relatives who might have encountered this mythical orange. One day, many years later, someone comes along, sprinkling orange juice all around you without your consent, and you might, or might not, have been exposed to a tiny amount of orange juice. Even if virtually every scientist tells you that orange juice is safe, wouldn’t it be rather strange if you didn’t become anxious or scared, after years of being taught to the contrary?

Replace oranges with radiation, and voila, you get radiophobia. Over the past half a century, we have all been told in no uncertain terms that radiation is indeed very dangerous, causes cancers and birth defects, full stop. Images of Chernobyl firefighters dying after receiving atrocious amounts of radiation, children and animals born with severe birth defects such as too many legs, no arms or ballooning heads – allegedly caused by radiation exposure – and much, much more has formed our experience with radiation at the very deepest of levels. Unhelpfully, radiophobia has often been used by pro-nuclear voices to discredit people’s fears around radiation, citing it as an irrational fear, and that if you’re afraid, you must be ignorant, not knowing your facts. We discussed this in the previous instalment of this article series. Nevertheless, as the example above highlights, radiophobia is indeed rather rational.

To anyone having followed the historical debate around nuclear energy, the spectre of radiophobia has been ever-present – perhaps not always expressed, but nevertheless, always lurking in the back of the room, like a faint shadow. The story of radiophobia comes from the depths of human anxiety about nuclear weapons, but has over the decades evolved into something much larger. It has morphed to envelop nuclear power, and it has become one of the chief calamities holding back humanity, robbing us of a better tomorrow. In this piece, we will be exploring where radiophobia came from and the psychological processes which nurtures and maintains it.

Radiation; the ghost of our minds, shaped by decades of portrayals in books, films and TV series – is an unforgiving monster. Radiation is the proverbial Victor Frankenstein, violating the most sacred and most hidden of places, perversely creating monsters by ripping apart our DNA, leaving us to live our lives as mutants. We become destined to succumb to the most feared of malaise’s – cancer – and produce more mutants (not the X-Men kind!) when our children enter this world. This is the unique fear profile of radiation – once “contaminated”, it is believed that the radiation will linger on, slowly poisoning everything and everyone. Given this image, it is no wonder that exposure to radiation causes anxiety; indeed, fear.

In fact, it is our own imagined radioactive ghost that is the mutant. In many ways, the “groundwork” for today’s radiophobia was laid in the period 1945-1965, when the power of the atom first and foremost brought to mind imagery of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the near-inevitable Atomic World War. During this period, fallout from extensive nuclear weapons testings, predominantly by the US and the Soviet Union, sparked debate around the potential health impacts of low-dose radiation.

The effects of high doses of radiation were already being noticed mere weeks after its discovery in 1895, but the effects of very low doses, accumulated over time, was a hotly debated and contested issue. The discovery that low levels of radioactive elements released by the tests were accumulating in children’s teeth, alongside claims that hundreds of thousands of cancer cases were to be expected as a result of the tests, caused public outrage. Whilst such claims made by activists were scientifically unsubstantiated, they swayed the public debate considerably, triggering a very powerful radiophobic response - and led to the first international ban against atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons. More importantly, for our purposes - the fallout debate had firmly established that radiation was something to be afraid of, and the narrative of the invisible threat, constantly surrounding us.

Today, it is evident - beyond any doubt - that the cognitive, emotional and imagerial links between nuclear power and nuclear weapons exist in the public mind, despite the actual differences between the two technologies. Most glaringly, perhaps, is the misconception that a nuclear reactor can lead to a nuclear explosion a la a nuclear bomb – despite the fact this is physically impossible. These links, however, has not always been part of the nuclear debate. Many of the leading anti-nuclear weapons advocates were also leading anti-nuclear power advocates. Imagery, rhetoric and strategies flowed freely between the two, which over time led to image “crossover”, with radiation being the common denominator. In a study asking people what they thought the aftermath of a nuclear accident looks like - may answers were very similar to the aftermath of a nuclear bomb – despite this being far, far from the case.

We are born with very few fears. It has been argued that it is only the fear of falling and of loud noises which we come into this world with - all other fears are acquired and learned. Radiophobia did not develop as a universal fear, but rather was found within the nascent environmental movements of the 1970s and 1980s. It also fits very well with the overall Zeitgeist of the last decades of the 20th and early 21st centuries, where risks against humanity are presented as catastrophic and world-ending in nature. As many of the values of the environmental movement began entering the mainstream, so did also the socialisation of radiophobia.

These links provide important clues as to where radiophobia came from. From the realms of psychology and behavioural economics, we find the concept of heuristics – the mental processes through which we quickly make decisions, form judgements and solve complex situations – which is crucial to understanding radiophobia. A good starting point can be found in many of our bookcases – by way of the ground-breaking work of the psychologist, economist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, in the shape of the bestselling “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.

