Nuke Scaremongering and the Left

By Chris Mooney | June 17, 2011 9:06 am

I’m always on the lookout for questionable science coming from the left–and this Counterpunch article, entitled “Is the Dramatic Increase in Baby Deaths in the US a Result of Fukushima Fallout?”, certainly seems to qualify.

The authors report on an increase in infant mortality across 8 U.S. northwestern cities during April and May. And let’s give them their claim that this is not some fluke.

The authors then leap to the implication that radiation from Fukushima–wafting from 5,000 miles away–is the cause!

And yet no discussion is provided of how much radiation is actually arriving on the shores of the West Coast, or whether it is at dangerous levels; there is simply a recitation of the effects of Chernobyl on children–but Chernobyl created much more radiation, and it was, basically, in the middle of Europe. See my Point of Inquiry episode on this.

I’m sorry, but you can’t start speculating about dead babies without a much stronger basis than this. For a saner discussion of risks to the West Coast, see here, or here.

Goes to show that misuse of science can clearly occur on the left. Bad lefties!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Nuclear Power

Comments (27)

  1. As usual, with you on this one…

  2. Somite

    When a democratic congressman or a presidential candidate expresses this view, then you can adscribe it to the left. Otherwise all you are showing is that you can always find someone or a small group of people of a particular ideology that can be associated with anything. Also applies to other unrelated phenomena like car brands and mustaches.

  3. Mike H

    @ Somite

    Doesnt Ed Markey count … and who from Markey’s staff is now at the NRC at his recomendation?

  4. Chris Mooney

    @2 & @3
    I don’t see Ed Markey claiming Fukushima killed babies on the West Coast.

    I realize this is the out there, Counterpunch left, and so it is easier to find extreme positions. But I want to point out that they exist, since I give the right so much trouble about science.

  5. Somite

    What we are comparing is sporadic isolated individuals or groups with other leftist leanings with a the whole platform of a entire right-wing party. Not comparable at all.

  6. Chris Mooney

    @5 who’s comparing?

  7. Richard D. Morey

    @6 – so, the point of this post is *only* to say “There is at least one person making questionable scientific claims who is also on the left?” And you expect that no one will look for more context from a person who wrote a book called “The Republican War on Science”?

    Why should we accept sentences like “Goes to show that misuse of science can clearly occur on the left” and “I’m always on the lookout for questionable science coming from the left” in a context-free vacuum?

  8. Janette D. Sherman, MD and Joseph Mangano have really gone too far. Brings their impressive credentials into question. Sherman is Harvard-trained!
    Mangano could be the Andrew Wakefield of nuclear radiation. See details here:
    http://neinuclearnotes.blogspot.com/2005/08/joseph-mangano-and-art-of-deception.html
    Mangano even has the Hollywood stars (a la Jenny McCarthy) to feed the madness:
    http://www.radiation.org/
    Ah, the stars are so easily deceived. Wish I had time to blog!!!

  9. Somite

    The comparison is tacit. Magnifying blips of left unscientific thinking creates a false equivalency with the pervasive and central antiscientific agenda of the right.

  10. Chris Mooney

    @9 I do not agree. I think it keeps us honest.

  11. Chris Mooney

    On my Facebook page, Jason Loxton, who is a grad student in earth sciences at Dalhousie (http://earthsciences.dal.ca/people/graduate_students/loxton_j.html), writes that he wrote to one of the authors. This is what he said (and he said I could repost):

    Dr. Sherman,

    I read your Counterpunch piece with perplexity. You write:

    ‘The recent CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report indicates that eight cities in the northwest U.S. (Boise ID, Seattle WA, Portland OR, plus the northern California cities of Santa Cruz, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, and Berkeley) reported the following data on deaths among those younger than one year of age:

    4 weeks ending March 19, 2011 – 37 deaths (avg. 9.25 per week)
    10 weeks ending May 28, 2011 – 125 deaths (avg.12.50 per week)

    This amounts to an increase of 35% (the total for the entire U.S. rose about 2.3%), and is statistically significant.’

