Monthly Archives: November 2013

Why I have started this blog

I live in Japan. When the Tohoku earthquake happened in March 2011, it precipitated a crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and the release of radioactive material. I had a very young family at the time, and I knew that infants and those still in the womb were most vulnerable to radiation. I therefore urgently needed reliable information about the relationship between ionising radiation and health, and about how nuclear power plants can go wrong and what happens if they do. I might have needed to make a serious life decision for the safety of my family.

Luckily, I was able to identify genuinely authoritative sources of information, notably the international reports on Chernobyl compiled by the UN and the WHO based on a large number of international experts, and the explanations provided by the team assembled by the British chief scientist in reaction to the Fukushima crisis. I was also able to check that these reports and opinions were treated with respect by the scientific community through searching the academic literature. I could be confident my family (and people in general who did not live very close to the plant) were safe. I also found out the importance of passing such information on: the studies on Chernobyl were clear that despite the real harm caused by radiation, the greatest damage to public health was fear on the part of those not at any meaningful risk. Hollywood fantasies of mass deformation and death were just fantasies, but fantasies that could literally kill people.

However, in working to pass this information in a straightforward for onto others understandably scared by a situation they found difficult to understand, I made a very disturbing discovery. While, in bitter retrospect, it’s not surprising that the media (particularly the overseas media) would make hay while the sun shone and ratchet up the fear to boost sales and ad revenue, and get mouse clicks, what stood out was how they gave a sheen of authority to this fearmongering by giving prominence to a small collection of talking head “experts”, who baldly stated things quite at odds with what I knew to be the established science view.

Who were these people? When I went to check their credentials, I found almost always that they were either unqualified or semi-qualified; several of them had been in the past accused directly or indirectly of incompetence, fraud or quackery. So why would the media think them authoritative? How were they finding these people?

The answer is that broad sections of the environmental movement have been promoting pseudoscience and disinformation about radiation and health and about how civilian nuclear power operates in pursuit of their political goals, with the clear aim of scaring people. What was disturbing was how they did this, and why I felt I had seen it all before somewhere else. They championed people as “world experts” who were, despite polished appearances, on investigation at best dubious, and at worst clearly cranks, shysters or ideologues. They expressed disdain for mainstream scientific research, often citing global conspiracy theories involving big government and a mythically powerful global nuclear industry somehow silencing scientific dissent in journals and science departments across the world. I discovered organisations with grand, authoritative and objective sounding names that were in reality simply front organisations for professional antinuclear activists. I found that “research” showing the hidden dangers ignored by the mainstream were rarely, if ever, published in genuine, relevant academic journals or subject to proper peer review. Instead, grand-sounding “Reports” were independently issued, or journals were specifically set up in order to give an apparent gloss of academic respectability. Walled garden networks of blogs bounced memes off each other, while financial conflicts of interest were happily ignored so long as the message was right.

In short, part of the environmental movement was behaving in a very, very similar manner to the climate change denial movement. I had indeed seen this before, and in a group of people I knew were the Bad Guys.

I felt a strong sense of betrayal. The most serious challenge we face today is global warming, and the environmental movement should be at the forefront of promoting mainstream science against ideologues and corporate interests, not embracing their tactics. They’re meant to be the Good Guys. With that trust broken, I began to re-examine other big issues in environmental science. I discovered similar patterns in the discussions of genetically modified organisms, and of the solutions to achieving a low carbon economy. It became apparent to me that the environmental movement has a serious problem with bad science and pseudoscience. Wherever a certain kind of green ideology and science were in conflict, ideology kept on winning. This has even started to affect green commitment to tackling global warming, poverty and malnutrition.

This is Not Good. The environmental challenges we face today are technically and scientifically complex and their solutions need the assent of an informed population. The spread of pseudoscience, particularly in the environmental movement, undermines this. I am, of course, far from the first person to suggest that the green movement harbours cranks and quacks. However, I do not wish to attack the green movement in general. We need a political movement that monitors and challenges the threats to our human environments and to biodiversity and sustainability in general. I strongly believe this movement should pride itself on its commitment first and foremost to science.

As a result, I want to make this blog into a reference tool so that people can identify the dubious and the downright disreputable individuals promoting pseudoscience under the guise of environmentalism. By reference tool I mean a place where people can find an assessment of a person’s credentials that shows why the person is a dubious authority if not simply a crank. It’s to encourage people who find themselves in the face of usually well-meaning and earnest addicts of bad science to stand firm on sticking to respectable scientific opinion. It is an exercise in answering a very modern question: with ever heightening levels of technology and specialisation in science, how can non-experts judge who is telling the truth about things like nuclear power or global warming or vaccines?

I myself am not a scientist – and that’s kind of the point. I am not in a good position to say what is right or wrong in proper scientific debates. However, I can (and we all can) assess whether or not the expert speaking has the correct credentials – whether or not they are genuinely part of the active orthodox scientific community. To repeat: this is a blog far more about people, than about the science.

This attempt to distinguish who is or isn’t spouting “woo” might sound intimidating for non-scientists. However, we are aided by the way that pseudoscience works. Pseudoscience is meant for public, not scientific consumption. Their goal is political, not educational. This is true whether it’s climate change denial or anti-nuclearism. People promoting pseudoscience or bad science don’t typically have the education and career of regular scientists (although there are exceptions), and they don’t typically try to engage with experts in the field. When they try to get genuine scientific respectability (to stop people who insist on their experts being recognised within science), they can get bitten, and usually they get bitten on the open public scientific record, as has happened with the anti-GMO movement.

Instead of actually doing science, they try to build a facade of respectability (shiny websites, front groups, their own journals etc.) that is curiously divorced from anything recognised by the wider scientific community. Some of this is rather elaborate and takes unpicking.

By applying a few principles, I believe it’s possible to work out who is, or is not, speaking with required scientific authority. That doesn’t mean they are right or that there is unanimity among scientists, it just means that as a non-scientist I cannot simply ignore what genuine scientists (defined by their education and careers) say, no matter what I believe or do not believe, or as seems to be the issue with many taken in by pseudoscience, what I want to believe. Sometimes it’s obvious if someone is putting it on. Sometimes, given that some people are rather good at creating the fa231ade, a little investigation needs to be done.

Whether I am good at this kind of investigation (I think I may have something of a nose for it), or I’m simply more tediously dogged about it I can’t say, but I know my contributions have been valued by other people when they’ve been trying to cut through the cacophony of information presented them by the media and the netherworld of Internet misinformation.

So that’s why I’m starting this blog. It will focus to begin with on the nuclear issue, as that is where most of my interest has understandably been. I hope it helps.

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