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Return of the Arrogant Academic - Archives
Posted by caraher in General Discussion
Sun Mar 27th 2011, 09:09 PM
The past two weeks have been maddening for me as the nuclear disaster in Japan unfolds. There has been a catastrophe of the highest order in Japan between the earthquake and tsunami, taking thousands of lives and causing vast economic damage, and there's no serious doubt that the multiple failures at the Fukushima 1 nuclear power station constitute an extremely serious nuclear emergency. My personal frustration - which is of no consequence in the grand scheme of things, of course, next to the suffering of the people of Japan - is with the difficulty in learning and communicating effectively just what is happening in Japan.

Ultimately, I lay most of the blame on the nuclear industry itself. A week before the quake hit, I attended a conference on the physics of sustainable energy, and the final speaker was Bob Budnitz, a physicist with extensive nuclear industry experience from Lawrence Berkeley Lab, who addressed the safety of the current fleet of reactors. The thrust of his talk was that in recent decades the US nuclear power industry has a vastly improved safety culture, with much better training all around (every reactor now has an on-site simulator for ongoing training, compared with the '70s when each manufacturer had one), retrofits to remedy design flaws, etc. Slides showed data reflecting orders-of-magnitude reductions in the frequency and significance of operational events that could be precursors of serious accidents.

Asked a fairly direct question about trust, however, the speaker conceded that it's a serious problem. He characterized the '50s and '60s in particular (he entered the field in 1961) as an era when the industry, frankly, behaved badly, and did a lot of things it should not have done. Obviously, critics of nuclear power will say they're still irresponsible, but the concession is still telling. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and if first impressions are lasting impressions the industry faces a long uphill struggle in rehabilitating its image that Fukushima just made a lot steeper.

(One unintentionally ironic remark Budnitz made came in response to a question about proposals for smaller mass-produced reactors. He commented that these designs don't come from fly-by-night operations but from companies "we trust like GE and Westinghouse." I think for many those are precisely the companies they do NOT trust!)

And it's not merely the fact that the disaster happened - it's also the way things unfolded, and the fact that even if US nuclear operators are indeed as "reformed" as Budnitz says, there's also every reason to view TEPCO as a holdover from the "bad old days." While trying to bring the situation under control is the most important challenge Japanese authorities face, it's also vital that they communicate honestly regarding the situation. It's hard to believe that they have consistently done so.

In assessing the situation, we in the general public - even those with a modicum of relevant expertise - are in a real bind. What little hard data exists regarding what's happening on-site comes from official sources that have a track record of lies or obfuscation. So it's largely a matter of guesswork - *if* such-and-such is true than it's likely that the reactor is in condition X and releases of radioactive materials into the environment will probably be around Y level. But it could be worse (repeat with a more pessimistic estimate of the true conditions inside the reactors).

It doesn't help at all that most media reports are data-poor and frequently include huge mistakes regarding units (especially the distinction between milli- and micro-). They also generally confuse critical distinctions between concepts like radioactivity and radiation dose, introduce scientifically questionable notions like implicit threshold doses for harm from radiation, etc.

At the same time, there's a strong tendency among many here to react as if this emergency will inevitably render all of Japan an uninhabitable radioactive hellscape and kill thousands of people in other parts of the world. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen a science-based assessment of health risk responded to with a flip "just keep telling yourself that" - the implication being that anyone who actually tries to estimate the actual likely scope of the harm caused by radiation is just drinking the kool aid provided by the nuclear industry. I do appreciate that there exists controversy regarding how to model the effects of low-dose radiation (where by "low dose" I mean too low to result in acute radiation sickness), and while I disagree with analysis behind some of the higher assessments of, say, the number of deaths due to radiation from Chernobyl, I'm fine in principle with having that discussion, provided it doesn't devolve (as it too often does in the E/E forum) into ad hominem attacks or accusations of being scientifically ignorant or a "shill" for the nuclear/fossil fuel industry simply because one has a different position on the wisest course for our energy future.

