Kagaku (Science), vol.81, no.10, p.2-3, 2011

People Led Astray by the Myth of Panic

Inappropriate Information Restriction Observed in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident

Masato Koyama

Center for Integrated Research and Education of Natural Hazards (CIREN), Shizuoka University

(translated by Kazuya Hirai)

The government, some researchers, the media, organizations and companies restricted the provision of information about the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident. They explained that the purpose of regulating information was to prevent public panic. In this context, the term information restriction encompasses implementing, requesting and approving information cover-ups, intentional information screening, delayed information release and trivialization and obscurity of information. Now, I will explain the injustice of such information restriction and its purpose in the following sections.

Goshi Hosono, then special adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan on the nuclear issue, has stated that the reason for the government's not having immediately disclosed the data on radiation spread forecasts computed by the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) is that the government was concerned about the possibility of causing public anxiety and panic. (The Mainichi Daily News on May 3 and other news sources) On March 18 and April 11, the chief of the Meteorological Society of Japan, Hiroshi Niino, issued on the society's website the statement that he was "concerned that if such forecasts involving some uncertainty were announced, it could cause a major public disorder in case of emergency," requesting member specialists to refrain from releasing simulation data on the spread of radioactive substances from the troubled nuclear station in Fukushima. In fact, a Tokyo-based television reporter who came to interview me in late April told me, "Even if we gain correct information about the nuclear power plant accident, we have been forced to refrain from reporting it to prevent panic in ordinary people since March 11."

However, global research findings show that there have ever been only a few cases observed in which disaster information disclosure caused public panic. As a matter of fact, a longtime accumulation of studies have revealed that the issue of serious disaster warnings by public organizations does not trigger a greater sense of crisis than expected and that it does not lead to people's evacuation. The truth is that the preconception that disaster information will cause civil panic is just a biased obsession called the myth of panic. The commonly imaged situation in which a large crowd is frantically running around to escape in response to emergency warnings is just a mistaken illusion deeply engraved in people's minds by movies and the like. The term panic has come to have broad implications through daily use, but essentially speaking, it is psychologically defined as the extreme situation of losing rationality with an acute upsurge of grave fear. In this context, I use the word in that narrow, specific sense.

The reason for rare occurrences of such state of panic is often explained by the normalcy bias. The normalcy bias means the mental phenomenon of misunderstanding and underestimating a situation of extreme danger as just a situation within a normal range of danger. Every human being has such tendency to some degree. On the other hand, there are research results demonstrating that human beings can retain their rationality by communication and cooperation even in the face of a crisis situation, that is, human beings are originally less prone to panic.

It is considered that panic can arise only when all the following three conditions are put in place: (1) recognition of emergent and serious danger; (2) recognition of limited escape routes that are about to be closed; and (3) shortage of information about a certain desperate situation. Of these three conditions, the information shortage can be resolved relatively easily, while the danger itself and escape routes are often more difficult to deal with. You can prevent panic if you properly secure the third condition by immediately providing the necessary information.

This knowledge is quite common among disaster information management specialists, but it seems that the knowledge was not shared by researchers in other fields, public administrators and press people. From the perspective of crisis management, the above-mentioned government officials, researchers and media people were embarrassingly ill-informed and also ham-handed in handling the situation.

It is obvious why their self-imposed information restriction was a problem. The shortage of information by such restriction triggers anxiety and confusion among ordinary people, which causes groundless rumors and false speculations. This can worsen the aforementioned third condition of panic and can eventually lead to a full state of panic at the worst. If panic, usually extremely unlikely, really occurs, it is those who have caused information shortage that are to blame. In addition, it can also be said that in that case, those people who have restricted information out of obsession with the myth of panic will end up preventing ordinary people from taking proper action to escape from danger.

