The nuclear plant problem in Japan — and the problem with ideologues in science *UPDATED*

Mr. Bookworm, New York Times reader, was telling the children that there was a total catastrophe in Japan, with the Japanese and the world exposed to the possibility of massive radiation poisoning.  I calmed the children’s fears by telling them that the paper could be right, but it could be wrong.  First, newspapers sell well on disasters, so it’s in their interest to play them up.  Second, I said, it’s doubtful that most of the reporters have any understanding of nuclear technology, so they’re winging it.  (What I didn’t add is that, almost certainly, the Times’ reporters have as their only “experts” anti-nuclear activists.  There’s nothing wrong with getting the activists’ point of view, but the reporting would be more honest if (a) the Times revealed their biases and (b) the Times talked to some people on the other, non-hysterical side.)  The children, bless their hearts, said “Mom, we know that!”

Anyway, if you want a view from the other side, written in the clearest English I’ve ever seen in a science-based article, read Charlie Martin on the nuclear meltdown and the media.  Whether or not you agree with him, he writes so well, you will certainly understand him.

By the way, this is a great place to tell a story I’ve had in my brain for several days.  I have to digress a teeny bit to set the story up, so please bear with me.

I own a Kindle.  I love the convenience (no more suitcases full of paperbacks when I travel), but I find the book pricing off-putting.  With the choice of free books at the library, or cheap books at Goodwill, I’m not thrilled about spending $10.00 on a book.  What makes it worse in my mind is that, while hardback books are marked down about 40-50% (hence the $10 or $12 Kindle pricing), paperback books are priced down only about 5%.  I’m too cheap to buy a full-priced paperback at the best of times (preferring to gamble that I’ll find something I like at Goodwill or the library), so I’m certainly not going to buy the same book for a mere 5% discount.

So I’ve got a Kindle, but I’m unwilling to buy the books.  The answer is to get the free books that show up on Kindle.  Sometimes, there are real finds there.  For example, if a reputable author is publishing the most recent book in a long-running series, the publishers will put out the first book for free, as a loss leader, to entice people.  That works for me and I have been enticed.  There are also free classics (or low priced, 99 cent, classics).  There are a lot of books that are pure garbage and are free because no one will or should pay any other price.  And there are books that see a publisher just trying to get titles out there and gin up some interest.

That last e-publishing approach is how I ended up with a free copy of Sherry Seethaler’s Lies, Damned Lies, and Science: How to Sort through the Noise around Global Warming, the Latest Health Claims, and Other Scientific Controversies. The publisher’s blurb promises that the book will help savvy news consumers understand the science in the news:

Every day, there’s a new scientific or health controversy. And every day, it seems as if there’s a new study that contradicts what you heard yesterday. What’s really going on? Who’s telling the truth? Who’s faking it? What do scientists actually know—and what don’t they know? This book will help you cut through the confusion and make sense of it all—even if you’ve never taken a science class! Leading science educator and journalist Dr. Sherry Seethaler reveals how science and health research really work…how to put scientific claims in context and understand the real tradeoffs involved…tell quality research from junk science…discover when someone’s deliberately trying to fool you…and find more information you can trust! Nobody knows what new controversy will erupt tomorrow. But one thing’s for certain: With this book, you’ll know how to figure out the real deal—and make smarter decisions for yourself and your family!

Watch the news, and you’ll be overwhelmed by snippets of badly presented science: information that’s incomplete, confusing, contradictory, out-of-context, wrong, or flat-out dishonest. Defend yourself! Dr. Sherry Seethaler gives you a powerful arsenal of tools for making sense of science. You’ll learn how to think more sensibly about everything from mad cow disease to global warming–and how to make better science-related decisions in both your personal life and as a citizen.

You’ll begin by understanding how science really works and progresses, and why scientists sometimes disagree. Seethaler helps you assess the possible biases of those who make scientific claims in the media, and place scientific issues in appropriate context, so you can intelligently assess tradeoffs. You’ll learn how to determine whether a new study is really meaningful; uncover the difference between cause and coincidence; figure out which statistics mean something, and which don’t.

Seethaler reveals the tricks self-interested players use to mislead and confuse you, and points you to sources of information you can actually rely upon. Her many examples range from genetic engineering of crops to drug treatments for depression…but the techniques she teaches you will be invaluable in understanding any scientific controversy, in any area of science or health.

^ Potions, plots, and personalities: How science progresses, and why scientists sometimes disagree
^ Is it “cause” or merely coincidence? How to tell compelling evidence from a “good story”
^ There are always tradeoffs: How to put science and health claims in context, and understand their real implications
^ All the tricks experts use to fool you, exposed! How to recognize lies, “truthiness,” or pseudo-expertise

At first, the book seemed to live up to its promises.  Seethaler explained that it was entirely legitimate for scientists to disagree, because science is not as black-and-white as elementary, middle and high schools imply.  Different techniques, different equipment, and different starting hypotheses can all result in differing outcomes that are open to legitimate dispute.  Seethaler explains that, quite often, conventional wisdom has proven to be plain wrong.  The nature of hypotheses is that they are tested, and then tested again, especially as new information and technology come along.

