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.