Gilbert F. White
I was also intrigued with this whole notion of how the human race faces up
to an overarching hazard, and I was interested in seeing it through. My
contributions on the scientific side have been minimal beyond a chapter
touching on societal effects, but I was involved in planning it and seeing that
it gets properly drafted.
Q: There seems to be a strange contradiction between the way people react to the
threat of earthquake in California and the way they react to a nuclear war.
Both are or could be called catastrophes in the case of California. In the case
of the earthquake, though, people of California don `t seem to get too worried.
They say if it comes, it comes. Whereas in the case of nuclear war they'd be
very much concerned about it even though pushing the button is a human
A: That's a perceptive query, the answer to which a number of us have been
struggling. I have tried to involve in our discussions of the nuclear war
situation a few of the people who worked on perceptions of natural hazards.
Some who did the first work on how people in California perceive a hazard;
why they are not worried about real estate in seismic safety zones, for
example; looking for possible parallels, differences.
When we carried out our first study of how people in San Francisco viewed
the earthquake hazard, we had a rejection rate of 75 percent, which is almost
unheard of in survey literature and indicated a flawed study design. People
didn't want to talk about it. And when one says that the Californians are not
worried about the earthquake hazard one has to recognize that to some extent
they may not want to discuss their worries because they don't know anything
to do about it. They deny it. And we now have the same sort of a problem
of denial with respect to nuclear war.
One of the lessons that we may have learned in part from the work on natural
hazards is that many people are realistic in their perception of an extreme
event to the extent that they have some sense of efficacy in dealing with it.
If a person feels that he or she can cope with the event then they're more
likely to discuss it in terms that a scientist would regard as accurate and
precise. If they feel they have no command over it and that there's nothing
that they can do to cope with it, then they have difficulty describing it or even
thinking of it in accurate terms.