The Role of Scientific Knowledge in the Public’s Perceptions of Energy Technology Risks

Significance Statement

Information is a core component of any problem-solving procedure. Understanding the intricacy and nuances of this information can be instrumental to policy makers in solving pressing issues. Public insights have the power to downplay or encourage any political action. How the public receives and processes scientific data and knowledge is crucial in their decision-making process. Varying levels of knowledge about energy produce varying assessments of risk pertinent to specific energy systems.

This paper seeks to examine the role that perceived and objective scientific knowledge may play in the public’s assessment of risk of different energy technologies and how that affects implementation of energy projects.

Professor Arnold Vedlitz from Texas A&M University and Dr. James Stoutenborough at Idaho State University conducted a study on the role of scientific knowledge in the public’s perceptions of energy technology risks. Their work is now published in the journal, Energy Policy.

At first, they had to determine the role of knowledge in the decision making process. The Knowledge Deficit Model was used to conduct the study. It involved collecting public perceptions on matters related to three distinct energy systems – nuclear meltdown threat, burning of coal, and the threat from wind turbines.

It was noted that experts do not consider the assumption of bounded rationality, which considers that individuals do not operate with perfect information associated with an issue. Incomplete information increases the chances of an individual making mistakes during problem-solving processes, leading to creation of improper strategies. First you have to understand a problem before you can solve it. As the Knowledge Deficit Model suggests, those who understand an issue in the same manner as the experts are more likely to view the associated risks in a manner similar to those experts, therefore making a more rational judgement.

The analyses indicate that there is an important distinction between objective and perceived scientific knowledge. Specifically, despite experts holding risk perceptions that differ substantially across the three energy systems, those who were objectively measured to be more knowledgeable about energy were more likely to perceive risk in a manner congruent with the experts. In other words, those who were truly knowledgeable were able to formulate a nuanced understanding of the risk associated with each system, illustrating the flexibility of objective measures of knowledge that are not related to the underlying risk issues examined.

Meanwhile, the authors found that those who believed they understood energy production (both in general and specific to that energy system) were overwhelmingly more likely to perceive higher levels of risk associated with all three energy systems, regardless of the experts’ positions on these systems. These results are important for two reasons. One, it indicates that when people are overconfident in their understanding of an issue, they are more likely to believe the risk associated with that issue is higher. Two, these results suggest that measures of perceived knowledge are not adequate for evaluating an individual’s understanding of an issue. This is important because measures of perceived knowledge are frequently employed to determine issue-specific knowledge. However, this “knowledge” does not result in decision-making that is consistent with an expert’s understanding of the issue. In short, this perceived knowledge will lead to policy prescriptions that may be ineffective.

The authors observed that differences in predictive influence of perceived and assessed knowledge were likely due to the media’s oversimplification of scientific information. Finding a balance between oversimplification and basic scientific literacy is necessary before the public will be able to offer an informed policy decision.

The study concluded that scientific insight does temper public risk evaluations of various energy systems, therefore showing more vividly the connection between science knowledge, scientific trust, and issue problem identification that directly influence the perceived judgement on any energy projects.

About the author

Dr. Vedlitz is recognized as an expert for his work at the intersection of science-technology and public policy, seeking to understand the processes through which scientific and technical data and discoveries are understood and acted on by decision makers and the public. He examines the role of information; risk assessments; and social, political, economic, and cultural cues in the framing of science discoveries and innovations; the benefits and risks they expose; and the ways in which this information is received and evaluated by policy makers and the public to make public policies, form regulatory regimes and allocate financial resources. He currently focuses on policy formation and decision making for emerging science and technology and the water-energy-food nexus.

Dr. Vedlitz has published in top public policy journals and has published over 120 articles in the field of politics and science and technology policy. He is a co-author and co-editor of a highly cited book from MIT Press dealing with natural resources management and decision making and author of an important book on public policy. He has been principal investigator, co-principal investigator, and senior research scientist on externally funded research projects totaling more than $15.9 million. He serves as a co-director and member of the advisory board of the NIEHS-funded Center for Translational Environmental Health Research as well as division head for the technology and policy division of the Texas Engineering Experiment Station and for the technology and policy division of the Texas Transportation Institute, both part of the Texas A&M University System.

He is the recipient of several awards including the Herbert Kaufman Award from the American Political Science Association for the Best Paper (2014) in Public Administration and the Texas A&M University Faculty Distinguished Achievement Award for Teaching (1980). Dr. Vedlitz received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Houston (1975) and his master’s (1970) and bachelor’s degrees (1968) in Government from Louisiana State University.

About the author

Dr. Stoutenborough’s research and teaching interests included public policy, U.S. state politics, public opinion, and political psychology with a substantive interest in science and technology issues like climate change and renewable energy.

His research can be found in both the institutional and behavioral paradigms, which he seeking to integrate more strongly. From an institutional perspective, Dr. Stoutenborough examines why institutions (normally, U.S. states) reach particular policy decisions. Within the behavioral paradigm, he is currently researching individual-level behavior as it pertains to political attitude formation, problem identification, agenda setting, and policy adoption.

Specifically, his research examines how risk perceptions, knowledge, trust, and various attitudes influence aspects of the policy process. Dr. Stoutenborough has published his research in Governance, Energy Policy, Water Policy, Climatic Change, Energy¸ Journal of Public Policy, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and Review of Policy Research, and in other academic journals.

Dr. Stoutenborough received his Ph.D. (2010) and his M.A. (2005) in Political Science from the University of Kansas (2010) and his B.S. (2003) in Political Science from Kansas State University. He is also a Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.


James W. Stoutenborough1, Arnold Vedlitz2. The role of scientific knowledge in the public’s perceptions of energy technology risks. Energy Policy volume 96 (2016) page 206–216.

Show Affiliations
  1. Department of Political Science, Idaho State University, 302 Gravely Hall, Pocatello, ID 83209, USA
  2. Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy, The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, 4350 TAMU, College Station, TX 77843-4350, USA


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