Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Harvey Wasserman, Three Mile Island, and Logic

I have on numerous occasions documented the factual errors of nuclear critics Amory Lovins, Joe Romm, Mark Z. Jacobson, Ben Sovacool, David Biello, Frank Barnaby, Helen Caldicott, Jan Storm van Leeuwen, Ralph Nader, and David Brower. Not one of them based his or her case on an honest recounting of facts. In fact, as a group most of these people are no more truthful that the rightwing talk radio personalities are. (I would exclude Ben Sovacool and Frank Barnaby from this judgement,) I have gotten so cynical about the pseudo pro-environmentalists who recite shallow lies as their take on nuclear power, that I am shocked when I find a spokes person for some environmental group actually exhibit honesty and candor and demonstrates some understanding of nuclear technology. Usually anti-nuclear leaders act as if the truth does not matter, and they are morally entitled to recite their falshoods because of the evil embodied in nuclear power.

Most critics of nuclear power have failed to engage in even minimal dialogues on nuclear power with its defenders. Even worse they repeat the same mistaken idea over and over, even after being repeatedly informed of factual errors in their accounts. For example Ralph Nader records a conversation with a nuclear safety expert at Oak Ridge. From Nader's account of the conversation it would appear that the expert was trying to describe basic concepts of nuclear safety to Nader in relatively simple language, but Nader accused the expert of using jargon, and dismissed what he had to say. Nader got to talk mto Alvin Weinberg, in fact Weinberg and Nader's sister Clair were friends, but Nader refused to listen to anything Weinberg had to say. Weinberg befriended Amory Lovins, and frequently informed Lovins of his mistakes. Lovens payed not the slightest attention and has repeated the same errors till this day. When Helln Caldicott was confronted with some of her many well documented factual errors, she said that her critics were such morally degenerate people that she should not need to answer them, so she didn't.

But for towering mendacity we have the Rush Limbaugh of the anti-nuclear cause Harvey Wasserman, a pseudo-liberal. To understand exactly how dishonest Wasserman is we have to look at some of his anti-nuclear arguments.

Harvey Wasserman has told innumerable fibs while opposing nuclear power. For example, in February Wassermant told Amy Goodman and Patrick Moore,
We have $50 billion lined up in the Congress that needs to stop and not come out of the taxpayers' pocket, because, among other things, the reactors that these $50 billion would fund cannot come online in less than a decade.
Of course, the $50 billion were loan co-signs, not guifts from the treasury to the nuclear industry. The Congressional Budget office valued the loan co-signs at $500 million, but that did not exactly come out of the taxpayers pockets, that is what the CBO estimated the co-signs would cost thetax payers in loan defaults. Co-signing nuclear industry loans cost the taxpayers nothing in the present, but that is not the way Harvey told it. in his Daily Kos Blog Wasserman told his readers
The latest demand for a $50 billion taxpayer handout has been sleazed into the Senate budget bill. . . . This latest bailout incarnation has been widely tagged “nuclear pork” even in the right-wing Washington Times, which says the Senate accepted it “without debate, explanation or a recorded vote.”
Harvey knew what the facts were, but facts have never constrained him to tell the truth. Daily Kos commenter bryfry noted
This is just another hit-and-run diary by Wasserman, pushing the same idiotic points. He isn't going to stick around to respond [to critical comments].
Following the Three Mile Accident, everyone and his brother studied the people of the accident area to see if anyone was getting sick from radiation. There was a presidential commission appointed by Jimmy Carter who was no friend of the Nuclear Industry. The NRC had a study. So did the Environmental Protection Agency, Not to be outdone so did the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services), and we should not forget the one by the Department of Energy, Not to be out shown so did the State of Pennsylvania Department of Health which contacted 32,000 are citizens.. Not only did the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) do a study, but they did a 20 year follow up to make sure no one turned up with symptoms years after the fact. Epidemiologists from Columbia University thied to find ebvidence that the accident had made people sick. None of these studies cam up with anyone who had died or had even been made sick by the Three Mile Island accident.

The Columbia study did find find an increase in lung cancer down wind from Three Mile Island but when they looked at the reported radiation release it became clear that the exposure to Three Mile Island radiation could not account for the cancer increase observed. That meant that they could not say with any confidence that that the Three Mile Island accident had anything to do with the with the lung cancer increase. Now for most scientists that ends the story, but if you are a trial lawyer you might consider the Three Mile Island to big a target to not take a run at. So a law suit was filed, but the lawyers needed an expert who would say that the Columbia University interpretation of the data was wrong and that the data showed that living down wind from the accident was associated with an increased cancer risk.

