By Meredith Angwin
I was not born a geek, but by the time I was a 10-year-old buying books at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, my path was set. Some considered this as an unfortunate background, so I had to learn the hard way how to handle myself in debates and how to answer aggressive questions. Below, I share what I have learned in defending my position, in the hope that it will help others.
Get asked a question, give a long repetitive answer
I am a scientist, which means that if you ask me a technical question, I try to give an accurate and concise answer. When I do this in debate, the opposition usually runs right over me. Anti-nuclear activists are very willing to fill airtime with their own voices. They are often paid professionals, trained in debate. Sometimes a strong moderator can help keep things fair, but not always.
I once watched a videotape of myself debating, and I was astounded at how little speaking time I had. (For what it is worth, this problem is not just mine. When NRC Chairman Jaczko came to Brattleboro, many people noted that he spoke for less than two minutes at a time before getting interrupted.)
Advice: When you get the floor, hold it. Say everything at least two different ways. Do your best to prevent people from interrupting by pointing out that they ARE interrupting.
You deserve equal time, but you won’t be given equal time. You will have to take it assertively.
Learn to get your message across with blocks and bridges
Your opponents will rarely answer the question they were asked. Instead, they block the question, and bridge themselves back to whatever point they were planning to make anyway. In a recent debate in Vermont, State Senator Dick McCormack was a master at this. His main point was “a deal is a deal, and the Vermont Yankee deal [to close the plant down] was for 40 years.”
Almost everything led him back to his point. If you talked about economic impact of Vermont Yankee closing, he was quick to say that “Everybody knew the deal, so why are people surprised at the job loss?” No discussion of economic consequences for him: everything leads back to “a deal is a deal.”
You can’t make the opponents answer the questions, but you can block and bridge yourself as necessary.
(I know that it goes against the grain). You should learn to do this, and keep this method in your arsenal of responses. It’s about getting your message verbalized and out there, not about convincing your opponents of anything by logical argument simply because they really won’t be listening. They will hear your words, but not digest them.
The audience may be convinced by your steady, repeated message. The opponents won’t be convinced by anything you can say.
Be ready for the shotgun questions
There is one situation in which you must block and bridge. If someone asks a reasonable question, you may well choose to answer that questions. When someone approaches with a loaded shotgun, you must block and bridge.
For example, on a radio talk show, some people called with single questions. The question might not have been exactly flattering: “Doesn’t that cooling tower collapse prove Vermont Yankee is falling apart?” I usually answer single questions directly, however.
Other questioners loaded up their shotguns and asked multiple questions. They want to know about tritium, the fuel pool, the cooling towers, the Price Anderson act, etc. I have counted up to eight questions in a string. If you try to answer all of them, you will take up the rest of the show with their laundry list of concerns. Or, if you answer the first three, for example, you may be accused of ducking the later questions. So, what to do?
Don’t even begin to respond to a shotgun question. When you meet a shotgun, block and bridge.
“Thank you for your questions. It is clear that you are concerned with nuclear safety, and I am happy to tell you that nuclear is the safest form of energy production…” etc.
A shotgun question is an opportunity to get your own point across.
My final advice: Forgive yourself
My last advice is to forgive yourself. You go out there, and you do better than you think you do. Yes, you should have blocked that one…you will do it next time. Yes, the opponent interrupted and said something outrageous and you couldn’t stop him. Yes, it wasn’t perfect.
Face it. You are usually up against paid professional activists who have training in debate. You are up there as a geek, and you are saying what needs to be said and saying it to the best of your ability.
By being in the public forum and telling the truth, you are doing a service for the future of the world. Forgive yourself for not doing it perfectly.
Meredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters. She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division. She is an inventor on several patents. Angwin serves as a commissioner in the Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.
Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project. She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.