Peter Sandman

More Peter Sandman analysis on Japan radiation threat communications

After my March 16 post on risk communications related to the Japan radiation threats, I decided to continue the dialogue with Peter.  We traded some emails last Wednesday, which I thought I’d summarize here (edited for brevity/clarity):


 Three interesting articles to share: 

 Side note – years ago, I analyzed the Union and found it to be more aligned with political leanings than scientific.  I wonder if that’s still the case.

 – J.D.

Here is an edited summary of Peter’s insightful responses:

Thanks, J.D.

In my experience, much of it outdated, UCS does activist science – pretty parallel to a lot of industry science, I think.  

I no longer think it’s easy or common to do “objective” science on controversial topics.  Research on the social science of science has found a strong correlation between the findings of research on controversial topics and the preferences of the study’s funders.  I sometimes call this the Ouija board phenomenon: Without consciously cheating, researchers manage to reach conclusions that please their funders the overwhelming majority of the time.  Some of this, of course, is publication bias; when studies displease their funders they tend not to be submitted for publication.  But some of it is unconscious bias in the choice of hypotheses, methodology, analytic strategy, etc.  (And some of it, no doubt, is intentional.)

By the way, the UCS is absolutely right about the importance of an intermediary role – technical people whose crisis assignment ISN’T to manage the crisis, but to shuttle between those managing the crisis and those who need to know what’s going on (government policymakers, company decision-makers, and public affairs people).   If everyone who knows what’s going on is busy managing the crisis minute-to-minute, everybody who isn’t managing the crisis ends up making unwise policy decisions and inaccurate public statements.

As the UCS article points out, this was a key conclusion of the Kemeny Commission that studied Three Mile Island response.  It’s partly about hardware (dedicated phone connections between the control room and the offices of policymakers, so they’re sure to get through to each other) – but the intermediary role is crucial.  Policymakers need somebody to call who doesn’t have a phone in one hand and a fire hose in the other!

All the best.

— Peter

A few hours later, Peter added these gems:

I’m no judge of the seriousness of the radiation in Tokyo’s tap water.  But the government certainly worsened the seriousness of thepublic’s stress about tap water by its failure to warn people.  People could have had a few days to get through their adjustment reaction before they had to cope with the actual contamination.

I see only three possibilities:

  1. The government had reason days ago to think this morning’s news was likely.  If so, it should have warned people about what was likely, and advised them (especially families with infants) to hurry and store some tap water now. 
  2. The government had very little real understanding of how much radiation had been released, and how much radiation was likely to be released in the days ahead…and knew it didn’t know.  Here, it should have warned people that it couldn’t tell what was likely, and given the same advice.
  3. The government imagined it knew enough about radiation releases not to worry about water quality in Tokyo and turned out wrong.  In this case, its core problem (pun intended) is a technical failure, not a communications failure.

 All the best.


3 thoughts on “More Peter Sandman analysis on Japan radiation threat communications”

  1. Today, another after shock has rocked Japan. As the crisis continues I fear reports of fatalities from "acute radiation poisoning" will surface years from now.

    Radioactivity has already been confirmed in locally grown vegetables, the waters of the coast of Japan are not safe. The scope of damage is staggering. This tragedy will set this tiny nation back decades.

    The crisis plan developed must be fluid enough to respond to critical emergencies that most likely will emerge; and to anticipate probable consequences that over time are certain to destroy families and communities.

    Join me in prayer for these kind, beautiful people.

    1. Indeed, Andrew, we must keep these folks in our thoughts. We must also find a way to be sensitive to their plight, while also offering public-affirming context on nuclear-radiation threats. Tough balance.

      The threats are real and scary. The threats are also typically disproportionately feared when compared with other risks.

      1. Agree, the energy crisis of the seventies was never solved. Like many problems we simply ignore the threats and danger. Henry Ford's Model-T has not changed much. Why?

        Our dependence on fossil fuels is crippling this economy. The Surgeon General warns that smoking is hazardous to your health. When are we going to kick the habit?

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