    However, you don’t provide any of the context that could make meaningful interpretation of this data possible (or indeed a link to the source data). Two data points do not a trend make, but they do raise some questions:

    1) How do these before and after mortality numbers compare to those from these same regions in previous months/years? To these time periods in Eastern regions? And to historical means, highs, and lows? (I.e., what is the expected variation?–You need this information to speak of “statistical signifigance.”)

    2) Does the above data include all available reporting centres from the West Coast? (Los Angeles, for example, seems suspiciously absent.) When all reporting centres, including Canadian, e.g., Vancouver, are added, how are infant mortality statistics affected?

    It seems to me that this “dramatic” increase in mortality represents exactly the kind of normal fluctuation one would expect see in rare events examined in isolated temporal/geographic bins. Before writing an article likely to scare a lot of people, it would seem that the onus is on you to reject this null hypothesis, especially since it could have been easily done with the data you already had available to you.

    I would appreciate if you could clarify the points above, or send me links to the exact data you used so that I can check these concerns myself.

    Thank you in advance,

    Jason Loxton

  12. Richard D. Morey

    @10 – keeping “us” honest only makes sense if a problem is widespread (meaning, there actually IS a problem) and people are denying it (and thus need to be kept “honest”). Do you know anyone claiming that “There exist no person who is politically left and is making a scientifically implausible claim”? If not, do nonexistent straw people need to be kept honest?

  13. Matt

    I am left leaning and I am in science. Does this mean that any work I produce should be considered with more scrutiny/skepticism then any other scientist?

    Perhaps we could simply agree that you shouldn’t mix political beliefs (or make that any belief!) with science, it creates a bias – this is true for *any* political persuasion. That you look only to the left for questionable scientific bias, is to ignore the questionable science that comes from anyone who has included any bias in their studies.

    Your final line: ‘Goes to show that misuse of science can clearly occur on the left.’ assumes that some people think that the left were infallible in their scientific studies and you have just proved those fools wrong!

    In fact, this isn’t even science per se, it’s poor speculation on some statistics which has been spun into a scare story – that’s just journalism!

    Also, am I missing the part where the writers indicate their political leanings? (Pardon me for my ignorance but I have never encountered this website before)

    EDIT: My apologises if this sounded harsh but it was written assuming you were right-leaning and looking down on liberal science. This may not be the case, however my main point here is to shame any science which contains a political/motivational bias. Sorry for the defensive reply!

  14. Jeff

    @12 I believe Chris’ intent is to highlight that we ALL need to be kept honest, due to our shared human nature.

    I believe he also wishes to highlight that certain classes of people (political left, in this for instance) do not escape his fine tooth comb of skepticism.

    In that context, I’m not understanding your contention with the post.

  15. On Jason’s comment, there’s one thing he could have added:

    “Have we seen particular blips in the past? If so, how many, etc.?”

  16. Richard D. Morey

    @13, Jeff – The problem is the implication that this has something to do with the “left”. If his intent was only to keep the *authors* honest (because, hey, we all need to be kept honest), that’s fine. But this was contextualized as having something to do with the “left”. When he was asked to flesh out that context, by providing details about whether this was widespread on the left, or to compare it to the right, he demurred.

    So, either this has to do with the left, in which case the post is lazy because it offers no context at all for WHY this has to do with the left; or it doesn’t have to do with the left, and it’s just random people wrong on the internet, and the post is uninteresting.

    Look at post #4, and #10: that clearly implies that he gives “the right” trouble about science, so this post is about giving “the left” (“us”) trouble about science. But is that reasonable? Does this post have anything to do with the left, besides that the authors are on the left? We don’t know, because he won’t elaborate by providing any relevant context or statistics.