But the problem is that, beyond legitimate disagreements about risk assessment, there's a pervasive know-nothingism at work. There are, believe it or not, certain facts about nuclear fission, biological hazards of radiation exposure, how particles (radioactive or not) diffuse through the environment, accumulate (or not) in ecosystems and organisms, units of measurement for radiation exposure and radioactivity, etc. that can actually give insight into what's going on. Unless and until you have educated yourself enough to understand these things and can apply that understanding in a quantitative way (e.g. to be able to make a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the likely number of thyroid cancers one might expect from a given amount of I-131 in drinking water) you have no business making forecasts of huge spikes in thyroid cancer rates. If you don't know the difference between a Sievert, Becquerel and a rem please do not tell us that every worker trying to fix this mess is doomed.

Exposure to ionizing radiation is an emotionally charged subject, and it's especially tricky to deal with because its effects are largely invisible. But not understanding something is a poor basis for concluding that it's going to kill you. And just because the industry involved has a lengthy track record of lies doesn't mean that it's completely impossible to make realistic estimates of harm. Many of us here who do have a technical background readily acknowledge that TEPCO probably isn't being completely honest, but that doesn't mean that a few Bq/liter of I-131 detected in rainwater means we should all lock ourselves indoors, hoard bottled water and start popping potassium iodide tablets.

I like to think one thing that distinguishes us from our right-wing counterparts is our respect for the facts, whatever they may be. Uninformed alarmism here deserves no more respect than denial of climate change or evolution (or for that matter, blind cheerleading for nuclear power and offshore drilling) does when it comes from the right.


1. Don't automatically discount as "happy talk" every risk assessment that comes in below what you fear.

2. Recognize that assessments of the dangers of radiation do vary, and be aware of which estimates are "mainstream" and which represent dissident views accepted by comparatively few scientists (on one extreme, the threshold (no harm below a certain exposure) or even hormesis (a little radiation is healthy) theories; on the other extreme, those who put the Chernobyl death toll close to a million or who say Three Mile Island was much more serious than we've been told). The fact that those views are minority views does not, of course, make them false; but you should be aware that they are definitely outside the mainstream consensus.

(P.S. For what little it's worth, regarding Chernobyl, I think the TORCH report is probably the most reasonable assessment of the radiation effects of that disaster on human health. Note that estimates range from lowball figures of under 100 deaths to nearly a million; a good back-of-the-envelope figure assuming that on average 2000 person-rem of exposure results in one cancer death combined with "mainstream" exposure estimates would predict about 30,000 excess cancer deaths, the low end of the TORCH report estimate. At the same time, none of this takes account indirect effects of the disaster, such as the psychological stress and the economic and physical dislocations that accompanied the disaster. Looking at direct biological effects of radiation surely underestimates the severity of Chernobyl, and probably will underestimate the effects of Fukushima as well. I'm hopeful that the radiation effects in Japan will fall well below the Chernobyl toll (not to mention the already horrific earthquake/tsunami death count), while recognizing that, especially given Japan's population density, there's the potential for it to be far worse even if less radioactive material escapes.)
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Posted by caraher in General Discussion (1/22-2007 thru 12/14/2010)
Thu Jan 21st 2010, 09:53 PM
the least they could do is require politicians to wear patches listing all their sponsors like NASCAR drivers do. We should at least know who paid for them.

(The basic idea is not mine - but it takes on new significance today)
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Posted by caraher in General Discussion: Presidential (Through Nov 2009)
Fri Jan 18th 2008, 11:30 AM
Have our candidates discussed possibly ending the Homeland Security "terra warning levels?"

The one thing Clinton did in the Las Vegas debate that really disappointed me was using the "we're gonna get hit" scare tactic. I thought Obama was spot-on in rejecting use of the "politics of fear." Because if "the terrorists'" goal is to kill Americans, when we freak out about "terra" the terrorists win. See this article about the health impacts of extreme anxiety about terrorism.

After controlling for various factors (age, obesity, smoking, other ailments and stressful life events), the researchers found that the people who were acutely stressed after the 9/11 attacks and continued to worry about terrorism — about 6 percent of the sample — were at least three times more likely than the others in the study to be given diagnoses of new heart problems.

If you extrapolate that percentage to the adult population of America, it works out to more than 10 million people. No one knows what fraction of them might consequently die of a stroke or heart attack — plenty of other factors affect heart disease — but if it were merely 0.0003 percent, that would be higher than the 9/11 death toll.

