ISTPP Senior Research Fellow James Stoutenborough and Director Arnold Vedlitz have published their exploration of how levels of understanding of specific energy technologies may produce different assessments of the risks of those technologies. Using results from a large, national random survey of US adults conducted by ISTPP, the researchers examine the knowledge/information deficit model, which holds that as the public become more informed about scientific issues they are more likely to evaluate these issues in a manner that is congruent with the scientific perspective. Stoutenborough and Vedlitz previously revealed that there is an important difference between objective, assessed measures of knowledge, and self-perceived measures of knowledge, and the applicability of the deficit model in the climate change domain. This manuscript extends this research to determine whether the same pattern holds in the energy domain. Specifically, the researchers examine if the two measures of knowledge predict risk perceptions that are congruent with the scientific position. Furthermore, to examine the flexibility of these measures, the same knowledge measures were used to predict three risk perceptions that were in different directions and concerned different energy technologies – nuclear energy (low risk, according to science), coal pollutants (high risk), and bird and bat mortality caused by wind turbines (inconclusive risk). Consistent with their previous study, they find that an objective, assessed measure of knowledge can predict risk perceptions in a manner consistent with the knowledge/information deficit model (suggesting that it is a better measure of scientific knowledge), and that self-perceived knowledge consistently over-estimates risk. They conclude that people who possess a higher level of objective, assessed knowledge about energy production assess risk at levels more closely aligned with the way experts in the field rate the risks of the different energy technologies.
Stoutenborough, James W. and Arnold Vedlitz. 2016. “The Role of Scientific Knowledge in the Public’s Perceptions of Energy Technology Risks.” Energy Policy 96: 206–216. DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2016.05.031