Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Anti-science disinformation and politics

The conclusions of good scientists who properly use the scientific method are often challenged for religious or ideological reasons. Although religion is often depicted as the major enemy of science, the Soviet Union proved that politically motivated wars against science are both possible and can lead to ideologically motivated wars on truth. The same of Trofim Lysenko is infamous in science for the purges of scientists his weird ideas lead to. Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet agronomist who believed that characteristics which organisms acquire can be inherited, contrary to all 20th century genetic research. Lysenko argued that if crops were

Stalin bought into Lysenko wacky ideas, and made Lysenkoism a part of the Soviet ideology. During the Stalinist purges of the 193o's, mainstream Soviet geneticist were purged for not adhering to Lysenko ideology. Geneticist were fired from academic positions, arrested and even killed for their refusal to bow to the official Soviet scientific ideology. Later the purged geneticist were posthumously rehabilitated, but this did not undo the damage that was done to Soviet science and to Soviet agriculture.

Unfortunately Lysenkoism was not the last anti-scientific idea that was to become popular. Last week the Houston Chronicle revealed that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had censored a scientific paper on environmental issues in Galveston Bay written by John Anderson of Rice University. Portions of a chapter in The State of the Bay a periodical report published by the the Galveston Bay Estuary Program of the state of Texas. References to sea level rise, man caused environmental changes and global warming were censored out of the report by the The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality a body appointed by the fanatic anti-science Governor of Texas, Rick Perry. Anderson has withdrawn his chapter from the report, and several other scientists who were involved in the project have asked that their name be withdrawn from mention by the report out of fear that any association with such an anti-science travesty would harm their reputations as scientists.

Rick Perry is not the only American Governor to take anti-scientific stances. The current governors of New York believe that they are far better informed than research scientists about the safety of reactors. Not long ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, asked for a meeting with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to discuss earthquake dangers at New York's Indian Point Nuclear Plant. Earth Quake Dangers at a New York nuclear power plant?

You have got to be kidding. John Wheeler of This Week in Nuclear tells the story. Cuomo found the story in an article by Bill Dedman of MSNBC. Dedman claimed that
The reactor with the highest risk rating is 24 miles north of New York City, in the village of Buchanan, N.Y., at the Indian Point Energy Center. There, on the east bank of the Hudson, Indian Point nuclear reactor No. 3 has the highest risk of earthquake damage in the country, according to new NRC risk estimates provided to msnbc.com.
Dedman's report was allegedly based on an NRC document, IMPLICATIONS OF UPDATED PROBABILISTIC SEISMIC HAZARD ESTIMATES IN CENTRAL AND EASTERN UNITED STATES ON EXISTING PLANTS. DaileyTECH noted numerous flaws in the Dedman story.
Dedman claimed,
It turns out that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has calculated the odds of an earthquake causing catastrophic failure to a nuclear plant here. Each year, at the typical nuclear reactor in the U.S., there's a 1 in 74,176 chance that the core could be damaged by an earthquake, exposing the public to radiation. No tsunami required. That's 10 times more likely than you winning $10,000 by buying a ticket in the Powerball multistate lottery, where the chance is 1 in 723,145.
DailyTECH commented,
the report says that the risk is of "the core being damaged by an earthquake, exposing the public to radiation". But as we mentioned earlier, that's not what the report says. The report references the risk of core damage, which does not estimate the actual probability of a "large early release" of radiation at all. As the report says, in the case of core damage, such a release would be a "possibility", but given additional containment measures, would likely be a far lower probability than the cored damage frequency (CDF) estimate.

In other words, the report does not predict the risk of the public being exposed to radiation directly at all.
DailyTECH adds,
the most "at risk" plant -- New York's Indian Point 3 plant -- has a 1 in 10,000 annual risk of core damage if an ultra-powerful 10 hz earthquake were to strike (thus this is dubbed the "maximum risk" or "weakest link" model). The actual risk is far lower. The report gives what is likely the most accurate estimate in the form of a weighted average. For example for Indian Point 3, the risk is 1 in 670,000 per year.
Clearly then Dedman has misrepresented the NRC report. Why would he do that? As DailyTECH states,
The net result is that the U.S. public is becoming mistrusting and fearful of nuclear power. . . .