I have a friend who has been disabled due to mental illness thanks to 9/11. She was in Chicago that day, but it really set her off, and all these years later she is only marginally functional. I wonder how many more people suffer crippling effects from exaggerated worry about a real but manageable threat. (And of course, we know that thousands of Americans and tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died, with many more wounded and crippled, thanks to mismanaged reactions sold on false pretenses to an angry and anxious public.)
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Posted by caraher in Indiana
Tue Mar 27th 2007, 05:13 PM
Soon enough, NOT having one will be taken as a sign of being a godless Commie... I'm pissed! Is there any legal action underway?

Also, do drivers need to pay for a plate if they have a perfectly good one already? I didn't give it a moment's thought last week when they were pushing one on me last week. Even if the driver has to buy a plate I don't like this, but it's even worse if it's being subsidized by all drivers as previous posters have said...
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Posted by caraher in General Discussion (1/22-2007 thru 12/14/2010)
Fri Jan 26th 2007, 10:43 PM
On one hand, as folks have noted, uranium isn't something you really floating around near people. It's a toxic heavy metal, it is radioactive and if you ingest or inhale it that energy will be deposited in your body.

But when concerned activists write articles like these, illustrated with pictures of nuclear explosions and lots of hype about radiation, the inevitable critiques destroy the credibility of the authors, and people who know a little more than the authors do but not enough to fully appreciate all the issues dismiss the entire story.

For instance, it's utter bullshit that calling it "depleted uranium" is part of some nefarious plot to hoodwink the masses. The name is historical and is simply the flip side of the fact that to get a sample of uranium useful for fission, its U-235 content must be "enriched." When you've taken the uranium with the natural isotopic distribution and separated it into two samples, one "enriched" in U-235, the other stuff is "depleted" in U-235. And since it's the U-235 you're most interested in, "depleted uranium" is nothing more than shorthand for "U-235 depleted" uranium.

I could ramble on about the counterproductive mix of scare tactics and half-understood science. By saying "scare tactics" I do not mean to imply that everything is peachy and LLNL should be able to play their "blow up explosives mixed with DU" (which, while pyrophoric, is NOT an explosive in the conventional sense) games. What I do mean is that too often, people who write these sorts of articles do so as much from the additional fear their own ignorance imparts as the true threat the known hazards present. The result is prose that jars scientific eyes and inflames the ignorant - one camp to greater fear, the other to ignorant dismissal of the dangers.

It's little wonder so many Americans think "intelligent design" is science. Science literacy across the board is so dismal, it's a wonder we as a nation get anything right about science.
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Posted by caraher in Religion/Theology
Wed Jan 10th 2007, 06:58 PM
I'm teaching a course as part of my university's January mini-term program. These courses tend to be non-traditional in format and/or subject matter, and faculty are free to pursue any interest regardless of their fields of specialization. My course is called "War and Conscience" and I had a very enlightening discussion with a student today...

Here on DU we tend to watch *'s approval ratings with amazement (not to mention a kind of horror that they are above zero at all). We know there appears to be a hard floor to those levels of support, the folks whose commitment seems impervious to any facts. Today I had a fairly long one-on-one discussion with a student who'd previously indicated his support for the war and Our Great Leader as well as his reluctance to talk about it in class.

He described his adherence to a brand of Christianity that strongly believes the world around us is filled with portents of the "End Times," the whole "Left Behind" thing. The part I found interesting was not so much his uncritical acceptance of the notion that Shrub is genuinely in contact with The Guy Upstairs and heeds His counsel in setting the course for our country. It was more his explanations of the implications of that belief.

Basically, given that belief plus the notion that God's plans are beyond human comprehension, the consequence is that critical reasoning about the actions of the White House is pointless. Our comprehension is necessarily inadequate to absorb all of the Divine Plan, and it should not be surprising that its elements, including what emanates from the Oval Office, often seem bizarre, even insane. Going beyond what this student said, apparent irrationality could even be taken as a sign that *'s actions are indeed divinely inspired (since we certainly don't need God to reveal policy courses human reason would favor!).

