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Passing the buck

Why a group of 500 citizens should replace government policy making cannot be logically explained.
Oct 19,2017
My son once told me about a game called “affinity drink” that’s popular among college students. They pour a mix of spirits in a large bowl and drink it in turns. If the first person drinks a lot, there is less left for others. It is called “affinity drink” because one can check a drinker’s sense of commitment to the group through how much is consumed. If everyone takes a tiny sip, the last person ends up with a terrible hangover the next day.

It may be fun at the time, seeing the last person suffer. But I wondered why college students would play such mean and odious games. Then I realized that they might have learned it from adults. Society is full of such hot potato games.

One example is the commission gauging public opinion on whether to permanently halt construction of the Shin Kori 5 and 6 reactors as a part of the administration’s plan to phase out nuclear power. President Moon Jae-in vowed to make the country free of nuclear reactors one day and suspended a project that had already been 30 percent complete. His government has set up a civilian commission to gauge public opinion on whether the reactors should be permanently scrapped.

The procedure aims to seek public consensus on a controversial policy through debates among parties involved, including industry players, academic experts and ordinary citizens. Out of a randomly selected group of 20,000 people, 500 will be asked to take part in the process. They will first hear the pros and cons of nuclear reactors from experts and industry players before deciding their opinion. They are set to deliver their recommendations on Friday.

The government explains the procedure is democratic, involves ordinary citizens and incorporates wise decision-making based on scientific studies. But there is no guarantee that the decision will be any better than the government’s usual policy-making. Why a group of 500 citizens should replace the government in public policy decisions, and whether a selection of 500 people out of 50 million living in the country represents the opinion of the broad population, cannot be logically explained.

Nuclear power is not a simple topic for the general public to understand through a few hearings and debates over two days. The issue not only involves household energy costs, but overall industrial competitiveness, future energy capacity and environmental issues.

Many empirical studies have shown that the general population, without professional education in a specific area, tends to make more wrong decisions than an expert in the field. Without familiarity in the schema, the general public can be easily misled and jump to conclusions based on selective information. The more difficult and complex an issue is, the hastier and more judgmental one can become. Since the public has less direct interest in the field than experts and parties involved, the decision can be more trustworthy. But a view on the issue does not necessarily make it a good decision. Since people are entirely divided on the issue, those involved in the decision-making also cannot be trusted to be fully neutral.

Apart from the justice and reasonableness of the decision-making process, there is the question of accountability. Who should be held responsible if killing the reactor project turns out to be wrong and harmful to the country? Should the committee, or the group of 500, or the other 19,500 who opted not to participate in the process, be held accountable? Would it be the government’s fault for blindly following public opinion? Or should the blame fall on the rest of the population, who let a decision be made through such a process? Even if nobody gets punished, somebody must become responsible for a wrong public policy decision later on.

The committee emphasized it would be make a recommendation, not a final decision, but the government has said it would make the decision based on the committee’s opinion. The committee will try to find a reason to avoid any accountability. It speaks of so-called statistical significance, a test of probability against a null hypothesis, which is an exotic concept to the general public. In short, they are playing a game of hot potato. Nobody wants to take responsibility. The booze might be handed down, and the future generation could wake up one day to a terrible hangover.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 18, Page 35

*The author is a psychology professor at Korea University.

Hur Tae-kyun