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S Phillips and her ideas about radiation

Dear Reader,

I have noticed in recent times a disturbing movement within some parts of society, I was talking one night on the train to a philosopher about some of the trends in post modernism. One of the political problems which some elements are having with science is the fact that science is not a democracy. It does not matter how many people hold a point of view, it does not make it any more right (or wrong) if a vast number of people hold a point of view.

My legal advisor has told me on countless times on one large internet forum (a virtual society) that in the legal advice section it is common for a person to come with a legal query regarding a case which they are involved in. For example a person might be parking without permission or other legal authority on another persons land. The person goes to the legal issues section and then they tend to present their case. What often happens is that a group of people with legal training (law students, police officers and lawyers) often dispense free advice on the case. But then other people with less understanding of the law start to make suggestions which are totally opposite to the broad consensus offered by the true legal experts. It does not matter how many armchair judges or barrack room lawyers offer the same outlandish opinion, it is still often deeply wrong.

In a recent document an American woman named Sarah Phillips wrote the following about the serious nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan.

Measuring radiation exposure and absorbed dose requires specific, often hard-to-access technologies, and laypersons are dependent on experts and their expert knowledge for interpretation of these measurements. Individuals’ ability to know and assess their risks is severely curtailed when expert knowledge—produced by agents usually beholden to states and powerful industrial interests—is the only form of knowledge recognized as valid, even as states and industry intentionally withhold information on hazards and their biological effects. Meanwhile, embodied self-knowledge is discredited.

I have to agree that the measurement of radiation and radioactivity does require specialist equipment and some training to understand the numbers or other indications which the device spits out. But I have to point out that I think that Cresson Kearny was right when he wrote his book and suggested that the general public could be given the radiological (and other) training required to survive world war three and to minimize their radiation exposure.

Cresson even reports that members of the general public are able to build radiation meters successfully.

While some people might find Cresson’s book, his reasoning and suggestion that a sizeable fraction of the American population could survive a nuclear war by means of “do it yourself” protective measures to be outlandish or offensive, I have to say that his efforts to empower the general public by sharing knowledge and skills with them is more noble than the efforts of others to scare the general public out of their wits while making sure that they remain as ignorant as possible.

In contrast the writings of Sarah Phillips do have the potential to spread misinformation. In her publication “half-lives and healthy bodies” she wrote of dietary countermeasures which protect against internal contamination. While I have to admit that it is possible to take dietary measures to reduce a person’s exposure to radioactivity and even to decontaminate a person’s innards, sadly she failed to consider for a moment if these radioprotective substances are effective.

Being an academic brings some moral responsibility, I hold the view that it is immoral to promote an ineffective treatment or prophylaxis for a medical problem while either a perfectly effective protective or curative measure exists. For example it would be wrong for me to teach my students that staring at the moon is an effective prophylaxis against either catching HIV or getting the common cold.

If Dr Phillips is not intending to endorse these products, I suggest that she alters her language to indicate that she does not promote the use of this product. I see nothing wrong with Dr Phillips reporting the behavior and attitudes of members of the public, but I do hold the view that it is poor academic practice for an anthropologist to blindly accept the ideas, actions and belief systems of their subjects.

In one of her essays about Chernobyl she makes the statement “Intake of radionuclides is said to leach the bones of calcium, making the exposed person more susceptible to fractures and breaks.”, later in the footnotes of her essay she makes reference to the comments made by the family of a single man, surely this far from a statistically significant answer. I would be more happy if she would base her views on a larger sample.

Another example regards nose bleeds and radiation. In one paper she states that during the early days of the accident that the dose rate outside a child’s home was 1.5 microsieverts per hour. The child was reported in the article to have suffered from nosebleeds. While the paper does not state that the radiation exposure caused the nosebleeds it does imply that a link exists between the two when the nosebleeds are first mentioned. Later in the section entitled “I am not a doctor but I know my children are sick” the text of the paper implies that for political reasons the state employed medical doctors are unwilling or unable to diagnose an aliment as being related to radiation exposure.

The mother association of the nosebleeds with the Fukushima nuclear reactor accident may well be an example of a confirmation bias. The woman is likely to already holds the view that radiation exposure is harmful to health (this is true) and that small exposures can cause short term acute (deterministic) effects (which is untrue). But she views the nosebleeds of her daughter as evidence which supports her belief that the small radiation exposure causes acute adverse health effects.

