I wonder if the Guiness Book of World Records has a record for duration of silly hysteria. If so, I wonder if the manufactured handwringing over the casualty-free Fukushima meltdown is challenging that record. It has, after all, been 3556 days since the reactors melted down after a 14-metre tsunami knocked out the backup power to their cooling pumps. Those 3556 days have featured some of the most amateurish, incompetent, and irresponsible reporting and commentary that I have seen. Tens of thousands lost their lives in the tsunami, but the casualty-free meltdowns have gotten all the ink. The Associated Press and Arnie Gundersen deserve special mention in this regard. Because AP decided to riff on a reputation earned decades ago and lend its hefty media reach to profit-minded scaremongers like Gundersen who prophesied then and continue to prophesize today millions of agonizing deaths by radiation, Japanese authorities panicked at the first sight of elevated instrument radiation readings and evacuated a hundred thousand people, killing 600 in the process.
All that could have been avoided if media vehicles like AP had only stuck to the principles of good journalism and stepped out of their comfort zone when it comes to seeking balance in stories. Had they looked further afield in the expert community, they could have come up with expert commentary that is far better informed than what they got from the pseudo-experts like Gundersen on whom they almost exclusively rely. The real experts, who have spent decades studying in detail the behavior of radionuclides that have escaped from broken reactors and their effects on humans and the environment, could have given information that relates far more closely to reality than Gundersen’s obvious hyperbole.
I know it’s the news business—you have to draw eyeballs to your pages. But it’s possible to do this in a way that doesn’t involve Yellow Journalism. It just takes a commitment to fresh thinking, which is what professional journalists should be committed to in the first place.
I don’t know how to explain the determination with which AP clings to its anti-nuclear bias. Perhaps it’s just laziness, reporters set in their ways and unwilling to put anybody else on their speed dial. Perhaps it’s systematic and deliberate: maybe a lot of natural gas companies advertise in the vehicles that distribute AP stories and don’t mind the excellent publicity that accrues to them when their competition—nuclear energy—gets trampled in endless negative advertorials masquerading as news. Perhaps it’s a combination of the two.
But it most definitely is bias.
It has become fashionable to predict grand changes in the intellectual frameworks that predominate in human discourse. Many refer to these frameworks as paradigms, in deference to Thomas Kuhn, who in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions attempted to explain the mechanisms by which science progresses. Like many eager undergrads I read (okay, skimmed) that book, and like many probably could not off the top of my head give a coherent account of Kuhn’s ideas. But I do remember his differentiation between “normal science” (the main activity of which he called puzzle solving), and the “paradigm shift” (the breakout discoveries that revolutionize thinking in a particular area). Johannes Kepler’s work in discovering the nature of planetary motion around the sun is an example of a Kuhnian paradigm shift. Kepler laboured for years attempting to superimpose his notion of perfect godlike symmetry onto the orbits of planets around the sun, only to be frustrated every time when his measurements of the planets’ actual orbits indicated elliptical routes and not the perfect circles he predicted. Eventually he gave in to his observations and accepted that planets do not travel around the sun in perfect circular orbits. That was a revolutionary development; a paradigm shift.
Similarly, I wonder when the reality of zero radiation deaths from the Fukushima meltdowns will lead to a revolution in the scientific thinking around radiation levels. The first 500 days have seen no change in thinking; that has led to 600 people dying in the course of an evacuation that was supposed to make them safe. What will the second 500 days bring?