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Risk Reporting Fail, Part Two: An Egregious Case of Journalistic Radiation-phobia
Journalists often hype the most alarming aspects of the news. In the process, they sometimes create and reinforce common fears that far exceed the actual danger.
What’s the first word that comes to mind when I say the word “Radiation”? “Cancer,” perhaps, or “dangerous,” or “harmful”? Or possibly “Chernobyl,” or “Fukushima,” or even “nuclear weapons.”
Chances are good that your first association with the word "radiation" will be something negative. Why? Beyond an X-ray or two or maybe a CAT scan, you probably have never been personally exposed to human-made nuclear radiation. You probably don’t work at a nuclear power plant or in nuclear medicine. If you’re like most people, you probably don’t know much about radiation at all. Then where does that negative association come from? Why the common fear of something few of us have experienced or know much about?
The answer, as it is with many of the things we worry about, but have no personal experience with or in-depth knowledge of, is... the news, which not only supplies us with information, but also frequently colors that information in the most dramatic and alarming possible way, establishing a public fear that often exceeds the actual danger. There can’t be a clearer case of how the news media has done this — helped create a widespread fear that far exceeds the actual risk — than the common apprehension about nuclear radiation.
And there can’t be a clearer case of the way the news media purposefully hype the fear of radiation than a glaring piece of radiation fear-mongering in Foreign Policy magazine, "The Mushroom Cloud and the X-Ray Machine," by Sarah Laskow.
Laskow begins her piece with a frightening story about radioactive fallout from the post-WW II atmospheric testing of atomic bombs, framing things (as does the “Mushroom cloud” headline) in the scariest historic roots of radiophobia. She claims that 70 years after all those tests, and decades of operation of nuclear power plants, scientists “are still uncertain about” the risks of radiation. Which makes things sound scarier than they are. It’s also basically not true.
In fact, scientists know a great deal about the health effects of radiation. Based on 70 years of study following the survivors of the atomic bombs in Japan, radiation biologists know that even at high doses, ionizing radiation is far less dangerous than commonly believed. The most current estimate is that of about 11,000 people who were within six kilometers of ground zero and survived and who have subsequently died of cancer, 527 of those cancer deaths were caused by radiation... an excess cancer mortality rate from high dose radiation exposure of about two-thirds of 1 percent. That research has also firmly established that at low doses, the risk is tiny, if there is any risk at all. For atomic bomb survivors who got lower doses, radiologically associated morbidity or mortality are so rare that epidemiologists can’t detect any change in normal rates for those diseases.
Most reporters who write about the risk of nuclear radiation don’t know about this research. They just assume and repeat and reinforce the public assumption that this stuff is really dangerous. But Laskow knows about the research that puts the risk in a calmer perspective. She cites it. Yet despite the findings from that research that radiation is far less hazardous than commonly believed, she describes it in a clearly dishonest and alarming way;
The results haven’t been good: The greater the dose of radiation, the greater the risk of death, period.
The flip side of which is... the lower the dose, the lower the risk. Which Laskow simply fails to note. Understandably, given that her piece is about the danger from low-dose radiation, so acknowledging that it’s not very dangerous would undermine the alarm she’s sounding, which is the very premise of her story.
Laskow’s focus is on the controversy about whether low doses of ionizing radiation actually cause any harm at all. (Remember, the study of the A bomb survivors couldn’t detect any change in normal disease rates from low dose exposure, so the question about the hazard from low doses is basically educated guesswork, scientific extrapolation from what higher doses do.) Some scientists think any dose of radiation poses a risk, a conservatively protective assumption called Linear/No threshold (LNT). Some scientists think low doses do no harm, and even may have beneficial effects. But even if LNT is correct, the amount of harm low-dose radiation does is minuscule. (Remember, it causes less than a 1 percent increase in lifetime cancer mortality at HIGH doses.)
Yet Laskow describes the uncertainty that remains about LNT in melodramatic terms far more alarmist than the low risk — which she never mentions — truly deserves.
…not having the answer to the LNT puzzle could already be having tangible — even deadly — consequences.
Her story is laced with other unnecessarily alarmist language. Of a Congressional bill that would fund more research into the LNT question, she says;
The new bill places scientific inquiry in the service of a deregulation agenda that could make people less safe—not more.
There are more half-truths as well. Laskow says the atomic bomb survivors weren’t exposed to radiation long enough to tell us much about low doses. That’s scary, but wrong. They were exposed to high doses for weeks, and lower doses for months or more, easily long enough, according to most radiation biologists, to provide confident assumptions about the health impacts of both high- and low-dose exposure.
And almost as if to confirm her alarmist intent, Laskow cites Helen Caldicott as a source. Even most critics of nuclear power consider Caldicott hyper-alarmist and an unreliable source on the health effects of radiation.
The LNT controversy over the effects of low-dose radiation is an important story, and Laskow provides a reasonable overview. But she also provides a melodramatic, alarmist, and glaringly incomplete picture of the actual risk of radiation. She hypes a far scarier picture than the evidence warrants. And in doing so, she typifies what the majority of journalists, including many science journalists, do with their reporting about any risk (and I did too often during my 22 years as a TV reporter). They play up the scary, and play down or omit anything neutral or reassuring, and in the process they create and reinforce public fears... of vaccines, or "chemicals," or child abduction, or radiation. There are tangible and serious impacts from such alarmism. It makes us far more afraid of some things than we need to be, which can have dramatic and often harmful impacts on the choices we make as individuals and as a society.
We should find and support the news sources that report risk responsibly. And we should criticize and challenge those that don’t. Public and environmental health is at stake.
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.