Public Response to a Student Study of the Feasibility of Nuclear Power: Distrust of Science in a Postmodern World

By Wil Holden and Ann-Lise Norman.

Published by The International Journal of Science in Society

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An eight-month project to explore the feasibility of nuclear power from a multi-disciplinary perspective was conducted by thirty undergraduate students in the Environmental Science Program at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. The results, presented at an Open House, elicited substantial backlash from the local public. The study was undertaken to benefit the public by providing it with a source of unbiased scientific analysis on issues such as: plant siting, radiation hazards in the event of a Chernobyl-style accident, a comparison of ambient nuclear to background radiation, and the role of media. Notwithstanding this public service focus, members of the public articulated their disbelief in the students' results and submitted formal letters of complaint to the University Administration. These letters, and letters to the editor of regional publications, indicated that members of the public were distrustful of the independence of the project and felt the results were skewed in favor of nuclear power and that the students had been “brainwashed” into adopting a conclusion favorable to nuclear power. This reaction to the study exemplifies the lack of trust in expert interpretation that is a hallmark of the postmodern world, where science no longer has a privileged place. Such a context, where scientific information is portrayed as incredible, contributes to a lack of public confidence in the viability of factual information and undermines the faith in humanly engineered progress on which western society is based.

Keywords: Feasibility of Nuclear Power, Viability of Factual Information, Public Confidence, Research Independence

The International Journal of Science in Society, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp.79-92. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.716MB).

Dr. Wil Holden

Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, Faculty of Science and Social Science, The University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

The authors contribute their expertise in Social Science and Physics to the Environmental Science Program at the University of Calgary which emphasizes interdisciplinary undergraduate research. Dr. W. Holden’s interests research interests encompass Environmental Law and Social Justice issues. Atmospheric science and isotope applications are Dr. A.L. Norman’s fields of study.

Dr. Ann-Lise Norman

Director, Environmental Science Program, Associate Professor, Department of Physics & Astronomy, Faculty of Science, The University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

The authors contribute their expertise in Social Science and Physics to the Environmental Science Program at the University of Calgary which emphasizes interdisciplinary undergraduate research. Dr. W. Holden’s interests research interests encompass Environmental Law and Social Justice issues. Atmospheric science and isotope applications are Dr. A.L. Norman’s fields of study.