In my last post about the Kahan et al paper, I gave you the headline finding–scientific literacy and numeracy, if anything, seems to worsen climate denial, especially among those already opposed to climate action (hierarchical-individualists/conservatives).
But there’s another intriguing finding in the study. In fact, I would go so far as to call it an anomaly in need of explanation.
You see, it turns out that the pattern on nuclear power is different than the pattern on climate change in the study (see Figure 4). On nuclear power, the egalitarian-communitarians (liberals) generally start out thinking it’s more risky, and the hierarchical-individualists (conservatives) generally start out thinking it’s more safe–when you ask them the question posed in the study anyway (“How much risk do you believe nuclear power poses to human health, safety, or prosperity?”).
The starting positions are just what you would expect: egalitarian-communitarians (liberals) are suspicious of unregulated industry and worried about harm to, basically, everybody, especially the weakest in society. So when they hear about corporations doing risky things (like, say, nuclear power) they get their buttons pushed. The hierarchical-individualists (conservatives) are the opposite–individualists in particular celebrate private industry and the free market, so you would expect them to support nuclear power.
However, unlike in the case of conservatives and climate change, with increasing scientific literacy and numeracy, egalitarian-communitarians (liberals) *do not* move further in the direction where you would presume their initial biases would take them–i.e., towards perceiving more risk. Instead, with more education and numeracy, both groups grow less convinced that nuclear power is risky. Read More
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.
Goes to show that misuse of science can clearly occur on the left. Bad lefties!
Andy Revkin has done a post that combines together a discussion of my Mother Jones piece with, appropriately, an analysis of the recent claims and counterclaims over the greenhouse gas implications of fugitive methane emissions from unconventional gas drilling (e.g., fracking). It includes a Q & A between us:
REVKIN: I would love your sense of why climate, as a hot-button issue, is more salient than vaccines in the political arena. Presumably it’s because it’s a direct link to the wallet for anti-tax folks and vaccines are a much smaller base of concern (people with young kids)?
You didn’t mention genetically modified organisms or radiation, two other arenas where the communitarians [Kahan's descriptor for what others might call liberals] have what seems to be a high “dread to risk ratio“….
Finally, this seems to clash with the enduring vision that inertia on climate (and related issues) derives from heavy spending by fossil fuelers and media muddle. My learning curve on cultural cognition has led me to mostly abandon my expectation that better information and communication could change the public debate.
Do you see any need for the environmental movement to abandon its longstanding claim that the public is inert on climate and energy because of the themes in “Merchants of Doubt” and, to an extent, “The Republican War on Science?” Read More
Aware of the big debate over this question, I wanted to dig into the topic with David Brenner of Columbia on Point of Inquiry. The exchange on this, which gets into the reasons why people disagree about the magnitude of the disaster, begins around minute 13:30 and runs on for more than 5 minutes.
I want to call attention to one part of the exchange in particular (stream here). After Dr. Brenner explained why there are such wildly varying estimates (from 6,000 to as high as nearly 1 million) for the Chernobyl death toll–it all has to do with whether you multiply very minimal radiation doses by the very vast populations that did get at least some tiny exposure to radiation from Chernobyl–I asked the following:
Chris Mooney: The World Health Organization studied Chernobyl, and they put a low end estimate on the number of deaths, so they were ruling out, essentially, these extremely low doses to extremely large numbers. Was that a valid thing to do?
Dr. David Brenner: “Valid” is a tricky word. Was it an appropriate thing to do? That’s a hard question. The best science that we have, I would suggest, cannot rule out the possibility that we should really include everybody who was exposed to extremely low doses. And if you do that, you end up with quite large population cancer burdens. That being said, that doesn’t mean that the individual risk to anybody was high. The distinction here is between individual risk–the risk that any one person gets from a tiny dose of radiation–and population risk, the risk to a whole population, the number of cancers that might be produced in a whole population. They’re different concepts. Population risk involves individual risk and the number of people exposed. Individual risk is just individual risk. Trying to make that distinction–it’s an absolutely critical distinction, and it’s one that gets lost in the flurry of debate.
Chris Mooney: But it’s even trickier than that, because it both implies that, “Hey, I’m in California, and something happened in Japan, so I individually don’t need to worry very much,” but at the same time, it gives ammo to those who will say later, well, it killed this ungodly number of people–which will scare people in the future.
Dr. David Brenner: Indeed, you’ve hit the nail very much on the head. But it is fair that one should look at risk from both of these aspects. It’s important to know what people’s individual risks are, but it’s also important to understand what the consequences for a very large population would be.
As you can maybe tell, I really don’t like the idea of these vast populations of unidentifiable victims. It bothers me. It doesn’t sound right.
However, Brenner explains why we can’t rule it out, and his explanation is very cogent. As a result of this, I’m now way more skeptical of George Monbiot. He’s treating the WHO study as if it is the right answer, but this issue of low dose exposures to very large numbers, while maddening and tricky, cannot be dismissed at this point. I’m not taking the side of his opponent, either; I’m not sure we dash to the extreme high end estimate either, but clearly, this topic requires caution.