The lawyers found a University of North Carolina epidemeologist, Steven Wing, who was willing to take a run at the Columbia data. Wing testified that the Columbia conclusions were based on the assumptions that reported radiation levels following the TMI accident were wrong,
"[u]nlike the original reports based on these data, our re-analyses (sic) assumed that absolute accident doses could have been large enough to produce measurable impacts on cancer incidence. . . ."
The plaintives' attorneys then attempted to argue that the radiation release levels were large enough to account for the cancer cases. There problem, however was the only thing they had to base this argument on was the observed cancer cases. But this is what is called in Logic a circular argument. Basically the plaintives were arguing with Wing's assistance that X level of radiation at causes cancer at rate Y, the TMI down wind survivor had cancer at rate Y. There fore they were exposed to X level of radiation. The argument is flawed because it uses its own assumption to prove that it is true. The argument really says, if we assume that something it must be true. This is downright silly.

For an example of this logic error, consider the argument that of President George W. Bush had a love affair with a donkey belonging to the Queen of Britain. If President had an affair with the Queen's donkey, he would have spent the night in Buckingham Palace, President Bush spent the night om Buckingham Palace, therefore he must have had an affair with the Queen's donkey.

Sylvia H Rambo, the Judge in the TMI class action case ruled:
The record presently before the court does not support the fundamental assumption made by Dr. Wing -- that doses were significantly higher than originally estimated. In the absence of this assumption, Dr. Wing himself admits that he would be unable to make a causal interpretation based upon his findings. Because Plaintiffs have presented no evidence in support of this assumption, the court finds the Wing cancer incidence study does nothing to assist Plaintiffs in creating a material factual dispute or meeting their burden of proof.
Thus Judge Rambo concluded,
The parties to the instant action have had nearly two decades to muster evidence in support of their respective cases. As is clear from the preceding discussion, the discrepancies between Defendants, proffer of evidence and that put forth by Plaintiffs in both volume and complexity are vast. The paucity of proof alleged in support of Plaintiffs, case is manifest. The court has searched the record for any and all evidence which construed in a light most favorable to Plaintiffs creates a genuine issue of material fact warranting submission of their claims to a jury. This effort has been in vain
Anyone who would dispute the Judges contention would face a daunting prospect that would require demonstration that there was credible evidence that radiation levels downwind of the TMI accident did reach a level that could have accounted for the observed cancer.

Here is what Harvey Wasserman argues:
cancer, leukemia, birth defects, stillbirths, malformations, spontaneous abortions, skin lesions, hair loss, respiratory problems, sterility, nausea, cataracts, a metallic taste, premature aging, general loss of bodily function and more can be caused by radioactive emissions of the type that poured out of TMI. And all such ailments have been documented there outside the corporate media.
Now where does Wasserman get this from?
University of North Carolina epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Wing.
The same Steven Wing who admitted on the witness stand that he had created a circular argument in order to link cancer cases with Three Mile Island radiation.

Yet Harvey Wasserman is claiming is that American corporate media lies when it claims that “no one died at TMI.” Wasserman does nothing more than recycle Steven Wing's argument that was discredited by Dr. Wing's own admission on the witness stand. Needless to say Wasserman did not repeat Wing's own damning statement about his evidence under cross examination.

Wasserman argues that
cancer, leukemia, birth defects, stillbirths, malformations, spontaneous abortions, skin lesions, hair loss, respiratory problems, sterility, nausea, cataracts, a metallic taste, premature aging, general loss of bodily function and more can be caused by radioactive emissions of the type that poured out of TMI. And all such ailments have been documented there outside the corporate media.
But in fact although those illness were documented, the link to TMI radiation was not, and that is the rub. Wasserman claims
Dr. Wing reports that levels of radiation-related disease significantly rose in the downwind area. Wing and three co-authors looked at statistics used in a major study by Columbia University and other sources. They concluded that — despite official denials — the numbers clearly indicate serious potential health effects.
This argument simply ignores Wing's damming admission on the witness stand. Thus Wasserman is using as proof a study that reaches its conclusions by a logical error. The study's author admitted the mistake. We know this is the case because the judge in the case pointed to the error as a critical point in her verdict in the case. It does not get any planer or more obvious than that. Yet Wasserman treats Wings findings as if they are sound, and beyond dispute.

