Lies, pseudoscience and “journalism” in Japan’s current nuclear situation


The current situation at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant is a serious matter; and having family in close proximity of it makes it even more serious to me. For this reason, I appreciate the onslaught of emails and phone calls that friends and acquaintances have sent me to express their solidarity. Thank you!

At the same time, I am appalled by the way western media has represented the situation, which has led some people to send me distraught missives about the “imminent” crisis and the lies of the Japanese government. Since I haven’t posted in a while, I seized opportunity to type some words about risk and science communication. Since this is going to be a little bit of a rant, I apologize to my regular readership (that handful of patient people) for having digressed a little, yet again.

Here is my rant:

Let’s face it, fear mongering is as pervasive in the media as tooth brush ads. It has been used to persuade people and draw their attention to all kinds of issues, from road safety and global warming to war on terror and anti-vaccine propaganda. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that western media wasted no time to dub the situation “a crisis”, talk about the “imminent” core meltdown, and “spot” radiation clouds heading to North America. In contrast, Japanese media emphasizes on something that seems completely foreign to western “journalists”: evidence and science.

In this piece (click here and then the audio file), The Globe and Mail’s correspondent, Mark MacKinnon, ignorantly distinguishes between science and risk communication! Apparently, in Mr. MacKinnon’s pseudo-journalistic, fear-mongering rationale, risk assessment and communication don’t  need to be based on scientific evidence. I guess all you need to do is imagine the worst case scenario and tell people that we are heading straight to it.

What I find offensive is that the western “journalists” are so used to their scare tactics, that they just cannot understand the calmed tone of Japanese media. Even worse, some “news” agencies in Sweden have accused the Japanese government of lying about the severity of the situation; at least, that was the premise of one of the distressed messages I received.

To the sender of that message and to those who think like her, here is the reply to her concern: things are currently not as bad as the western media wants you to think. But don’t take my word for it, take my brother’s. After all, I am just a research assistant who works in injury prevention, and he happens to have a doctoral degree in infrastructure development, and also happens to make a living developing mathematical models of risk. He is fine and he has been going to work, while preparing for the worst.

As a final note, some pointers on how to distinguish between fear mongering and evidence-based risk communication:

  1. The language of science is charged with ambiguity: “Containment vessel failure unlikely” read The Japan Times headline. (emphasis added by the author)
  2. Fear mongers use fact-like statements and buzzwords: “New setbacks for Japan in nuclear crisis” read the International Herald Tribune. (emphasis added by the author)
  3. Doom sayers often use extreme language: “There is consensus among the scientific community…”
  4. If they don’t use extreme language they simply offer platitudes  to prove their point:  “the majority of scientists believe that…” (just so you know, science is not a democracy)
  5. Real science communications expresses uncertainties in terms of probabilities and confidence intervals: “there is a 80% probability that the temperature of the earth will increase between x and y in the next z years.

End of my rant. Thanks to all my friends and acquaintances for your solidarity!

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3 Responses to Lies, pseudoscience and “journalism” in Japan’s current nuclear situation

  1. Nohra says:

    “…just so you know, science is not a democracy”… Priceless!!!

  2. jmv says:

    Good points, Tak. Although I have never had much faith in the big news networks (American in particular), I’m happy to say I’ve been getting plenty of science via @boingboing, and lots of facts (in English) via @YokosoNews

  3. Veronica says:

    Hi Tak
    Firstly, my sympathies to you and the people of Japan, who have been tested in the last few weeks. Secondly, my congratulations on your “rant”. I wondered what happened to the inspiring stories of rescue and survival, which should have taken precedence over the so-called nuclear crisis, since that was the human story. It was really hard to find the factual amid the exaggerated. One knows that the news was sensationalized, but not where or how. I’m glad you’ve shown us that we need perspective. Fear-mongering is what sells newspapers and TV time, apparently.
    Take care!
    Veronica

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