The latest show (certainly timely, in light of the new wave of fear coming out of Japan this morning over an upgrade in scale for the Fukushima disaster) has just gone up–it features not one but two guests:
When the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan last month, it left behind not only mass destruction, but also a nuclear crisis that was covered 24-7 by the international media.
Since then, we’ve been embroiled in a huge debate about nuclear policy—should there be a “Nuclear Renaissance” in the United States, or should we put it on hold?
A central issue underlying all this is the scientific question of risk. How dangerous is radiation, anyway? Do we overreact to reactors?
To tackle that question, we turned to two different guests. One is one of the world’s foremost experts on radiation exposure and its health consequences; the other is a journalist who’s done a new book about why we often misperceive risk, to our own detriment.
David Brenner is the director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University. His research focuses on understanding the effects of radiation, at both high and low doses, on living systems, and he has published more than 200 papers in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Dr. Brenner was the recipient of the 1991 Radiation Research Society Annual Research Award, and the 1992 National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements Award for Radiation Protection in Medicine.
David Ropeik is an author, consultant, and speaker on phorisk communication and risk perception, and an instructor in the Harvard University School of Education, Environmental Management program. He’s the author of the 2010 book How Risky is it Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.
Again, you can listen here. I learned a lot doing this one. I’ll say more on this, but 1) George Monbiot is going too far in his dismissal of low dose radiation risk (which doesn’t make Helen Caldicott right, either); 2) the current news that Fukushima is now a “Level 7″ release, like Chernobyl was, needs to be considered in careful context–Chernobyl was still a vastly larger release and isn’t really comparable. For all this and much more, listen to the show.
Answer: When he has Ann Coulter on the air, and somebody has to act responsible:
For a thorough debunking of Coulter, see here.
In preparation for Monday’s Point of Inquiry–which is on nuclear power–I’ve been learning more about this issue. As a result, while I don’t agree with Helen Caldicott, I do feel George Monbiot is being a tad too strident, and probably should have used more hedging.
Basically, there’s a reason why death estimates for Chernobyl vary widely. I find the explanation here, from Lisbeth Gronlund of the Union of Concerned Scientists, really helpful. The trick is that although the risk diminishes greatly as the amount of exposure decreases, there’s assumed to be no absolutely safe dose of radiation. This creates a situation in which, with Chernobyl, you have vast populations exposed to a tiny but non-zero dose. If you then do the math you get a large number of cancers, some of which will be deadly–but it is not like you will ever be able to point to who the victims were.
This does not provide a justification for Caldicott’s nearly 1 million deaths–but Gronlund finds that “70,000 and 35,000 are reasonable estimates of the number of excess cancers and cancer deaths attributable to the accident.” Read more here.
Ask and you shall receive.
Yesterday I called for proof of liberal/left misuse of science with respect to the risks of nuclear power, and now, George Monbiot has delivered. He calls out longtime anti-nuke activist Helen Caldicott for her claim that nearly 1 million people were killed by the Chernobyl disaster:
For the last 25 years anti-nuclear campaigners have been racking up the figures for deaths and diseases caused by the Chernobyl disaster, and parading deformed babies like a medieval circus. They now claim 985,000 people have been killed by Chernobyl, and that it will continue to slaughter people for generations to come. These claims are false.
The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation(Unscear) is the equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Like the IPCC, it calls on the world’s leading scientists to assess thousands of papers and produce an overview. Here is what it says about the impacts of Chernobyl. Read More
When the Fukushima disaster struck, I wrote the following, suggesting this would be a “natural experiment in the politicization of science”:
Today’s Republican Party has evolved to the point where the denial of climate science is mainstream within the party, or even dominant. Scarcely a day goes by without a Republican politician uttering something demonstrably incorrect on the subject.
So here’s the question: Will leading environmentalists, elected Democrats, and other influentials on the other side of the aisle be caught engaging in similar abuses in the unfolding nuclear debate? Will they say things provably incorrect, in the service of trying to tank nuclear power?
Or are liberals and conservatives today truly different when it comes to handling scientific information, no matter what their core political impulses may be?
I, for one, am betting on the latter outcome. Just read comments at my blog: It’s a bunch of old lefties saying how they’ve come around about nuclear power and how they’re willing to credit the benefits as well as the costs. Or just look at Matthew Yglesias: A good liberal who has just written, “I do think it’s worth speaking up for a nuclear industry a bit. The question is safe compared to what?”
Now David Ropeik, who writes about risk assessment, and has cautioned against the exaggeration of nuclear risks, has answered:
Blogger Chris Mooney writes on Desmogblog “Are Liberals Science Deniers? Now’s a Good Time to Find Out.” He refers to the nuclear debate as ”…a natural experiment in the politicization of science,” and optimistically bets that anti-nuclear liberals will be more open minded and respectful of the scientific evidence than conservatives. And indeed some of his respondents, and comments elsewhere, come from self-identified liberals who are open to consideration of nuclear power. Read More