Selective Polling

The difference between good science and bad science is one of methodology rather than theory. All theories are good theories as long as the methodology used to prove or disprove them is logical and objective. The socioeconomic studies run by NWPO crossed the line into bad science when their experimenters became part of the experiment and confused scientific methodology with political advocacy against Yucca Mountain. This became obvious at the interface between the socioeconomic researchers and the public, i.e. the polling techniques utilized by Mountain West not only measured popular sentiment but were designed to influenced it as well.

Paul Slovic of Decision Research has concentrated his studies for the last twenty years in the area of risk perception, especially in regard to nuclear issues. Early on, Slovic became convinced that because of the psychological theory called the "availability heuristic" it would be nearly impossible to teach any population (and by inference Nevadans) about the actual low risks of nuclear technology and the Yucca Mountain repository.

In order to prove such a theory, a social scientist polls public sentiments on issue that are "easy to imagine or recall" but have low "availability" (as for example a nuclear repository disaster). Where science failed in Nevada was when social scientists like Slovic not only polled public sentiment, but entered the public arena to advocate the results for which they were polling.

Nevadans would likely be afraid of nuclear energy and Yucca Mountain with or without the presence of the NWPO socioeconomic researcher. The fear of mutations and cancers due to silent and deadly radiation, no matter how unlikely, is difficult to change even with education, a result which supports the availability heuristic theory. However, humans do adapt and become accustomed to many other fears, living near volcanoes, earthquake faults, flood zones, etc. The Mountain West researchers seemed to dismiss this adaptation process, evidently theorizing that fears expressed in their polls were the same as fears experienced outside an experimental situation. Moreover, they became advocates of their own theory, claiming that their polls showed Nevadans were unlikely to ever learn to accept the presence of a nuclear repository, in effect acting as advocates for that very outcome.

Mountain West social scientists wrote articles in the Wall Street Journal and Science, appeared on radio and were the catalyst for numerous newspaper articles. Not only did they attempt to prove the "availability heuristic" by claiming their polls showed it to be impossible to educate the public about infrequent nuclear risks, but they also claimed public fears of Yucca Mountain were justified because scientists are incapable of calculating each aand every limb of a risk tree. In other words, they became advocates for the specific outcomes they were polling (negative images towards Yucca Mountain).

This ethical lapse is similar to a chemist looking for organic compounds who knowingly stirs the pot with a finger covered with his lunch at Taco Bell. It would be no surprise for the chemist to find organic traces of burito and taco sause in his results. It is little surprise to find that Mountain West's results claimed Nevadans could never accept information about nuclear energy, especially since that information was tainted by the people doing the polling.

For example, David Pijawka of Arizona State and a contractor to NWPO in an July 21, 1992 interview on KDWN radio showed his biases all too clearly:

BAUGHMAN: Dr. Pijawka, what was the survey and what were the results?

PIJAWKA: I was pleased to see this make front page news. It shows the repository has become a salient issue. . . . We interviewed 701 households. Not surprisingly, they said earthquake activity is important and it should be a criteria for dropping Yucca Mt. as a site. . . .

CALLER: I object to the DOE commercials that say Three Mile Island was a non-event. I have an aunt whose legs were burned from that fallout in the grass and know how she suffered.

PIJAWKA: Three Mile Island wasn't a "non-event." We may see some health manifestations show up many years from now. It cost the industry billions of dollars. . . We find that the TV ads put on by the industry are a failure. 41% of those interviewed are less trusting of DOE. 55% have not changed their level of trust. Only 3% are trusting now.

BAUGHMAN: Carl Gertz (Director of Yucca Mountain for DOE) said your survey is designed to create negative responses.

PIJAWKA: (laughter) That is expected rhetoric from the Department of Energy. The survey was very objective and neutral. People could put any answer they wanted on the scale they were given.

Pijawka's responses are disturbing:

  1. When polls create front-page news, there is a question of whether they were designed for science or political advocacy.
  2. The public's perceived risk of earthquakes causing failures at Yucca Mountain has nothing to do with the actual risks. People perceive rollercoasters as risky, but this hardly stops them from flocking to ride them.
  3. Three Mile Island was not a nuclear disaster. TMI's health manifestations are trivial. and it is considered an accident with negligible effects on local radiation levels (unlike the Chernobyl disaster). As a non-engineer, non-health scientist, Pijawka's comments were political.
  4. Tracking ANEC advertisements for political effectiveness implies Pijawka et.al. were running a political campaign against those ads rather than doing research. Questioning the ability of the ANEC ads to educate Nevadans is not a Yucca Mountain socioeconomic impact.
  5. Dismissing the respected Carl Gertz's comments as laughable DOE rhetoric implies Pijawka himself has an agenda in trying to undermine the credibility of the DOE.

The fact that Pijawka was on radio advocating an anti-Yucca Mountain position suggests that he acts more as a public relations consultant than an objective social researcher. Indeed, KDWN's show, "Yucca Mountain: Fact Not Fiction", has never interviewed a pro-Yucca Mountain guest in it's two years of shows spanning 1991 through 1993, calling into doubt the objectivity of this radio program.

