Radiation and Misinformation

by on March 21st, 2011 0 comments

New(ish) radiation hazard symbol, launched by the IAEA in 2007.

With the deputy head of Japan’s nuclear agency calling Fukushima a “very huge disaster,” it’s fairly obvious that the scale of the events of the last week were grossly under-reported as they were happening. Tepco and the Japanese government went well beyond the call of duty in obfuscating the situation, while pro-nuclear voices in the U.S. popped off with claims as to what was about to occur before they even had the faintest idea what had just happened. Thankfully, the FDA was there to help.

The cocktail of hysteria, paralysis and disinterest was all very edifying.

Now the mop-up starts, and for most of the media it’s likely to settle on radiation — how much there was and is, and what exactly it’s going to do.

In the United States, hysteria and overstatement about the magnitude of the events at Fukushima were (and are) endemic not least because people are scared of radiation. But misinformation on this is also endemic in the U.S. because Japan is very far away, and anyone who pays much attention is used to hearing bizarre stories about Japan to begin with. The IAEA had to refute reports (back on the 18th) that there had been reports of radiation sickness in Japan. There hadn’t been — at least, not delivered to the IAEA, which would be Japan’s obligation as a signatory state. There still haven’t.

However, that didn’t stop ABC News from pushing a helpful story live today that said, and I quote, while still scratching my head:

According to the National Institutes of Health, radiation sickness can be caused when the total body is exposed to 1000 of radiation. [sic] If humans are exposed to more than 4000 millisieverts of radiation, half are likely to die. Any more that 6000 millisieverts, doctors say, is untreatable and leads to almost certain death.

the health effects of radiation sickness are particularly brutal. The radiation causes chemical changes in the body, destroying cells. This results in symptoms that include bleeding, hair loss, skin burns and open sores.

[Link.]

In case you missed it, that quote is “…the total body is exposed to 1000 of radiation,” emphasis mine. Yes, they left the units off. It’s supposed to be mSV.

This result is an inexplicable, out-of-context mobile-news push of a couple of paragraphs from an article on March 17th, by Bradley Blackburn, headlined Understanding Radiation Sickness: What can Happen in the Worst Case. In that article the statements (still problematic because they left the friggin’ units off that first figure!!) are at least placed in the context of a headline that makes it obvious we’re talking about the worst case scenario here.

How such a statement could be grabbed and then pushed live to a mobile news alert remains utterly bewildering to me. How does crap like that get on the web with an ABCNews.com URL? And if it goes out as a mobile news alert, that’s terrifying. What, you sign up for ABC News mobile alerts so you can stay hip to current events…then you’re just hanging out with your kids and suddenly you get that shit on your cell phone? Who are these people?

Meanwhile, searching “radiation poisoning japan” today gets me no actual news — but a couple of hits trying to hawk alternative healthcare preventatives against radiation, which I saw extensively over the weekend. The only thing close to a major news source is an article headlined Exposed Rods Cause Radiation Poisoning, on The Tartan, Carnegie-Mellon’s student newspaper and a damn fine paper as student papers go, especially when it comes to science reporting. (Carnegie-Mellon also has more robots than anywhere else — so many it needed its own robot census). It’s really a fine article — no major arguments with it. But should it be the only top-of-the-news hit for those keywords? The headline is also the perfect lead-in to an inspiringly unfunny “That’s what she said!” which is about all that my brain is capable of after a few hours of looking at the mainstream news.

Meanwhile, why were there earlier news reports, at least according to the IAEA, saying the IAEA had reports of radiation sickness in Japan? Damned if I know. The only thing I can figure out is that the IAEA is using the term “news stories” very loosely here — and means blogs, or social media posts by the general public. If that’s the case, the IAEA needs to get him to what constitutes news, though I do appreciate their at least answering the public hysteria — that’s more than the U.S. Feds managed to do without screwing it up, largely because nobody seemed that sure who’s job it was to tell us we’d be all right.