This could have a tremendous deleterious effect on the energy future and security of the U.S. Nuclear power in the U.S. is arguably the cheapest and most tested form of alternative energy. The U.S. contains many rich deposits of uranium and other fissile isotopes -- enough to drastically reduce the reliance of the U.S. on fossil fuels from volatile foreign sources.
So Dedman is engaged in anti-nuclear propaganda, with the apparent intention of increasing public mistrust of nuclear power.

Daily Tech contacted Dedman in order to request an correction of his errors. For example, the communication to Dedman noted,
the report does not talk about the risk of public exposure to radiation,
Dedman responded,
the article is about core damage, which the NRC says would release radiation. You've decided that I must have been talking about something else, which I wasn't, and now you're saying, why aren't about that something else...
DailyTECH commented,
That is a clear mistake -- intentional, or unintentional.
The DailyTECH editorial when after Dedman with the Journalistic equivalent of an Iron club,
Engaging in the due diligence that Mr. Dedman neglected to we discussed Mr. Dedman's comments and our analysis with government authorities at the U.S. regulatory commission. They told me they never told him that. . . .

That was only the first of several falsehoods and factual errors in Mr. Dedman's correspondence and work that we were able to definitively verify.

States a separate NRC team member, "There were numerous inaccuracies in that story."
Mr. Dedman writes us stating:

You're cherry picking. You've decided that the weighted average is the right column to use. Based on what? The NRC staff prefers the column that we've used, the "weakest link." That's the number it sent us, when it sent us one number for each plant. And as the report explains, the NRC has no basis on which to weight the averages, so it says a weighted average wouldn't be meaningful.

There are three separate falsehoods in this statement. As you will see, the NRC told Mr. Dedman nothing of the sort and he's clear mislead me, as he's done to his readers.
We write him:

Do you have a contact at the NRC who can substantiate your claims? How can you weight data without having a factor to do so? If you get me this information I can [edit my article].

Virtually always weighted data is what you would use in a case like this, as the data is typically weighted by the frequency of occurrence of the event (e.g. a probability of the probability). It's possible your correct, that would just be a bit unusual.

Mr. Dedman refused to provide us the identity of his phantom "contact" at the NRC, so we contacted them ourselves.

We asked them if they told Mr. Dedman to use this figure or told him that the weighted average was non-meaningful.

We inquire:

Did an NRC spokesperson tell MSNBC's Bill Dedman that the weighted risk was invalid and to use the weakest link model?

They respond:


And they add:

The weighted average is not invalid (see Answer 5 below). All of the values in Appendix D were developed by NRC staff. Table D-1 in Appendix D uses the (2008) US Geological Survey (USGS) seismic source model, but the Seismic Core Damage Frequency results were developed by US NRC staff. The USGS seismic source model is the same one used to develop the USGS National Seismic Hazard Maps.

Tables D-1 through D-3 in Appendix D of the US NRC study show the “simple” average of the four spectral frequencies (1, Hz, 5 Hz, 10 Hz, peak ground acceleration (PGA)), the “IPEEE weighted” average and the “weakest link” model. These different averaging approaches are explained in Appendix A.3 (simple average and IPEEE weighted average) and Appendix A.4 (weakest link model). The weighted average uses a combination of the three spectral frequencies (1, 5, and 10 Hz) at which most important structures, systems, and components of nuclear power plants will resonate. The weakest link is the largest SCDF value from among the four spectral frequencies noted above.

Most nuclear power plant structures, systems, and components resonate at frequencies between 1 and 10 Hz, so there are different approaches to averaging the Seismic Core Damage Frequency (SCDF) values. By using multiple approaches, the NRC staff gains a better understanding of the uncertainties involved in the assessments.

In other words, each model is important to gaining a full understanding of various possible scenarios and Mr. Dedman erroneously selected the most sensational model and then falsely claimed the NRC told him to.

