Are You Stupid and a Poor Judge of Character?

31 May

A Little Cesium Keeps the Skeptics Away How many times I thought – if only people would take the time to figure out the problem! I might be wrong. It could get worse. With more time that lump of gray matter atop our necks could devise even more nonsensical rationalizations.

So if it’s not a lack of scientific literacy causing disagreement with the experts, then what is it?

The authors of the study looked at an alternative explanation referred to as the cultural cognition thesis. This thesis posits that individuals try to fit their interpretations of scientific evidence into pre-formed cultural philosophies. More specifically, those with a hierarchical, individualistic worldview were expected to be sceptical of climate-change risks, the acceptance of which might lead to unwanted restrictions on industry. Those with an egalitarian, communitarian worldview were expected to agree with the experts, as they are generally less troubled by commerce-cramping regulations.

The data bore this out. And, perhaps most fascinating of all, increased scientific literacy only increased the cultural divide.

Could something simlar happen with radioactivity?

The scientists who measured the cesium and performed the isotopic analysis to conclusively prove that the cesium came from the Fukushima power plants were justifiably proud of their skilled use of sensitive scientific tools and analytical methods. They published their peer-reviewed paper in a reputable journal; you can find the abstract at Pacific bluefin tuna transport Fukushima-derived radionuclides from Japan to California. The authors did a good job of selecting their paper’s title; it has garnered vastly more attention than most articles in peer-reviewed journals.

Unfortunately, it seems that most media sources did not bother to read the paper closely enough to find out that the radiation dose rate delivered by the cesium in the tuna was 30 times less than the radiation dose rate from potassium 40 that is a natural part of the tuna and 200 times less than the radiation dose rate that comes from polonium-210 in normal tuna. Fortunately, Richard Harris from NPR read enough of the paper to carefully provide that information to his generally more thoughtful and curious audience.

Instead, sources like Fox News focused on the fact that the radioactive cesium levels were 10 times higher than the normally minute levels of radioactive cesium found in nature.

It is a little disheartening to see that a Google News search using the term “radioactive tuna” returns 40,000 hits and a Google Web search with that same search term returns nearly 24 million hits. I guess that is more interesting news – or more interesting news to the real customers of the media, the people who pay for advertising, than information about the Chemical Aftermath of the tsunami.

This morning, one of my friends forwarded a link to another carefully researched, peer-reviewed paper published about the effects of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. That paper, titled Chemical Aftermath: Contamination and Cleanup Following the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami was published in Environmental Health Perspectives and has been available online since July 1, 2011. The paper was written by Winifred A. Bird and Elizabeth Grossman. It has numerous references and includes a number of dramatic photos. It has attracted exactly one comment.

Bird and Grossman’s paper was not buried; I did a Google search with the full title of the paper and came up with more than 600,000 hits. I understand that the search results may be inflated by the large number of words in the search term, but I checked the first sixty entries (six pages). Most of them specifically reference Bird and Grossman’s Environmental Health Perspectives article. A Google News search with the paper title provided zero matches, but since the article has been online for nearly a year, I would not expect any current news about it.

The question I have for you is this – do you remember many mentions or discussion about the chemical aftermath of the tsunami in the popular press?

It’s all fine, as long as your friends and supervisors, whom you so admire much, don’t force you to eat a ton of sushi and spout the company line!

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