To be sure, the potential for misinformation in disaster situations is augmented by the vagaries of news outlets’ fragmentary coverage — where any given piece of information might show up in the BBC and in CNN not just hours but days apart. Then there’s the fact that Google serves as a de facto newsvetter, thus becoming a loudspeaker for whoever bubbles to the top of its search results — which, at times, could be anything from lame governmental plattitudes or hysterical asshattery. Google’s function also encourages the spread of incomplete information. For instance, when searching terms about Fukushima and radiation sickness, teasers showed a figure of “31″ in response to searches. But this was an artifact of Google’s structure, where fragments of an article are grabbed as teasers in response to your search terms. The 31 figure that some searchers might have seen is the number of people who got radiation sickness at Chernobyl.

Meanwhile, the media did its part. As for the 31 figure, nuclear engineer and physician Ann Coulter said on the 17th that even that wasn’t true, writing in what New Times called a “singularly weird article” on the 18th that:

 

With the terrible earthquake and resulting tsunami that have devastated Japan…the only good news is that anyone exposed to excess radiation from the nuclear power plants is now probably much less likely to get cancer.

This only seems counterintuitive because of media hysteria for the last 20 years trying to convince Americans that radiation at any dose is bad. There is, however, burgeoning evidence that excess radiation operates as a sort of cancer vaccine.

…Amazingly, even the Soviet-engineered disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 can be directly blamed for the deaths of no more than the 31 people inside the plant who died in the explosion…

[Link.]

 

Um. Say wha-huh!? Not “don’t panic,” not “chill out,” not “data indicates the dose is likely irrelevant,” but “now you won’t get cancer because of the radiation you were exposed to.”

This is utterly bizarre, as are the out-of-context and utterly  misconstrued studies she seems to think tell her something that only she is privy to and liberal hysterics have been ignoring. Mind you, Ann Coulter isn’t generally a source for accurate science news, but this is pushing the envelope even for her. As Brandon K. Thorp of the Broward-Palm Beach New Times pointed out, “bullshit.” Nobody was killed in the explosion. The 31 died of radiation poisoning.

But nobody expects Ann Coulter to make any sense to anyone other than people already convinced that whatever liberals say is bullshit — “liberal” being defined here as “anyone who knows the difference between a steam explosion and radiation poisoning,” which casts kind of a wide net. What might be more important, in both media-misinformation and public health terms, is the widespread sense among the public that we’re “not getting the whole story” on Fukushima. This is compounded, not helped, by the rampant attempts by nuclear advocates to predict the future before they knew the immediate past. Being directly counter to anything like established journalistic or scientific procedure, this is exactly the same kind of logic that says the following:

  • EVIDENCE: There have been no reports of radiation sickness from Japan.
  • CONCLUSION: The government is suppressing them!

Have the Japanese government and Tepco been suppressing reports of radiation sickness? There’s no information to indicate that, as far as I can see, and I’m confident that if such information has been suppressed, it will be out sooner rather than later. But surely conspiracies demand a perceived secrecy — on the part of those who have been excluded. And so, here in the States, it worries me that the search for the cover-up isn’t just getting started…in the minds of those convinced of it, it’s already been concluded.

If you’d like to look for reports and evidence that there has been radiation sickness in Japan, look for reports and evidence. If you’d like to decide that it’s all a conspiracy, feel free to do that, as well. But in the latter case, don’t play a half-baked UFO conspiracy game and let the existence of evidence to support your hypothesis support it just as much, but in a different way, than the absence of evidence. If that’s the case, why even look for it?

Japan is a wired society; Fukushima was a closed site. When Tepco was hemming and hawing about why spent fuel pools had a risk of re-criticality that was “not zero,” the information was hampered by distance and insularity. In terms of radiation sickness, that fact is no longer the case, or no longer as much the case. I’m not claiming that there’s no radiation sickness in Japan; I don’t know. But getting hopped up about it won’t help anyone until there’s better information.

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