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Referendums can be manipulated by framing of question: Nobel laureate (update)

2013/03/31 18:27:12

Taipei, March 31 (CNA) The result of a proposed referendum in Taiwan on the fate of a nuclear power plant still under construction will likely depend on how the question is phrased, a visiting psychologist and Nobel prize winner said on Sunday.

Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics, said the outcome of a referendum can vary if the question is asked in different ways.

"You can manipulate the results by what we call framing your question, and that I think is certainly an important issue," said Kahneman, an Israeli-American psychologist, who was invited by the Commonwealth Publishing Group to hold a panel discussion in Taipei on rational thinking behind public decision-making.

"I have my doubts about the referendum method in general, because it tends to lock principles into place and make deviations from these principles more difficult," he said, noting that referendums have actually been abused in many cases across the U.S., such as in California.

Although a referendum represents important social values because it is an instrument of democracy that gives people the right to choose, it must be used carefully, he said.

Earlier this month, the ruling Kuomintang proposed to hold a referendum on the controversial fourth nuclear power plant, which will ask voters, "Do you agree to halting the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant and not allowing it to operate?"

Critics of the referendum question fear that the question's phrasing will allow work on the nuclear power plant to continue by default because of Taiwan's Referendum Act.

The statute requires at least half of Taiwan's eligible voters to participate in a referendum for the result to be valid.

Kahneman also said that in gauging public opinion on the nuclear issue -- which he argued centers on "fear" -- the government must understand what is driving opinion.

"We have to acknowledge the fact that people's responses and people's reaction to situations are not constant over time; they will change," the 79-year-old psychologist said.

"When something has been safe for a few years, people feel too safe, and when there is a sense of threat, people feel too frightened and so the temporary reactions are much more extreme than the long-term reactions and that is something that has to be taken into consideration."

Taiwan is facing increasing public concerns over whether the island's fourth nuclear power plant should be completed, and the government is hoping to use a referendum to achieve a consensus on the issue.

But worries over the plant have galvanized opposition to the use of nuclear power in Taiwan and led to several anti-nuclear protests, one of which drew an estimated 200,000 people on March 9.

President Ma Ying-jeou said at the panel discussion that the proposed referendum on the fate of the fourth nuclear power plant could play a key role in transforming Taiwan into a civil society.

Given that it will take some time before the referendum is initiated, the government will provide "adequate and transparent information" related to the nuclear issue to the public to help voters make the best decision, Ma said.

"The government's ultimate target is to create a nuclear-free homeland, and we can choose to achieve it either immediately or gradually," he said.

"If we can help people fully understand the two choices' challenges and the price we will have to pay for those choices, we will be able to shoulder the consequences together and help our society become more harmonious," the president said.

(By Jeffrey Wu)