The inability to communicate accurately and honestly has become a serious obstacle to resolving issues, particularly those regarding the siting of controversial facilities ranging from waste disposal facilities to refineries to prisons. All of these facility siting issues combine the need for highly technical decisions by experts with an equal need to consider the valid concerns of the affected local residents.
''They start to talk a language most of us don't understand,'' the Maine woman said when her community was considered for a new hazardous waste treatment facility. When ''they'' - chemical engineers and other experts - began speaking in terms incomprehensible to this woman and her neighbors and dismissing their concerns, the proposal was in trouble.
Have we forgotten that ''communicate'' is derived from the Latin for common? Increasingly it seems that condescending technical jargon from experts (whether politicians or scientists) and inflammatory rhetoric from rabble-rousers, claiming to represent the public, collide in midair. The common interests of both sides lie buried in the verbal rubble.
While opposing Massachusetts' Question 3 (a referendum on low-level nuclear waste), we saw firsthand the problems caused by this failure to communicate on the part of experts and the public alike. Some technical experts, good people sincerely concerned about the public welfare, tried to reassure the voters by statements such as ''these sites are so safe I'd build my home on one.'' Unfortunately that kind of overstatement only reminded people of past examples of technological overconfidence such as Three Mile Island and the Titanic.
Question 3's advocates did their part to undermine communication. Slogans such as ''radiation without representation'' simply inflamed passions and obscured the serious issues.
There is a way to reverse the trend. Recognizing the improbability of honest exchanges of ideas occurring spontaneously when issues are so heated, it is necessary to structure the situation in a way that would make communication almost inevitable.
Instead of beginning with a fully detailed proposal for a refinery, waste disposal facility, or prison, and offering it as a take-it-or-leave-it package, the agency or developer should begin by offering what might be called (for lack of a more elegant term) an ''a la carte'' proposal. Under this approach, the experts (i.e., the developers) would offer a range of significant alternatives to the affected community, including real choices on major factors such as financial and other compensation, specific location of the facility on the site, building design, or provisions for independent monitoring of environmental conditions.
At the same time a regulation is needed - such as the one in Massachusetts' siting process for hazardous waste facilities so that the proposed host community cannot reject the proposal categorically - to ensure good-faith exchange of ideas, aimed at minimizing the effect on the community and maximizing both financial and quality-of-life gains to the community.
This approach benefits all parties.
It protects the developer from having a fundamentally sound proposal nibbled to death. Given a comprehensive proposal defining every aspect of the project down to the last shrub, almost every interest group affected can find something to which it might object, even if it approves the plan in general.
The ''a la carte'' proposal also requires the developer to learn about the community's concerns and needs - through communication. Only in this way can the experts offer significant incentives responding to real community concerns, rather than ones based on planners' preconceptions or off-the-shelf enticements added at random.
Given this framework, the community's representatives must also take the communication process seriously. They must respond to the options in the ''a la carte'' proposal or come up with their own by methodically identifying their specific fears, their dreams for their community, and reasonable ways in which both can be addressed by the developer. They must remember that scientists and politicians earn the title ''expert'' through hard work and understanding of their subject. They too can be ''experts'' - in knowledge of local concerns and rights - but only if they devote similar effort to assessing community needs rather than relying on preconceptions and cheap rhetoric. Unyielding opposition on their part is as disdainful of the public good as an arrogant developer trying to ram a proposal down the collective throats of the community.
Both parties, experts and the public, must come halfway, to the common ground. The experts must remember to speak English, to involve the public directly in the planning process.
The citizens must learn to resist the understandable urge immediately to oppose a proposal. They must learn to listen, study, communicate their fears and hopes, and then say ''maybe in my backyard, if you deal with my concerns.''
We all drink the same water and walk the same dangerous streets. In the absence of safe disposal facilities or new prisons we are all equally at risk. With all that we share, can't we remember that communication requires seeking what we share in common?