Dumbing things down in frivolous, smart-alecky ways probably costs you more in trust than it earns you in converts to your way of thinking. Here, a journalist comments on the comparison of radiation in bananas to the radiation leakage from the Japanese nuclear power plant recently damaged by earthquake and tsunami.
“Bananas are radioactive,” he went on soothingly. “Everything is radioactive, including the food we eat and, for many people in this country, the water we drink. There is a point at which we say there’s no more than Mother Nature out there.”
Is there a point at which we say the urge to reassure people might get in the way of straight answers? A point at which, for instance, a reporter might think that if one more person brings up bananas, she herself will melt down, or, with all due respect, giggle.
“It’s very bad risk communication to communicate in ways that make people feel as if you think they’re stupid,” he said.
He said he had worked with nuclear scientists who were irritated by the public’s ignorance about radiation, but were also proud to be recognized as experts. Pride plus irritation, he said, can be a recipe for pronouncements that come off as pompous and condescending. Mix in an agenda — whether it’s the urge to reassure people, or to stir them up — and the message can really backfire.
“People smell it,” Dr. Sandman said. “And they don’t trust you.”