William A. Wulf
The United States and the other developed countries are the most technologically
sophisticated societies that have ever existed. They are also the most technologically
dependent societies that have ever existed.
Inevitably, a large number of important public policy issues have a technological
dimension. Issues like climate change, energy policy, and even the use of computer-based
voting systems cannot be meaningfully discussed without some understanding of the
technology involved. Alas, the vast majority of our citizens lack that understanding.
One has to wonder just what it means for a society to be a “democracy”
when its citizens are unable to participate in a substantive discussion of some
of the most important public policy issues facing them.
What follows are a half-dozen examples of poor and perhaps even dangerous media
coverage of important issues. In each case, the problem was a failure to account
for the technical dimension of the story. This paper is not intended as a condemnation
of the media, however. The premise of this paper is (a) that the journalistic community
and the technical community share a responsibility to inform the public,
and both were AWOL in these cases; (b) that complete and accurate coverage does
not require deep technical knowledge that is “over the heads” of the
general public; and (c) that mainstream journalism is the most effective and most
timely place to provide the information that the public needs to be responsible
EXAMPLE 1: URANIUM ENRICHMENT BY IRAN
The impression one got from the media’s coverage of Iran’s uranium enrichment
program is that uranium “enrichment” is equivalent to having a nuclear
weapons program. The fact that the Iranians have three thousand centrifuges
(generally intoned in a grave voice) was evidence for the seriousness of the problem.
Not once in the coverage of this issue did I see or hear an explanation of enrichment
or of reasons why Iran might be doing it, other than for making bombs. Yet the reason
is so simple to explain, and an explanation would add so much to informing
the public’s opinions.
Uranium occurs in two varieties, called U-235 and U-238. U-235 is the kind that
heats up water in a nuclear reactor or goes boom in a bomb. About the only thing
interesting about U-238 is that it’s really heavy; it is not radioactive,
and its presence actually impedes the function of both reactors and bombs. Naturally
occurring uranium ore contains less than 1 percent of the “good stuff,”
U-235, and most of the rest is U-238. The concentration of U-235 has to be increased
to 3 to 5 percent to work in a nuclear reactor and 90 to 95 percent to make a bomb.
The process of increasing the percentage of U-235 is called “enrichment.”
The critical question was never whether Iran was enriching uranium, but whether
it was enriching uranium to 5 percent or to 90 percent. Even after the U.S. National
Intelligence Estimate stating that Iran suspended its weapons program in 2003 was
released, the media did not ask the question, and the technical community did not
offer an explanation. That left the public, and perhaps our political leadership,
assuming the worst.
But what about the number of centrifuges that Iran has? Iran’s three thousand
centrifuges are older and vastly less efficient than the model the United States
uses—about one-one hundreth as efficient, in fact. Experts consider that about
fifty thousand of the newer models are needed for a production enrichment facility.
Is this something we should have seriously considered going to war about?
EXAMPLE 2: THE 2001 ANTHRAX ATTACK(S)
In Fall 2001, two waves of anthrax attacks occurred. At the time of these attacks,
the National Academies were doing a study of terrorism prompted by the 9/11 attack
on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. One of the members of the study committee
was Jim Woolsey, a former director of the
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Jim kept reminding the committee that “the
purpose of a terrorist is to terrorize,” and the media coverage of the attacks
was surely the terrorists’ best ally in accomplishing that aim. Media coverage
heightened anxiety without really informing the public. In reality, only five people
died from what was purported to be high-quality anthrax spores. More people than
that died from lightning strikes1 during the months of intense, frightening,
drumbeat coverage. And again, the technical community was largely silent.
Perhaps the real story ought to have been just how hard it is to make and deliver
anthrax that will make people sick. That story was never told. Instead the public
was made to feel a real and imminent danger. The terrorist(s) probably applauded
after each news story.
EXAMPLE 3: AVIAN FLU
A more recent example of drumbeat coverage of a scary medical situation was that
of H5N1 avian flu. The typical coverage emphasized that, of the something like three
hundred reported cases in human beings in the last five years, there were about
two hundred deaths, or a greater than 60 percent mortality rate. That compares to
the less than one-tenth of 1 percent mortality rate for common seasonal flu—a
difference of a factor of six hundred. The concern was expressed again and again
that if the virus mutated to be transmissible to (and between) human beings, it
would result in a far, far worse pandemic than the 1918 “Spanish” flu
that may have killed more than fifty million people worldwide. And, as we were correctly
warned, viruses do rapidly mutate.
I am not a biologist, but even I know that the mechanisms of infection in birds
and human beings are very different—occurring in the gut of the bird as opposed
to the lungs of human beings, and with very different kinds of receptor sites in
the two cases. This probably explains why human cases have been rare and may suggest
that while viruses do evolve rapidly, this particular kind of mutation is a big
leap and hence unlikely. How unlikely? I do not know, but it certainly is far less
likely than most citizens were led to believe.
I also know that although the mortality rate for seasonal flu is small, it infects
twenty to sixty million people annually, resulting in thirty thousand to forty thousand
deaths. Comparing risks is something that human beings do poorly—and this
is a good case of why. How do we compare the two situations: (1) two hundred deaths
in five years, with an unlikely but possible mutation resulting in a horrendous
pandemic; (2) thirty thousand to forty thousand deaths annually from something that
is just a nuisance to most of us? The avian flu coverage was a missed “teachable
moment,” a chance when the media and technical community might have stepped
in to help the public think substantively about risk.
By the way, if avian flu was a risk previously worthy of daily coverage month after
month, why is it not still being covered? Avian flu has not gone away.
