Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 20 November 2010
Obviously I like nerdy days out: like Kelvedon Hatch secret nuclear bunker, maybe, with its sign on the A128 saying “secret nuclear bunker this way”. Last month eight of us commissioned a boat to get onto a rotting man-made WW2 sea-fort in the middle of the ocean through Project Redsand (we genuinely thought we might die climbing the ladders), and a couple of weeks earlier, myself and Mrs Bad Science travelled to Dungeness, where a toytown narrow gauge railway takes you through amusement parks and back gardens, past Derek Jarman’s house, then into barren wasteland, before depositing you incongruously at the base of a magnificent, enormous, and terrifying nuclear power station.
I tell you this, because I should declare an interest: I quite like nuclear power stations, not just because they’re clever, or even because I regretfully concede they might be one of our least bad options for power. I secretly like nuclear power stations because they remind me, in the way nostalgia makes us pine for things we disliked at the time, of a childhood in the early 1980s when I knew that I would definitely die in a nuclear holocaust.
So. Last month energy company EDF conducted a poll on whether people near Hinkley Point nuclear power station would like it to be expanded. The BBC dutifully reported the results: “EDF survey shows support for Hinkley power station” said the headline. “Six in 10 people support a new power station at Hinkley”. Polls like this convince locals, and politicians.
But Leo Barasi at the blog ClimateSock has diligently obtained the original polling questions from ICM, and what he has found is a masterclass in how to manipulate answers to a single question.
First, respondents are set into the frame with a simple starter. “How favourable or unfavourable is your opinion of the nuclear energy industry?” Then things heat up. “To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: nuclear energy has disadvantages but the country needs nuclear power as part of the energy balance with coal, gas and wind power.” As Leo says, this is structured in a way that makes it harder to disagree. “It appear reasoned: taking on board the downsides of nuclear before drawing a measured conclusion that it’s a necessary evil to produce a greater good.” As a result, only 13% disagree, but the whole audience is gently nudged.
Then locals are asked a whole series of branching questions, forcing them to weigh up the positive and negative impacts a new power station would have on the area. People who think it would be positive are asked to also weigh up the negative, and people who think it would be negative are asked to weigh up the positive factors, and everyone is asked to say why they think what they think.
Then, in a killer move, they’re asked: “How important, if at all, do you consider a new power station at Hinkley to each of the following? To the creation of local jobs? To the future of local businesses?” And take a moment to reinforce those concerns: “Why do you say that?”
Finally, after being led on this thoughtful journey, and immediately after mulling over the beneficial economic impact it would have in their community, the locals are asked if they’re in favour of a new nuclear power station. It’s the results of this, the final question, that are reported in the press release and headlines.
To me it seems clear that this long series of preceding questions will guide people down a path of thinking about a nuclear power station in a very different way to how they normally would. It’s a line of reasoning, and that might make sense if you were trying to advocate for a kind of structured decision making, but it’s very unlikely to produce results that reflect local views, partly because we’re all a bit thoughtless, in the real world, and follow our guts in odd ways; but partly because the penultimate question is “do you want your children to be unemployed?” rather than “are you all secretly terrified we might cock up and give you cancer?”.
So I still quite like nuclear power stations, but more than that, as ever, I salute the PR industry for finding new and elaborate ways to muddy the waters, and I salute the nerds who bust them for it.