Pijawka quoted an earlier autumn 1991 statewide poll conducted by Decision Research which tracked the effectiveness of the ads being generated by the American Nuclear Energy Council [see Report of the Nevada Commission Nuclear Projects, 1992, Attachment II, Autumn 1991 Nevada State Poll]. Question (4) from this poll is especially interesting because of the spin put on it by both sides of the debate:

4) Based upon these (ANEC) advertisements are you, personally: More supportive of the Yucca Mountain program Less Supportive About the Same Don't know

The state argued that these results showed the ANEC commercials, mostly dealing with transportation casks and pellets safety issues, were ineffective. The reading of the industry was that the 32% who were less supportive had already been lost to their efforts and that a 14.8% gain (not 3% as suggested by Pijawka) was actually highly encouraging in such a negative market after touching only a fw issues.

The last question in this survey (7) asked for written feelings about the ANEC advertisements featuring spokesman Ron Vitto. The majority of the 601 comments were negative, typically:

I feel they were a gimmick. I didn't believe it for a minute. I know about radiation. I have a medical background. I know you can't smell, hear or see it. But it's still very dangerous. They are trying to tell us it's not. I know it is. (respondant #9)


He sorta reminds me of a snake oil salesman. If it were a real pellet, he'd glow in the dark - it's a con. (respondant #4)

A few were positive:

I think they're good. I think the advertisements are educational. It makes you at ease, because in the ads they tell you if the wastes fall off the truck in their barrels, they won't crack, so there's no problem. I feel real at ease. (respondant #43)

The larger question was why a state agency felt compelled to track an industry public relations campaign and how this related to the socioeconomic status of Nevadans. In fact, it is an example of how the NWPO pollsters are tied intimately into the anti-nuclear political campaign, much as the pollsters for politicians running for office are integral parts of modern political warfare. Tracking ad responses is not a normal part of socioeconomic research which generally tries to determine mundane questions like migration patterns, income and the like.

In contrast to the state's surveys was a poll conducted by the Southwestern Social Science Research Center at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, titled Nuclear Issues Survey, - Spring 1993. The UNLV poll came to a number of surprising conclusions that had not been generally publicized about perceptions of Nevadans towards Yucca Mountain. According to the final evaluation of the UNLV poll:


Nearly three quarters of respondents (73.0%) place their trust in scientists as opposed to less than two percent (1.8%) who place their trust in politicians about the technical study of Yucca Mountain. As in other polls, Nevadans support scientists and appear willing to let them undertake the study without political intervention. undertake the study without political intervention.

Nevadans are in firm support (80.6%) of a stronger role by the scientists of the state university and college system in the scientific oversight and analysis of the study period. In combination with the high trust in scientists we are led to conclude that Nevadans have confidence in the state university system, and believe it should have a vested interest in the study period at Yucca Mountain.

Nearly ninety percent (87.2%) believe the evaluation of Yucca Mountain could be done better if state scientists were actually on the Yucca Mountain site versus only conducting off-site analysis. The confidence in the role of the state as an oversight actor would be enhanced through on-site opposed to off-site eva;luation.

Over ninety percent (94.6%) believe the state should provide an itemized list of how the money it receives for the oversight of the Yucca Mountain study is spent.

Among the most important issues facing Nevada today, six out of sixty-three are ranked above all others. These are Water, the Economy, Jobs, Education, Population Growth, and Crime.

Well over fifty percent of the respondents (57.2%) do not rank YuccaMountain as one of the two most important issues facing the state. One quarter (22.8%) feel Yucca Mountain ranks as one of the most important issues in the state. Based on support levels for benefits a significant number of these respondents see the issue as an important avenue for securing benefits for Nevada. Approximately one-fifth (19.7%) did not choose to respond or did not know how they would rank Yucca Mountain in relationship to other issues facing the state.

Over two-thirds (67.3%) feel nuclear energy and technology should be an important part of the nation's energy future. No stigma about nuclear energy and technology is apparent among the respondents.

While this poll was sponsored by the nuclear industry, neither its results nor even the results of Decision Research are much in dispute. What is in dispute is the scope, interpretation and political use of these polls. If the industry had followed NWPO's lead, it would have focused on whether Nevadans perceived the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office to be successful in persuading them to fear radioactive disasters at Yucca Mountain. Instead, some substantive questions were addressed.

Taking the results together, from various pro and anti sources, the situation appears to be this: Nevadans are overwhelming opposed to hosting the site (73%), but also overwhelmingly (68%) believe Yucca Mountain will be built. They do not rank Yucca Mountain as the most important issue, being superceded by water, the economy, jobs, education, population growth and crime, but it certainly is important. While only (3%) trust DOE, (73%) trust scientists versus (1.8%) who trust politicians.

These seemingly paradoxical results indicate that Nevadans hold complex multi-dimensional views of the study of Yucca Mountain. This indicates they may not be as dumb as the availability heuristic suggests and are capable of more complex responses to the dangers posed by a radioactive waste repository than cringing paralyzed fear. Perhaps a robust discussion of not only the risks of Yucca Mountain, but also its benefits, would bring a sophisticated response from the public that weighs the benefits, risks and perceptions of the repository in a rational way and leads to informed decisions on how to deal with this national problem.