The NRC adds:

The weakest link model is a method for evaluating the importance of different frequencies of ground vibration to the overall plant performance. The model and its details are not integral to understanding the fundamental conclusions of the study.

That conclusion? The nation is quite safe (as we write in our piece).

[MSNBC and its employee Mr. Dedman have not corrected this error in their story, despite knowing about it, at the time of this article's publication]
It is quite clear then that as far as his reputation is concerned Mr. Dedman, a Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist has gotten himself into deep shit. How is that possible?

Googling Mr. Dedman's name produces this astonishing hit:
Investigative reporter Bill Dedman of msnbc.com is always looking for good story ideas and documents. He has written for msnbc.com about uninspected bridges, problems with firefighter safety equipment, a reclusive heiress and her money men, the Obama administration's visitor logs, treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, strategies for discouraging school shootings, and journalists making campaign contributions.
Write my story for me, Mr. Dedman seems to be saying. We have to ask then, who might have supplied Bill Dedman with he idea for this story? Who would place a story which DailyTECH describes as containing numerous inaccuracies, with Bill Dedman? Who is interested in creating what DailyTECH describes as contributing to public mistrust of nuclear power? Who is capable of such deception? Well I suspect my readers have some ideas. If the question shifts to who benefits, quite obviously almost anyone in the fossil fuel industry does, but not anyone in the fossil fuel industry is capable of such deception. But we know what people and what organizations in the fossil fuel industry have a track record for financing lies and disinformation about climate change, and the same people and organizations quite obviously would have an interest in spreading lies and disinformation about nuclear power.

Last week I spent two hours with a distinguished reactor scientist, Dr. Sherrell Green who recently retired after a 33 year career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Dr. Greene has spent much time during his career researching reactor safety. In addition he was an inheritor of the ORNL nuclear safety tradition that goes back to the Manhattan Project days. As my readers are aware ORNL's commitment to nuclear safety was such that Alvin Weinberg refused to back down over it, when pressured by a Democratic Congressman. Weinberg was fired for bucking the Democratic party line over nuclear safety during the early 1970's., When it comes to knowledge of nuclear safety issues, I would trust Sherrell Greene. Sherrell was till recently ORNL's Director for Nuclear Technology Programs. I would trust what Dr. Greene says about Nuclear safety. I would not trust Dedman any further than I can throw him, because he is not a scientists, and because nothing in his experience suggests that he knows anything about nuclear safety. If Dedman knew anything about science writing, he would find sources like Dr. Greene, and report their opinions vervatum.

One of the greatest dangers of science journalists is misrepresenting what scientists say. My own investigation of scientific controversies suggests that even scientists cannot always be trusted to accurately describe what other scientists say, It is even more likely that a Journalist who knows nothing about the scientific issues he writes about, will make mistakes when he paraphrases scientists. Credibility depends on the use of credible sources. Mr Dedman does not seem to be aware of the fundamental realities of credible science writing.

So we have a Journalist who writes a poorly documented report which the NRC and science writers says say is inaccurate, and a state governor who reads the report and uses it to serve as a basis for policy. After reading Mr. Dedman's MSNBC article, Governor Cuomo lept into action. Claiming the authority of an NRC report, Cuomo cvalled on the NRC to shutdown of the Indian Point #3 reactor. In fact Cuomo was relying on Dedman's report which the NRC had already branded as inaccurate. Did Cuomo care about the NRC's actual views? Certainly not. He was only looking for excuses that supported his campaign against nuclear science. Cuomo like Rick Perry and Joseph Stalin knows that one way to gain political support is to attack or ignore the findings of science.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post and it makes a great argument backed with a perfect example.... but, might I suggest you clean up the typo's and repost it? It being the type of article it is, it'd be a lot better if things like 'verbatim' were used instead of 'varvatum' or 'called' instead of 'cvalled'

I'm not trying to be a grammar-nazi but being the type of article it is, and I think its the type of article that is most definitely needed, it would be better if it were written 'perfectly' and/or at least proof read before posting.


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