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R. E. Toohey, Ph.D., CHP
President-Elect, Health Physics Society
Oak Ridge Associated Universities
Oak Ridge, Tennessee, U.S.A. 37831-0117

Richard Toohey received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Cincinnati in 1973. He spent the first part of his career at Argonne National Laboratory in both research and operational health physics. He has been at ORAU since 1994, where he has served as director of the Radiation Internal Dose Information Center, as Sr. Health Physicist for REAC/TS, and is currently the Director of dose reconstruction programs. He is certified in comprehensive practice by the ABHP, is a member of the National Council for Radiation Protection and Measurements, and has served as a Director, Secretary, and Treasurer of HPS. Dick has 130 publications in the open literature, and is a retired Lt. Col., US Army Reserve. He and his wife Beverly live in Oak Ridge, where they provide staff services to the resident cat.

Why No One Believes Us: Cognitive Neuroscience and Radiation Risk

Public perception of radiation risks and their acceptability remains far from the consensus of radiation protection specialists, despite decades of individual and organizational efforts at risk communication. We have eagerly adopted the guidance of risk communication specialists, and presented the facts in a non-threatening and understandable fashion. Nevertheless we continue to encounter intense opposition to the development of nuclear power plants, waste storage sites, food irradiation facilities, and other applications of radiation and radioactive materials. We have been told such opposition is an emotional reaction that we must allow to be expressed, and then calmly and coolly respond with our understandable facts. One understandable fact is that what we have been doing simply doesn't work. The rapid development of the cognitive neuro-sciences, particularly evolutionary psychology, over the past twenty years or so has provided remarkable insights into this situation. Human brains come into the world with certain genetically determined methods of classifying sensory inputs called "memes," a term adopted from cultural anthropology. The "contagion" meme is a key player in response to radiological issues, as are the "justice" and "pattern-seeking" memes. Furthermore, the human decision-making faculty does not exist in Descartes' res cogitans, but in a hard-wired network of literal gut feelings and other body states we call emotions. Understanding and implementing these findings may lead us to more effective communication efforts, but also warn us that effecting significant behavioral changes will be a Sisyphean task.