One of the lasting contributions by Kahneman is the “two systems” thesis, which is the result of decades of research into human thought models and decision-making. Put simply, we all have two “systems”, which we use to make sense of the world. 95% of the time, we use system 1, which is quick, automatic, emotional and stereotyping. System 2, on the other hand, is used a mere 5% of the time, which is the logical, conscious and, as some would call it, the “rational” side of us. Understanding that most of our interactions in the world are based on our biases is important, as it highlights why providing facts – aimed for system 1 – to “correct” radiophobia is bound to fail.

This is especially true as radiation in many cases elicit a strong emotional response, and this rapid response activates the so-called availability bias. This is a phenomenon where the individual relies on immediate examples, based on previous knowledge or impressions, when assessing a risk or making a decision. This means that, for example, if you believe that nuclear accidents lead to many deaths, you will react very negatively to the news that a nuclear power plant is planned in your vicinity, as your first association will probably be death and danger. This is supported by research that has shown how a word - for example cancer - generates an unconscious emotional response - usually fear or anxiety - which in turn affects the individual's decision-making. If the emotional response is positive, the risk will usually be considered low and the reward high and vice versa. This so-called affect heuristic is clear in the nuclear power debate, where radiophobic associations with cancers, malformations and Chernobyl often lead to a negative psychological response, which in turn affects people's attitude towards nuclear power.

This has been corroborated by decades of psychological research, which has concluded that it is emotions, imagery, mental shortcuts and biases, as opposed to facts, which determine the way we perceive risks such as radiation. Indeed, it has been found that, in order to act “rationally”, we depend on mental imagery and the emotional response we’ve developed to said imagery. This mental imagery is inherently populated by our experiences – be it lived or through media - and represents the perceived reality of whatever issue is being discussed. Nuclear energy and radiation are no exceptions, with popular culture having played a significant role in shaping our relationship it, having created and promoted the monstrous image of radiation, aided and reinforced by the perceived impacts of nuclear accidents.

This is, in turn, reinforced by a phenomenon we all encounter on a daily basis - confirmation bias. It did not create radiophobia, and it is by no means unique to nuclear energy, but it has done a great deal more to ensure the survival and longevity of radiophobia and its policy guises. The basic tenant of confirmation bias is very simple: we look for things that confirm the views we already hold, and select any potential facts reinforcing this, whilst rejecting those that would invalidate our views. For the radiophobia case, confirmation bias looks like this: “Radiation is dangerous; the accident at Chernobyl proved that it is dangerous; thus, radiation must be dangerous”. We would, in order to confirm our views, subconsciously select the “evidence” – regardless of its credibility or scientific anchoring – which supports it. In the Chernobyl case, people who already believe that nuclear is a lethal danger would naturally believe the widely discredited Yablokov & Nesterenko study which claims some 985,000 deaths, whereas so far, some 100 attributable deaths have been reported.

Ten years after the Chernobyl accident, anti-nuclear advocates published claims that nuclear reactors – during normal operations –causes AIDS, alongside a number of different negative health consequences. Whilst there is no evidence that supports these claims, it serves to highlight a broader point about the nature of evidence. If we leave the nuclear debate briefly, you find that people who firmly believe that the Earth is flat are excellent at finding “evidence” to support their beliefs, and ignore any “evidence” which contradicts their belief. This is very much the case in the nuclear debate as well.

Nuclear energy has, since the very start, been intensely political. It got caught up in some of the biggest societal conflicts of the post-WWII era, and served in many ways as a proxy when people struggled with the new world which we were entering. The misconceptions and in many cases, outright lies about nuclear energy, were brought into the societal discussions by fear entrepreneurs, whose motives were as diverse as there are grains of sand on a beach. What is clear, however, is that the radiophobia they created and actively promoted, is alive and well. It has, for all intents and purposes, been allowed to roam freely and virtually unchecked.

Given how the public debate around radiation and all matters nuclear has been shaped over the past 70 odd years, radiophobia is completely rational. Nevertheless, and despite decades-worth of research pointing to the contrary, proponents of nuclear energy have spent decades telling people that nuclear power is safe, that their fear of radiation is irrational and that this can be cured once they are told the true facts, and given the proper data, about nuclear energy. To call the public irrational is not only a counterproductive strategy, but also fundamentally flawed. The next – and final – article in this series will explore some of the ways to combat radiophobia, avoid future suffering, and thus, once and for all unshackle the full potential of nuclear energy.

References images:

NARA: unknown [] ARC Identifier 540016, Item from Record Group 220: Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards, 1893-1999


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