Seethaler also talks about modeling.  The way in which a scientist sets up a model — the parameters he chooses, the information he enters, and the calculations he applies — may dramatically affect the conclusions he reaches.

In light of all these variables, Seethaler acknowledges that, as she says, “scientific revolutions really happen.”  Conventional wisdom frequently gets turned on its head.  Few things are fixed in the world of true science.  What’s important, she says, is that “disputes are not a sign of science gone wrong.”  Instead, they represent scientists dealing with all of the problems, and variables, and information, and scientific development described above.  This can mean, Seethaler writes, that one person, one outlier, can turn conventional wisdom on its head.

After all this, you’d think, wouldn’t you, that Seethaler would carry these conclusions through to the subject of anthropogenic global warming, right?  Oh, so wrong.  Turning her back on everything she wrote in the preceding chapters, Seethaler has this to say on global warming, in the context of a warning the newspapers like to play up conflict, but don’t really understand scientific methodology:

Another problem is what sociologist Christopher Tourmey referred to as pseudo-symmetry of scientific authority — the media sometimes presents controversy as if scientists are evenly divided bewteen two points of view, when one of the points of view is held by a large majority of the scientific community.  For example, until recently, the media often gave equal time and space to the arguments for and against humans as the cause of global climate change.  Surveys of individual climate scientists have indicated that there is discord among scientists on the issue, but that the majority of scientists agree that humans are altering global climate.  One anlaysis of a decade of research papers on global climate change found no papers that disputed human impacts on global climate.  Also, all but one of the major scientific organizations in the United States whose members have expertise relevant to global climate change, more than a dozen organizations in all, have issued statements acknowledging that human activities are altering the earth’s climate.  The American Association of Petroleum Geologists dissents.  Therefore, there is a general consensus within the scientific community that humans are causing global climate change.  While it is legitimate to explore the arguments agianst the consensus position on global climate change, it is misleading for the media to present the issue so as to give the impression that the scientific community is evenly divided on the matter.

Have you read any media in the last ten years that “gave equal time and space to the arguments for and against humans as the cause of global climate change?”  I haven’t.  With the exception of Fox, the media has monolithically climbed aboard the AGW bandwagon, and ignored or discredited any contrary voices.

Also, considering that Seethaler spent pages and pages and pages warning against assuming that science is fixed, explaining how different approaches to models and hypotheses can affect scientific conclusions, and applauding outliers who challenged (correctly) institutional consensus, do you find it as peculiar as I do to have her suddenly announce that AGW is definitely proven and that any voices to the contrary should be ignored?  It also doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that, in this monolithic intellectual climate, the absence of published papers challenging AGW may arise from the fact that the challengers are being barred at the gates.

I deleted Seethaler’s book from my Kindle at this point.  The woman is a foolish ideologue, incapable of practicing what she preaches.  She’s also probably pretty typical of the science writers and “experts” bloviating about the very real nuclear problems in Japan.  That is, there are real problems, and real risks, but never trust an ideologue to be honest with you when it comes to the conclusions to be drawn from the facts.

UPDATE:  Another good example of the media’s gross (and, I suspect, intentional) scientific ignorance.

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  1. says

    It seems that very few people learn much about science either in K-12 or in college….which is ironic, because the vast expansion of educational spending in the wake of Sputnik was justified largely on the argument that “we’re living in a technological age and people need to know something about science to be good citizens as well as for career reasons.” That all turned out to be bait-and-switch.
    One thing I really, really dislike is the trend toward replacing lab science with computer simulation. This misses the main *point* of science, which is “You can always see for yourself.” Believing a black-box computer model is essentially believing an *authority*, no different in principle from the medieval practice of believing whatever Aristotle said.

  2. Tonestaple says

    That’s too bad.  I went ahead and put the book on my “someday” list at the library and it’s too much work to try to get it off of there.  I’ll just make a note to skip the global warming part.

    Here’s a website I really miss:  The author would carefully read the actual study trumpeted in the newspapers as proving something or other and, dissecting the study, demonstrate that nothing had been proven as the newspapers claimed it had.  The site is still up so you can read her posts; she’s just not updating.

    The world needs more writers like Sandy Swarzc who know whereof they speak.  It’s too bad Sherry Seethaler isn’t one of them.