  17. Jig

    I’m with you on everything except one issue: that “Chernobyl created much more radiation.” There’s decent evidence that the releases of radiation from the F-site, to date, are swamping the total release of Chernobyl, if we’re going to count Curies of radioactive material that have exited the primary (and possibly secondary) containment of the multiple damaged reactors at the F-site. Independent measurements in Japan have been hard to come by, but they are being made now. It is very hard to measure what has been dumped into the Pacific, especially since there is no good data on the radioactivity of the tons of hot water dumped there since March, so that amount may never really be known. I think we can rely on the Pacific to dilute such dumping to a point where it won’t be a human health issue… but no one knows that for sure, and certainly won’t be able to predict it without more knowledge about what’s been/being dumped.

    If you want to compare the F-site to Chernobyl, and be optimistic about the F-site, then just say that the release from the F-site has had much less impact on humans so far because of where it is located with respect to prevailing winds, the Island of Japan, and the Pacific, and because as far as anyone knows, there hasn’t been an energetic release (explosion) of radioactive ash into the atmosphere like there was at Chernobyl, at least not yet. The compromised fuel at the F-site is at least 4x and likely 100x that at Chernobyl, and that is cause for long term concern.

  18. Chris,
    Come on, dude. You’ve been writing for a LONG TIME about how the Right is succeeding because the “media” is giving its not-really-factually-based narrative equal billing. Other then growing a thinner skin to your Right-leaning critics, why write this at all? Are you trying to create false balance too now? Really?

  19. Jeff

    @13 and @16: You’re both reading things into this that simply aren’t present. If you refuse to be confined to the statements that are present, and are married to your interpretations, then I can’t help you any more than Chris can. The post is clear, if you choose for it to be. :)

  20. solitha

    “Keeping us honest” seems pretty clear to me. It’s a matter of reminding us that the Left is not without error; while we watch conservatives flounder in a sea of propaganda, we have to not fall into the fallacy of thinking the Left is always correct. To keep ourselves honest we have to recognize fault no matter where on the political spectrum it lies.

    @16, Richard D. Morey – liberals are the ones who tend to be very anti-nuclear. The context lies in past works by Chris, including the Point of Inquiry he linked.

    @13, Matt – this blog is named The Intersection. It specifically addresses the intersections where politics and science meet (and sometimes end up in horribly mangled crashes). The bias created is in fact a heavy topic here; you’d probably find it rewarding to go back and read some of Chris’ posts from the last few months. The blurb under “Your Blogger” on the right of the page may also shed some light into what you’ve stumbled into here.

  21. desertlabs

    The Point of Inquiry interview with Brenner and Ropiek is from 4/13
    http://www.pointofinquiry.org/nuclear_risk_and_reason_david_brenner_and_david_ropeik/

    The back-up references were from from 3/16
    http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/16/local/la-me-0316-california-radiation-20110316

    and 3/15.
    http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2011/0315/Radiation-exposure-Why-US-is-confident-West-Coast-isn-t-in-danger

    We are three months into this. This is a very disingenuous presentation.

    This is an article penned by David Brenner: We don’t know enough about low-dose radiation risk
    http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110405/full/news.2011.206.html

    “The uncertainties over the long-term consequences of the releases are even more troubling, because they potentially affect much larger populations than those in or near the immediate evacuation zone.”

    “One obvious, and largely untapped, source of information is Chernobyl.”

    “So we also need to take a complementary approach, studying the basic mechanisms by which low doses of radiation cause cancer [in all organ systems not just thyroid and leukemia] — at the level of genes, chromosomes, cells and organs.”

    With regard to evaluating the dangers of Fukushima with regard to the US…

    1. Down-playing the dangers due to the lack of hard statistical evidence of the effects of low dose radiation does not preclude a rational person from examining the evidence we do have in terms of the behaviour of radioactive isotopes. Much is known about how these isotopes are absorbed and concentrated in the body. It is possible to extrapolate from what is known and make a rational decision.

    2. The solution is to have more data for evaluation. It’s being gathered, but not shared. That is what we should be demanding. We shouldn’t have a false sense of security from our inability to see what’s going on. Here is link that discusses this:
    http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110613/full/news.2011.366.html

    3. From what I’ve observed in the media they are actually downplaying the risks, or simply avoiding the subject all together…mostly the latter.