June 1996, 17 years after the TMI-2 accident, Harrisburg U.S. District Court Judge Sylvia Rambo dismissed a class action lawsuit alleging that the accident caused health effects. The plaintiffs have appealed Judge Rambo's ruling. The appeal is before the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. However, in making her decision, Judge Rambo cited:

· Findings that exposure patterns projected by computer models of the releases compared so well with data from the TMI dosimeters (TLDs) available during the accident that the dosimeters probably were adequate to measure the releases.

· That the maximum offsite dose was, possibly, 100 millirem (1 mSv), and that projected fatal cancers were less than one.

· The plaintiffs' failure to prove their assertion that one or more unreported hydrogen "blowouts" in the reactor system caused one or more unreported radiation "spikes", producing a narrow yet highly concentrated plume of radioactive gases.
Judge Rambo concluded:
"The parties to the instant action have had nearly two decades to muster evidence in support of their respective cases.... The paucity of proof alleged in support of Plaintiffs' case is manifest. The court has searched the record for any and all evidence which construed in a light most favourable to Plaintiffs creates a genuine issue of material fact warranting submission of their claims to a jury. This effort has been in vain."
No one could demonstrate that any plausible evidence of adverse health effect from the Three Mile Island accident accept the stress which local residents suffered during and after the accident. This has not stopped Harvey Wasserman from repeatedly charging that "Three Mile Island killed people."

Now what can we say of Harvey? It is beyond credibility that he is unaware of the logical error upon which he basis his argument. Media personalities like left wing personality Amy Goodman simply ignore the issue of logic, and treat Wasserman as if he were a credible source. People who are blatantly irrational, and who disregard documented facts should not be treated as experts by the media, even if they say what media gatekeepers want to hear.


donb said...

Let's say the Three Mile Accident had released enough radiation to have statistically killed several people (though I don't believe that the linear, no-threshold model is correct). To really be fair about it, one would have to compare that to the number of people not killed due to TMI's operation, when it prevented radioactive and carcinogenic releases from a coal-burning plant. And don't forget to toss in the deaths due to asthma as well.

It would be very interesting to see that part of a "system analysis".

Charles Barton said...

Don, the radiation came in the form of radioactive gases, that were quickly diluted to such an extent that the typical exposure exposure was probably no more than a medical xray. The evidence of health consequences for such exposures is at best weak.

DocForesight said...

My understanding is that Rush is in favor of nuclear power plants. Just for the record. And he is very dubious about wind and solar as being capable of generating base-load power.

So, it looks like he and you are in agreement on at least one thing!

Soylent said...

Doc. Rush plays a persona every bit as much as Stephen Colbert. if mainstream democrats dislike nuclear he has to advocate it; if mainstream democrats believe global warming is a serious concern he has to pretend it's not.

Who knows what he actually believes and how he arrived at that conclusion?

DocForesight said...

Soylent, don't be so cynical. You may disagree with his political views but there is little doubt about his allegiance to America, its uniqueness, exceptionalism, overall source of good in the world, generosity to those less fortunate both at home and abroad.

He railed against Bush when appropriate (which was often) as he voices his concerns about any infringement of personal freedom and liberty - constrained by laws equally and fairly adjudged.

Time will tell if he is correct or incorrect regarding his take on AGW. Since Copenhagen failed to enact or encumber anything any more than Kyoto, we get to observe what nature does and revisit the theory/contention/science of those sounding the alarm of AGW.

Anonymous said...

First off, I'm a huge conservative, but sometimes the insolence we show on issues involving enterprise is disheartening. This is The judge made a terrible error in this case. The Slusser/Hatch study, which is the basis of the "circular argument" defense, was glaringly flawed. If the judge had understood the studies and Dr.Wing hadn't testified so poorly, then there's no way that she could have come to this verdict.

The here's a quick summary:

Slusser/Hatch (1990)
-Used the NRC's estimation of AVERAGE radiation exposure as the worst-case exposure.
-Assumed the official NRC data was 100% correct
-Found unexplainable increased cancer rates
-Concluded that the rates could not be attributed to 1 mSv (NRC avg.) could not have caused such a spike in cancer rates, so Three Mile Island couldn't have caused the spike in cancer rates
-Immediately had their ethics questioned by the scientific community
-Fellow scientists out the organization that funded the study as a group of lawyers that representing the interests of the nuclear industry
-Published a follow-up (1991) that hypothesized that "psychological stress" was the probable cause for the spike in cancer rates because 1 mSv release couldn't account for such a rise in the cancer rate


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