In retrospect, this may be obvious. (But I guess most things are in hindsight...) Still... it was a very striking realization for me, one with a lot of very serious implications.
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Posted by caraher in General Discussion (01/01/06 through 01/22/2007)
Sun Dec 31st 2006, 05:02 AM
But unless chitterlings and collard greens are going to be the main course on the menu, does an African American Christmas differ all that appreciably from the Christmas of any other American group?

Too bad the author of this piece apparently didn't go to find out!

As to whether or not a denomination should be hosting such a function, we should ask ourselves would it be appropriate to convene a “Caucasian” or more precisely, a “European American Christmas Dinner”? If the prospect of such an event leaves you a bit squeamish (as it probably should), then why do we put up with or, shall we say, tolerate such extravaganzas when they are convened for groups more favored by the ruling clique?

A few years ago I attended a dinner celebrating Polish Christmas traditions. I suppose I should apologize for my insensitivity in not feeling squeamish about that. In my "defense," I might add that there were non-Poles there, including African Americans.
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Posted by caraher in Religion/Theology
Fri Dec 22nd 2006, 02:15 PM
From the man who brought us "George W. Bush was a successful businessman" (in his execrable book American Providence - and yes, I did read it - my eyes are still bleeding from that trauma!) and "Jesus was a vegetarian" comes word that Dylan must have been pranking us with "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

A recent article in the Crawfordsville Journal Review (motto: "more literate than The Paper of Montgomery County") plugs Wabash professor of religion Stephen Webb's latest book. The article reminded me just how much I missed Professor Webb's use of all-campus email messages to defend the delicate minds of young men from the pitiless assault of "gender feminism*" Wabash College inflicts upon its helpless, captive, all-male student audience. Which is... about as much as I miss the blinding pain of a migraine headache.

The Journal Review article trots out some of St. Stephen's favorite tropes about liberal intolerance and willful ignorance of conservative thought. I'm certain his story about certain liberal faculty telling him they do not read his work in order to remain friends is true. Unconstrained by a need to preserve a friendship (I had only brief contact with him during my time teaching at Wabash) I read American Providence fully aware that I would disagree with virtually every conclusion he reached. I was drawn by a combination of the kind of intellectual adventurousness Webb tells us "liberals" lack (the willingness to read and evaluate fairly the arguments of conservatives) and the morbid curiosity that makes rubbernecking irresistible to motorists. The wreckage did not disappoint my inner voyeur, but the profoundly anti-intellectual gist of Webb's prose truly amazed me. My expectation was that there would be some effort at persuasion, using valid logic and possibly controversial facts, but instead I found a series of proclamations of the superiority of the average Red State evangelical Christian's intuition over reason. Because he tells us I and other non-believers in American exceptionalism lack some spiritual faculty these folks possess, we evidently must simply accept Webb's word about his "providential" reading of American history and destiny in very much the same way the blind simply must trust the testimony of the sighted on the existence of colors. I read a lot in the Wabash Commentary about Webb's brilliance, but in what I've read the chief weapon in his rhetorical arsenal is confident assertion.

I'm no Dylan scholar and yes, I am well-aware of his conversion just over 25 years ago. But I suspect the book is driven more by Webb's need to identify everything he values with conservatism and/or Christianity than with whatever clues lie embedded in Dylan's lyrics, life, words and actions.

* For some reason, conservative faculty at Wabash appear incapable of using the word "feminism" without placing the word "gender" in front of it...
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Posted by caraher in Latest Breaking News
Fri Dec 22nd 2006, 01:08 PM
A judge ruled today that families of the 19 dead in the Khobar Towers bombing may seek $254 million in damages from the Iranian government.
How much did the US pay families of the victims after shooting down the Iranian airbus? Per Wikipedia:

On February 22, 1996 the United States agreed to pay Iran US$ 61.8 million in compensation ($300,000 per wage-earning victim, $150,000 per non-wage-earner) for the 248 Iranians killed in the shootdown, but not for the aircraft, which was estimated to be worth approximately US$30 million. This was an agreed settlement to discontinue a case brought by Iran in 1989 against the U.S. in the International Court of Justice.<14> The payment of compensation was explicitly characterised by the US as being on an ex gratia basis, and the U.S. denied having any responsibility or liability for the incident.

So is this a kind of "criminal negligence discount?" Surely Iranian lives are not considered less valuable...
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