Sunday, May 01, 2011

Fact-Checking Helen Caldicott

Helen Caldicott was in Santa Fe a week or so after the Japanese earthquake. A friend suggested we go to hear her speak, and I went along, although I knew I wouldn’t agree.

I didn’t bother to write down every statement that needed checking – they came every minute or so. She was quite clear and accurate on the basic physics and chemistry but then went off into opinion on pretty much everything else. And some things were just wrong.

The structure of her speech was like a preacher’s “come to Jesus”. There was fear of radiation and guilt on everyone present for not ending this terrible situation immediately. She omitted the altar call at the end, although she mused about entertaining questions and decided not to “break the mood.”

The talk was sponsored by one of our local antinuclear groups, so she was given a standing ovation. Another friend sitting nearby said “Don’t fact check, but she’s good.” I pressed him on that; he knows the importance of fact-checking. “We’ve got to get rid of the nukes, one way or another” was his answer.

I want to see the numbers of nuclear weapons decreased and eventually eliminated. I want to see nuclear power developed safely. But Caldicott’s tactics don’t lead to the kind of world I want to live in.

The New York Times has given her an op-ed today. What she says there is very similar to what she said in Santa Fe, and what I’ve seen in her other op-eds and videos.

What she says has a number of problems. George Monbiot recently documented many of them at his blog and columns (here and here). I’ll work through a few from the op-ed.
Six weeks ago, when I first heard about the reactor damage at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, I knew the prognosis: If any of the containment vessels or fuel pools exploded, it would mean millions of new cases of cancer in the Northern Hemisphere.
Have you noticed how much of the scariest commentary about Fukushima has revolved around that little word if? Bugs me every time. No, none of the containment vessels or fuel pools exploded. Every day that goes by, that if becomes less likely. Sorry, Helen and all the others who seem to have been longing for the most horrific outcome possible.

But that quote does manage to re-evoke the fear that we felt in the week or so after the earthquake. It paves the way for more credulity about the last part of that sentence. Millions of cases? I’ve been looking in some detail at the BEIR VII report, whose purpose is exactly such prediction. (I hope to have a post with some numbers in the next day or so. It’s taken me a while, because I’m trying to understand what they’ve done in some depth.)

It won’t be millions of cases of cancer. Mainly because those explosions didn’t happen and probably won’t. But even if they did (beeee veerry afraid!), the numbers aren’t likely to be that high.
During the 25th anniversary last week of the Chernobyl disaster, some commentators asserted that few people died in the aftermath
Ah, those shadowy anonymous commentators, who can’t be traced! They would include the authors of BEIR VII and the researchers who provided some of the data those authors used.

The only source that Caldicott actually names, a report from the New York Academy of Sciences, is a translation of a Russian report that hasn’t undergone the same sort of peer review that the BEIR VII and other reports have been subjected to. It stands alone in its very high estimates of damage. Here’s one critique. Caldicott needs to address why she has chosen this outlier report over other available material.

The stories about deformed fetuses and genetic damage are heart-wrenching. Nobody wants babies to be deformed. BEIR VII looks for genetic damage and finds not enough to be treated statistically, as cancer cases can. Miscarriages? Has there been a study to show that there were more than normal? Again, Caldicott provides nothing that is checkable, only assertions.

Caldicott sets up straw physicists and attacks them with statements that are simply untrue. There’s something wrong with every paragraph. Just one more for now:
Still, physicists talk convincingly about “permissible doses” of radiation. They consistently ignore internal emitters — radioactive elements from nuclear power plants or weapons tests that are ingested or inhaled into the body, giving very high doses to small volumes of cells.
The authors of the BEIR VII report are physicians and health physicists, who I’ve always found to be closer to the health side than the physics side. And that report doesn’t ignore internal emitters, nor do other similar reports. Those internal emitters, incidentally, include potassium-40 that is a natural part of every living thing.

It’s easy to say that there is no safe dose of radiation. That’s not really proved; BEIR VII assumes that the probability of developing cancer is proportional to the dose, but they are clear that it is an assumption. It’s true in the same way that no amount of automobile exhaust is safe or char on barbecued meat is safe. It’s also easy to say that radiation exposure is additive, but the numbers in BEIR VII don’t support that. Radiation treatment for cancer may involve doses of tens of thousands of rem, which would kill if absorbed all at once.

Much as I agree with some of Caldicott’s goals, I don’t want to live in a world in which fear and guilt are primary motivators for political action. Even Caldicott suggests that guilt is an inappropriate motivator for her stereotyped physicists. It’s fact we need, and Caldicott provides little of that.


J. said...

Caldicott must have taken lessons from the Chemical Weapons Working Group and Sierra Club. They love to demonize the Army's chemical demil program with fear-inducing statements of error, just at the same time their state reps are taking federal funds to maintain the chemical stockpiles. Yes, these people hurt policy execution, not aid.

rbl said...

I watched a YouTube video of Caldicott at a Canadian forum, and I was struck by what psychologists call "inappropriate affect". She is sitting there, accusing radiation researchers of making a cover-up, a knowing suppression of the truth about radiation effects. Then, she sits back with prim, motherly half-smile and lets these sink in. I would think it more appropriate to exhibit rage and hatred, if there were really people who would countenance millions of deaths from cancer and birth defects just to advance the uses of nuclear technology.

Anonymous said...

Go ahead and keep your head in the sand but first listen to this!

Unknown said...

Caldicott may very well be wrong too, but you do realize that there really isn't any proof in this either right? The problem with the world today is that everyone, including this article, including Caldicott, is now opinion with little science to back everything up. Concrete facts are getting harder to find and it disappoints me.