  3. Oldflyer says

    I read the comment about computer modeling and smirked.  In graduate school I found myself in a course entitled Numerical Analysis or something like that. An elective yet.  Way over my head, but I really wanted to be mathematical in the worst way; and I was–in the worst way.  We had to do a project. Fortunately, that would replace a final exam.   I didn’t have a clue.  So, I decided to do a computer model.  Learned a simple IBM modeling program, and set out to determine whether computer efficiency would be improved more effectively by increasing memory, or by increasing processor speed.  I have no idea whether there was any validity to my model, or whether it was just plain garbage.  It spit out some data and achieved the result I desired–I got an A.
    I always think of that experience when I read about climate models. If nothing else they achieve one desired result; they generate grants and favorable publicity.
    In another “Analysis” class the Professor, a young fellow who had spent his short working life in the Pentagon, as a disciple of Robert McNamara’s whiz kids, harangued the class of military Officers at length on the magic of Numerical Analysis. He used examples that touched on some of our experience. He was closely questioned on how the particular results that seemed counter-intutitive came about; and no one was surprised when he finally acknowledged that the results were completely dependent upon the underlying assumptions, and the quality of the data.  He who makes the assumptions, and/or provides the data, controls the analysis.
    I attained my BA and MS rather late in life, at 35 and 37, courtesy of the USN.  I often wondered if I were any better prepared for life or my job; and if so, how.  I decided that I was better prepared in at least one way.  I had developed a keener understanding that  the real world is a lot more complex and messy than Academics, Intellectuals, and many experts want to acknowledge; and that so many who pontificate so learnedly are terribly narrow in their focus, and often completely wrong.
    I should add that I am not antagonistic toward Numerical Analysis, Modeling or Scientific Inquiry.  Just skeptical, as we all should be.  We cannot question every result; but, as a minimum we should question the  credentials, reputation,  and motives of the those presenting the result.
    Something I have learned outside the classroom through extensive sampling is that  News People have a vested interest in making every event as sensational as they possibly can.  Generating fear is one of the more effective techniques.  The wonderful Brit Hume was on O’Reilly last night speaking as a voice of reason on the nuclear events in Japan.  O’Reilly, of course, kept interrupting to raise the anxiety level with “yes buts”.  My wife says that  his job is to be the Devil’s Advocate.  I think the Devil has far too many advocates.

  4. says


    “My wife says that  his job is to be the Devil’s Advocate.  I think the Devil has far too many advocates.”

    That is as pithy a summation of our troubled time as any I’ve ever seen.

  5. jj says

    Just to blather on the issue that got you started, Book – I have an E-Reader, and have had it for years.  Some days I kind of like it, some days I don’t.  My issue is that I’m one of those who likes to scribble in the margins, underline passages, collect aphorisms, etc.  If we ever get to the point (we probably are already there, I’m just technologically ignorant) where you can underline, etc. on the screen – then maybe.  Until then – only if I can’t get the real, physical, puled wood pages.  (Which time, I’m sure, is coming.)

  6. binadaat says

    Bravo, too Oldflyer.
    Book: at the Marxist Uni of Cal at Santa Cruz I learned you read a book backwards: Index and bibliography first. then you look where the author studied and worked (if they did…) and then you can decide if you want the book.  In liberal arts it’s not too hard to sift out the dross. With science you may have to do some research on line.  And it’s not a detective novel! Read the first and last paragraph of several chapters if you have any doubts.  Invest 20 mins and save hours.
    Also most of what has been published fiction or non, is polemic these days.  Even detective novels and chick lit.  Read Jane Austen or Conan Doyle.
    Re: global warming
    I wonder if they remember or just choose to ignore Chaos theory?
    If you can’t predict the weather can you predict the climate??
    from Wikipedia:
    Chaos theory is a field of study in applied mathematics, with applications in several disciplines including physics, economics, biology, and philosophy. Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions; an effect which is popularly referred to as the butterfly effect. Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.[1] This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved.[2] In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.[3][4] This behavior is known as deterministic chaos, or simply chaos.
    Chaotic behavior can be observed in many natural systems, such as the weather.[5]

  7. says

    Book, the media is much often in the same circumstance as Medieval doctors that believed bleeding weak and sick people would cure them of their ills. When confronted with the higher efficiency of Jewish doctors, they would use the issue of their religion as being the reason why the treatment should not be carried out.
    And they call themselves the party of reality. Isn’t that ironic, Book.

  8. says

    Martin has a good article on the subject, linked by Book.
    What I notice particularly is that the media is, once again, telling lies and people believe them.
    It seems nobody has any resistance to propaganda. What did they learn in school anyways? Oh, I forgot, the media’s allies were in charge of their learning. Of course they didn’t learn anything useful concerning propaganda.
    People look at a story, read the headline, see the pictures, hear the talking heads, and they “think” they “get it”. They don’t get a damn thing but what the media wants them to think.
    Get rid of Obama and this perennial weakness in detecting the truth in America will still remain, for the next con man or woman around the corner. This is a long term problem. It won’t be fixed in a short time because people are still invested in their “illusions”. They still believe what the media told them over the years is “what they themselves thought up”. So they perceive any criticism of the media’s narrative, not as a criticism of the media, but as a personal attack on themselves. Which they will diligently defend against using all their (meager) resources.
    No, if you are still making judgments, decisions, or assumptions about reality from the media, you are basically equal to the village hick that thinks nothing else exists in the world beyond the village borders. Even counter-intelligence professionals cannot get anything from 100% disinformation.

  9. SADIE says

    “Get rid of Obama and this perennial weakness in detecting the truth in America will still remain, for the next con man or woman around the corner. This is a long term problem.”
    Ymar, it’s an excellent point and a pointed reminder as we draw closer to 2012. Case in point, is the budget crisis and the failure of the last and current Congress to enact a budget for 2011.


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