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Can you convince people that the risks of fracking are worth it?

It’s a fracking protest! Andrew Yates/Reuters

Can you convince people that the risks of fracking are worth it?

An issue as controversial as fracking is bound to lead to some emotional debates. Lively protests in the UK against the onshore oil extraction technique have led to arrests and one even saw designer Vivienne Westwood drive a tank up to David Cameron’s country home.

Yet we shouldn’t assume that the adverse public reaction to the shale gas industry is just an emotional response. Averil MacDonald, the chair of oil industry body United Kingdom Operators Group (UKOOG), recently claimed that women were less likely to support fracking than men because they followed their instinct rather than facts. This idea leads to the assumption that information cannot alter the emotive public perception that has already been built. But my research suggests this is not the case and that the public are actually hungry for more information about fracking.

I protest, as I’m afraid of fracking … DanielLobo/Flickr, CC BY

Emotion and risk

Emotion and intuition do play a natural role in assessing risk. The amount of risk we perceive is often linked to the degree of dread or fear we experience as part of the automatic feelings we associate with a word or thing. (Consider your different reaction to the words “cancer” and “Christmas”.) This is an inescapable reaction that enables us to make initial quick decisions in a complex and often uncertain world.

Such intuitive responses are particularly relevant to the issue of fracking because of potential risks such as earthquakes and water contamination by methane or chemicals. These can conjure up very clear pictures of damage, many of which carry high levels of dread/fear. Being able to picture the possibility of such damage can often overpower the fact that the probability of such damage occurring may be low. And when a risk is imposed on people, such as when a shale gas exploration site is not supported by locals, their intuitive reaction is likely to be higher.

But emotional responses only form a part of risk perception and do not operate in isolation. Information processing also plays a key role. Research has shown that the less we know about a risk and the more uncertain it is the more we fear it. This highlights just how important this relationship is.

I run away from fracking, as I don’t know the social context of it … stuartanthony/Flickr, CC BY

My own ongoing PhD research into people living close to current/proposed fracking sites in the UK suggests that locals feel that there is a considerable lack of information available on the risks associated with fracking. The majority of those I’ve surveyed have been really keen to receive information and build an informed opinion. But, where this information isn’t available, there is a likelihood that information gaps will be filled by more emotive based claims leading to higher levels of concern or fear.

Information becomes even more important when you consider that people who feel an activity is bad are more likely to automatically judge the associated risks as high and benefits as low (based on their initial emotion-based response). But this relationship can be altered with information. Where information reduces the perception of risk, the perception of benefit goes up (and vice-versa). This clearly shows that information and emotion are operating in parallel in shaping risk perceptions.

As a result, claiming that there is no point in producing information on the basis that it does not alter emotionally informed perceptions is incorrect. For the examples of genetically modified food and nanotechnology, information has been found to have significant potential to increase the public acceptability of risk.

Is information the answer?

Opposition to fracking is often considered to stem from a lack of scientific understanding. Often we assume that by absorbing scientific information, the public will automatically accept the risks because information enables them to “understand” the issue.

While information is of undoubted value in shaping risk perceptions, in many previous scenarios where information has been made available to “educate” the public it has actually generated further concern and public debate. A recent government survey suggested that this was particularly relevant to fracking. The study found that there was more opposition than support among those who know a lot about fracking (54% vs 32%), know a little about it (35% vs 27%), and those who are aware of it but don’t really know what it is (23% vs 13%). So, if emotion does not act as a total block to the influence of information, why does information often fail to decrease perceptions of risk?

My study has found that perceptions of fracking risks are closely connected to the social context in which they develop. This means that while science tends to separate out technical risks and provide information on them, many of the concerns present among local people stem from wider social concerns. These include worries over monitoring and enforcement, a lack of trust in the shale gas industry and associated regulators. If the information aimed at educating the public simply dismisses these concerns, it fails to fully address the risks that are shaping public perceptions and so will have little impact.