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Risk Reporting Fail, Part One. How Journalism Feeds Excessive Fears of Radiation
Common assumptions about the dangers of radiation are excessive. Journalism plays a huge role in creating and feeding these fears.
It is a common lament that people’s fears of some things — vaccines, child abduction, genetically modified food, anything with the word "chemicals" in it — are excessive and fly in the face of the evidence. This lament is often raised loudly by science journalists, who blame these misperceptions on a lack of science education, or fear-mongering by advocates, or, frequently, on people being irrational. Yet excessive fears like these that have become widely accepted in society as basic truths have another fundamental cause; journalism itself. Few subjects exemplify this as clearly as does the fear of nuclear radiation.
Ionizing radiation is a veritable poster child for how journalism dramatizes the scariest aspects of risk stories, and plays down or completely leaves out information that would make the risk seem less frightening, information the news consumer needs in order to make an informed judgment about just how big or small the risk actually is. This is the first of two essays that dissect a couple recent examples.
Forest Fires Threaten New Fallout From Chernobyl warns that Chernobyl “blanketed” a vast region with radiation and as a result “radioactive wild boars roam German forests, and radioactive mushrooms grow in Bulgaria.” That kind of simplistic, dramatic language would fit right into a sci-fi horror film. The story cites a study (Fire evolution in the radioactive forests of Ukraine and Belarus: future risks for the population and the environment) warning that forest fires in the contaminated area since 2002 have re-released the equivalent of 8 percent of the radiation released by the Chernobyl accident, and that climate change could reduce precipitation and raise temperatures and thus increase the risk of fires, which would increase the re-release of radiation. Sounds alarming.
The story also warns that the risk could last for a long time, because the radioactivity is coming from isotopes “which take decades to millenniums to decay. The contaminants remain in soil and in plants that, once on fire, can release them into the air.” More alarm.
But just how much of an actual risk does this pose to people or the environment? The reader never finds out. The story only says;
How much of a health threat this would pose is unknown.
Not to leave it at that, the reporter then closes with an ominous quote from study author, Dr. Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina:
“There is never a positive consequence of having increased amounts of mutagenic materials in our environment. It’s always negative.”
That may fit the assumed alarmist narrative about radiation, but it is also just plain wrong. High school science-level wrong. Some mutations cause harm. Some produce benefit. Mutations power evolution. The alarmist overstatement about the risk of mutagenicity is so patently wrong that it should have alerted any fair-minded and mildly skeptical science reporter to possible bias by Dr. Mousseau and his work.
It’s not as though it would have been hard for the reporter to find out about Dr. Mousseau, who is known among his colleagues for pushing alarmist interpretations about the harm of radiation from Chernobyl that are unsupported by the evidence. And on the more fundamental issue of the actual risk implied by this study, it would have been easy to find that out too. There is a whole field of science, radiation ecology, that researches questions like this. It took me 15 minutes to find The Journal of Environmental Radioactivity piece that reviewed the body of literature on just this topic — Forest fires in the former Soviet Union: no reasons for radiophobia, which found that
“forest fires in the Chernobyl area or elsewhere in Russia bear today no risk of significant radiocontamination.”
Why? Isn’t radiation anywhere a risk? Yes, but DOSE MATTERS to how much of a risk there is. As with most risks, the danger goes up as the dose of radiation gets higher, and except for the immediate region right around the Chernobyl plants, the doses of radiation that "blanketed" the wider area were not all that high in the first place. (It is stunning to see how often stories about risk, especially from science journalists who are supposed to know better, fail to include critical information about dose and what the actual risk is at the dose to which people are exposed.) Further, much of that radiation has now decayed away, so doses from re-release from forest fires in the future would be even lower. Any follow-up reporting on this study with any expert in the field of radiation ecology would have informed the reporter about this, which is information centrally relevant to any reader trying to make informed judgments about the risk of radiation.
Excessive fear of radiation may be caused in some measure by a lack of public science education or people’s tendency to gauge risk with their feelings more than just the facts. But the heart of the problem is alarmist risk reporting that uncritically echoes the commonly held assumptions, largely created and reinforced by the media, about the dangers radiation is believed to pose. Mea culpa. I did this for years while covering nuclear issues as a broadcast environment reporter in Boston. I just never looked further into the specifics of the actual biological risk of radiation, especially the question of dose. Shame on me.
Stories that suggest danger, but fail to include information that might modify the fear may be a great way to get readers to pay attention, but by the basic standards of journalism, this is a lousy way to report objectively about risk. And it’s a harmful way to inform the public, whose excessive fear of radiation has tangible impacts on the choices people and society make.
In Part 2, an even more egregious example; a reporter who KNOWS about dose and how low the overall risk of radiation is, and plays up the drama and alarm anyway.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.