    4. I’m a conservative, and I have always thought nuclear was a bad idea.

  22. Jim Johnson

    You’re clearly misunderstanding Chris here.
    1) He has written a number of articles in which he calls out conservative sources for misusing or mis-stating science to further an argument. He has done it enough to have been accused of bias in the past.
    2) To avoid that onus of bias, he has become careful to always mention whenever he sees such a thing from a source known to be liberal.

    He is not trying to attack the left – he is just being scrupulous about being fair. He assumes everyone who reads his blog realizes that for every one example of scientific misuse from the left, there are scarily huge number from the right – he’s already covered that in depth in previous blogs.

  23. James Hrynyshyn

    http://nuclearpoweryesplease.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=16&t=258#p625

    Answers many of Jason Loxon’s excellent questions, and not to Sherman and Mangano’s credit,

  24. Susan Anderson

    For once I got more context and understanding from the cumulative effect of the comments added to the article here, with particular thanks to #11 Jason Loxton via Chris Mooney, a sterling example of effective action. One may hope to get more context and larger data sets over time, but the exact information does not yet show what it is purported to show. On the whole, before Fukushima I was mildly pro-nuclear with serious reservations about our ability to infinitely store extremely toxic and ever expanding waste products, as a stopgap for our gigantic energy appetite (dare I say gluttony?).

    It appears from emerging information that we have no idea of the size or impacts of four to six uncontrollable reactors and storage facilities, but periodically we get updates, and none of them are about how things are safer than we thought, quite the reverse.

    In addition, the plant on the Missouri which is now protected by a moat seems vulnerable to my untutored eye.

    Reporters providing facts on environmental issues have been forced to be on the defensive about bias, and this is no accident. The big picture is so consistent, full of fascinating detail on a wide variety of effects, that it appears the defense has chosen to put a magnifying glass to every detail in hopes of finding flaws that can be taken out of context and set to weigh against a massive body of information.

    My initial reaction to this was, why contribute to the argument which is already inflated? I’m well aware of Chris Mooney’s fair-minded tolerance. (For example, he does a wonderful portrait of William Gray in Storm World; I came away thinking he is such a good writer because he likes people.) But if you read Keith Kloor, for example, who is supposed to be against bias, he seems to hate Chris Mooney and takes every opportunity to jab at him. I can to a certain extent understand attacking Joe Romm, but Chris Mooney? I guess what I’m getting at is that playing to the gallery is a mug’s game.

    The person relying on truth and evidence is handicapped in these wars. Those “all in” for denial are much better equipped, because they never try to put themselves in the other person’s shoes.

    BTW, I believe the evidence is nowhere near in on the sum of radiation coming out of northern Japan, but am reasonably certain that the “reasonable” middle is understating the case. This baby study is wild, but time will tell.

  25. Chris, I’m looking for a skeptical scientist viewpoint on this al-jazeera article: Fukushima: It’s much worst than you think

    http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/06/201161664828302638.html

    You’ve already addressed the infant mortality rate, but there are a number of other points the article brings up that seem like good points to me. I am not a scientist, though, and don’t want to be caught up by an article that clearly has an element of sensationalism to it.

  26. Alexis

    I wonder if Sherman and/or Mangano even wrote the piece in counterpunch? I am a maternal and child health epidemiologist in the west, and 1) I have seen no alerts from CDC or anywhere else regarding a spike in infant deaths, and I receive and read every MMWR 2) to the best of my knowledge, infant mortality data as recent as March and May 2011 are not yet available, especially at the city level (and publishing city-level infant mortality data is generally not done), 3) that two people with a respectable publishing record in peer-reviewed journals would write something so sloppy.

    I think it is made up, and would really like to see Sherman and Mangano either claim it, or have the opportunity to disassociate their names from it.

  27. Alexis

    Ah, well, the average Joe CAN get current IM data:

    http://wonder.cdc.gov/mmwr/mmwr_reps.asp

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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