For example, speculation was rife on the Internet about the possibility of "rain mixed with noxious chemicals" after a fire had broken out at Cosmo Oil's Chiba refinery plants to the east of Tokyo following the huge earthquake on March 11. This speculative move came under fire on the ground that it incited a feeling of panic in people. In fact, however, a serious fire broke out at oil storage tanks in Tomakomai, Hokkaido, in the aftermath of the Tokachi-oki Earthquake in September 2003, which caused harmful gases. In 1976, there was also a large explosion at a chemical factory near the city of Milan in northern Italy and a densely populated area close to the accident site was contaminated by a toxic cloud containing dioxin released by the explosion. In addition, it is a well-known fact shared widely by volcanologists that a rise in high-temperature smoke causes a rainfall mixed with volcanic ashes. That is, the danger of "rain mixed with noxious chemicals" was a highly realistic matter with the Cosmo Oil's plants accident. The warning expressed a proper sense of crisis and involved useful suggestions for avoiding danger, such as warnings against direct exposure to rain. In fact, it became clear at a later date that the fire even spread to a depleted uranium storage facility just next to the Cosmo Oil refinery plants.

The cover story title "Radiation is Coming" of the March 28, 2011, edition of the AERA weekly magazine, which went on sale on March 19, also drew criticism on the ground that it would stir up a panic in people. At that time, however, several experts had forecast that the situation would develop into a serious one. Their concern became real and further research revealed later that a cloud of highly concentrated radiation had been drifting over the Kanto area on March 15 and from March 21 to 22. In addition, it is reported that a health risk management advisor on radiation who was invited by the Fukushima prefectural government in the wake of the nuclear power plant accident made a comment to the effect that he had intentionally downplayed the late effect of low-dose radiation exposure whose picture still has not been scientifically clarified to avoid triggering public panic. (The April 22 edition of the Weekly Asahi) Just like the above-mentioned delayed release of SPEEDI's computed radiation spread forecasts, such information restriction can be suspected to have caused the people outside of the Fukushima nuclear alert area to be less vigilant against radiation and also to have contributed to more exposures that could have been avoided otherwise.

Information restriction even breaks the relationship between the information provider and the information recipient, both of whom should fundamentally cooperate in overcoming a crisis. A barrage of revelations about information restriction have now discouraged people from easily putting trust in the information published by public administrators and researchers. Fundamentally, it is at the discretion of individual citizens that what degree of risk is acceptable is determined. What the information provider should do is to present specific risks involving some uncertainty with no concealment whatever and to explain those risks in an honest and polite manner, not to force his arbitrary, biased interpretations on people.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster was also characterized by the large number of press people and scientific communicators (including volunteer specialists and ordinary citizens, as well as scientific professionals) who just uncritically parroted what groups of researchers and administrators obsessed with the myth of panic said. Many journalists and scientific communicators were nothing less than untrained amateurs in risk communication.

Public administrators have often imposed information restriction under the banner of "preventing damage induced by groundless rumors" as well as "preventing panic." The damage by groundless rumors can be specifically defined as the economic damage caused by excessively vigilant consumer's self-restrained aversion to purchasing particular goods and services. As noted above, however, the risk of low-dose radiation exposure encompasses a wide range of gray areas. Therefore, even if a detection of radioactivity in certain food turns out to be below the government-set provisional regulatory limits for radioactive substances in food, it does not automatically guarantee food safety. Fundamentally, the provisional safety standard itself is set higher than usual exclusively for emergency situations. If you consider these things, you can say that the consumer's self-controlled forbearance from buying particular products is a reasonable act. That is, the term rumor-induced damage represents the producer's one-sided viewpoint and interpretation.

However, the media, which should be neutrally positioned, uses the phrase rumor-induced damage as do public administrators and producers and has continued to hurt and trample on the consumer's viewpoint and feelings. In addition, such biased reports can be speculated to escalate the consumer's distrust and caution and also to expand economic damages.

For the future, I sincerely hope that all organizations and people involved in the communication and transmission of risk information will learn to be free from bias about the concept of panic and to act on the latest knowledge about psychology and disaster information studies, including the implications of the term rumor-induced damage.

Covello, V.T. et al. (1988) Risk Communication. KFA Julich GmbH
Kikkawa, T. et al. (2009) Manual for Crisis Communication. Imagine Publishing Co., Ltd., Tokyo
Kugihara, N. (2011) Group Dynamics. Yuhikaku Publishing Co., Ltd., Tokyo
Mileti, D.S. and Peek, L. (2000) Journal of Hazardous Material, 75, 181-194
Sekiya, N. (2011) "Fuhyo Higai". Kobunsha Publishing Co., Ltd., Tokyo

Masato Koyama's Homepage