EXAMPLE 4: THREE MILE ISLAND
The Three Mile Island reactor incident stopped the production of new nuclear power
plants in the United States. I suspect that if you asked a cross-section of Americans,
they would tell you that the incident was horrendous and endangered thousands, even
millions of lives. The public clearly is still highly skeptical about the advisability
of building new nuclear plants.
Who knows what would have happened if Three Mile Island had not occurred, but I
believe more of our current power supply would be from nuclear energy—hence,
less from fossil fuels, meaning we would be putting less carbon dioxide (CO2)
into the atmosphere. Because climate change is, in my view, the most serious problem
facing humankind, possibly even making Earth uninhabitable by human beings, the
consequences of the collective public decision to stop producing nuclear plants
But how much does the public—or our political leaders, for that matter —know
about the safety of nuclear power? How much do they know about just how serious
the Three Mile Island incident really was? Very little! And, again, neither the
press nor the technical community made a serious attempt to educate Americans so
that they could make an informed decision.
In reality, Three Mile Island could have been a very serious incident, but it was
not—at least in part because of the safety measures built into every U.S.
reactor. About two million people were exposed to an average of 1 to 2 millirems
of radiation. However, in that part of Pennsylvania everyone is exposed to
100 to 150 millirems each year from naturally occurring radiation in the soil.
EXAMPLE 5: WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR?
Often the media make things out to be worse than perhaps they actually are. The
opposite can also occur, however: reality can be less rosy than it is portrayed
The recent documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006) depicts a
situation that played out in the early 1990s in California. Faced with a serious
air pollution problem, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) mandated that an
increasing percentage of the cars in the state had to be “zero emission”
—that is, electric. General Motors (GM) built an electric car for this market,
the EV-1, and for some reason only leased them to customers. The EV-1 had some drawbacks:
it was a two-seater, had a limited range, and took twelve to fifteen hours to recharge.
But it also was kind of sporty, quiet, and definitely “zero emission.”
My friends who had one really liked it.
However, after just a few years CARB rescinded its ruling requiring zero-emission
cars. GM recalled the EV-1s and shredded them. The premise of Who Killed the Electric
Car? is that behind GM’s actions must be a conspiracy— maybe
it was the oil companies, maybe it was the auto manufacturers, maybe it was somebody
else—but it had to be a conspiracy! Who killed the electric car?
Unfortunately, no one asked which is better for the environment, the electric car
or a gasoline one. If we focus only on the car, the answer is the electric one.
But that is not the whole story. Both the electricity and the gasoline have to be
made, so the right comparison is between the whole system that includes the cars,
their manufacture, the production of their fuel, the disposal of the cars at the
end of their life, and so on. The cars themselves are just one part of this system.
Given the present mix of sources for generating electricity, the system of which
the electric car is a part puts about three-and-a-half times more CO2 into the atmosphere
than the system of which the gasoline car is a part. Using a mix of sources involving
more renewables and nuclear, the answer would be quite different; but currently,
the system of which electric vehicles—from the EV-1 to current “plug-in”
hybrids—are a part puts about three-and-a-half times more CO2 into the atmosphere
than does the system of which the gasoline car is a part.
Again, both the press and the technical community missed a teachable moment—an
opportunity to create informed, responsible citizens. Just making the point that
one must look at the whole system, not just the car, would have been enormously
helpful. Had we been feeling ambitious, we might also have pointed out that every
conversion of energy from one form to another is done imperfectly. In the case of
the electric car, a long chain of such conversions occurs. The chain is so long,
in fact, that only about 7 percent of the energy in the fuels used to generate electricity
is ultimately used to power the car.
I don’t know who killed the electric car—but bless ’em!
EXAMPLE 6: THE HYDROGEN ECONOMY
The argument for a hydrogen economy is that when hydrogen burns it combines with
oxygen to form water. That is, the only emission of a hydrogen engine is pure water.
Again, this explanation ignores the larger system—in particular, how the hydrogen
is produced. The principal method for making commercial quantities of hydrogen is
a process called steam reforming of natural gas. A fossil fuel goes in, and guess
what comes out? Sure, hydrogen, but also CO2!
Admittedly, per unit of energy delivered, less CO2 comes out of natural gas than
out of coal. But the notion that the “only” emission from a hydrogen
engine is pure water ignores a significant part of the story.
To be a responsible citizen in a society as technological as ours, everyone needs
some knowledge of science and technology. Some really bad public policy can come
from a lack of that knowledge. The technical and journalistic communities share
a responsibility to provide it, and the best way to do so is by taking advantage
of the teachable moments that naturally arise. However, this needs to be done everywhere
in journalism, not just in the New York Times Tuesday Science section, or
National Public Radio’s Science Friday.
Citizens do not need to be scientists or engineers. For most topics, what they need
to know is pretty simple—for example, the notion that one needs to look at
the whole system, not just the car. Journalists do not need to be scientists or
engineers either, but even more than the average citizen, they need to know what
kinds of questions to ask—things like the overall efficiency of the system
in which the electric car is embedded. Lacking this kind of knowledge, the journalist
with even the best of intentions can mislead the public into making some very bad
public policy choices.
By the same token, not all scientists and engineers need to be great communicators—but
we need to make space for a few, respect them for what they do, and give them a
platform for reaching the public. Too often the technical community has done the
opposite of this—as in the case of Carl Sagan, who was denied membership in
the National Academy of Sciences for his efforts to make astronomy accessible to
the general public.
The usual excuse for not including more science and engineering content in mainstream
journalism is that either it is “too hard” or “just not interesting.”
I reject both excuses. At the level relevant to public policy, the content is not
hard, and it can be made interesting. Even if I am wrong about that, the proportion
of important public policy issues with a technological component is rapidly increasing.
If we want to continue to have a democracy, citizens are going to have to understand
some of this stuff!