During a 1980s serious radiological accident, some of the exposed persons were initially thought to be suffering from food poisoning. This misdiagnosis may well be due to a confirmation bias, both the patients and medical staff are likely to have assumed that their nausea, vomiting and other digestive system disturbances were due to food poisoning because they would have associated such symptoms with bad food because of past experiences.

An alternative explanation for the failure of the medical doctor to attribute the nosebleeds to radiation exposure is that the medical doctor, who is likely to be more rational and emotionally detached, in the absence of evidence of a radiation injury offers an explanation which in their professional opinion is more likely to be correct.

While a large radiation exposure can cause blood abnormalities which include a decrease in the ability of the blood to clot, such gross blood abnormalities require an exposure of at least 1 gray of gamma/beta radiation delivered over a short time. In common with drunkenness a dose of radiation above a threshold dose is required to induce the very serious effects observed after large exposures. For an acute (short term) radiation (or alcohol) effect the larger dose the greater the probability that a person will experience a given effect, and the greater the dose the more intense the symptom will be.

As the dose rate which the child was exposed to was 1.5 microgray per hour a total of 76 years of exposure at this low dose rate would be required to inflict a dose of 1 gray on the child. Clearly it is not possible for the child to have even approached 10 % of the threshold dose for these blood abnormalities. Also it is noteworthy that a series of self repair processes exist in living organisms which repair the sublethal damage imposed by radiation before it can accumulate to a lethal level. The effects of these self repair mechanisms have been observed in humans, dogs and cell cultures. These self repair mechanisms greatly reduce the ability of radiation to kill or cause a localized injury, in general the longer the time required to deliver the dose the smaller the ability of the radiation to cause injury. In short it is not possible for the radiation exposure caused by the Fukushima accident to have caused the nosebleeds.

While one may sympathize (I do) with the Japanese people affected by the Fukushima accident it is important to remain objective, while it is reasonable and correct to write “the mother of the child holds the view that the child’s nosebleeds were caused by radioactive contamination from the Fukushima accident”, to blindly accept the beliefs of others as truths is wrong.

This can be expressed in a different way, if a person was to work on the sociology of religion a person might interview a Roman Catholic nun about her attitudes towards her faith. She is likely to express the view that her praying to God helps to make the world a better place. While the nun is likely to sincerely believe this it is not reasonable to an academic to blindly endorse the nun’s beliefs.

Now back to antiradioactivity food additives.

I suspect that the distributed production of apple pectin and other similar homemade natural preparations is more politically correct to those who reject “the establishment” than the centralized production of medical grade Prussian Blue by a few large suppliers. The act of choosing and making a “natural remedy” against radioactivity might make a person feel empowered, but this sense of empowerment would be based on false hope which has been sold to the general public. The fact that a large number of people might think that these anti radiation foods are effective does not render these foods any more effective. I strongly hold the view that scientific knowledge is not some social construct which might be agreed upon by a group (or mob) of people.

I know from a friend that the production of good quality cesium removing Prussian Blue is not easy, my friend who is a professional chemist told me that each batch he made was different. Now I think that the general public (and a small company) is unlikely to be able to cope with the difficulties of being able to make such a medical product. As a result its production should be entrusted to a large centralized facility which would have the ability to make and supply a product which works.

I find it interesting that she claims that an effort is being made to conceal the truth, firstly I think that this is a potentially libelous statement and is a very nasty innuendo to smear others with. To recklessly or maliciously suggest that a person in authority is trying to endanger the general public in this way is about as bad as suggesting that Dr Thomas John Barnardo is the biggest killer of children since King Herod.

If she is trying to raise up an angry mob then I would like to suggest to her that she presents some hard and convincing evidence to back up her claim of “states and industry intentionally withhold information on hazards and their biological effects”. If her evidence is convincing then I suspect that many more people (including radioactivity workers) would speak out and join her campaign. If she has evidence then who better to share it with than me.

About the “embodied self-knowledge is discredited” comment, I have been advised by the philosopher that in the humanities the academics tend not to use the additive approach used commonly in the sciences where the literature from the past is built on.

If she is so concerned about the discreditment of knowledge then why does she fail to mention the opposing argument of the experts (She calls them “agents usually beholden to states and powerful industrial interests“) which she disagrees with. In her article on Socratic method Linda Elder she comments on “Intellectual empathy” and she considers the question of “Can I summarise the views of my opponents to their satisfaction? Can I see insights in the views of others and prejudices in my own?” as part of list of traits which she thinks students (and I assume academics) should adopt.

A further deep problem is that much of what the general public “know” about radiation and radioactivity is false or misleading. Much of their radiological education has been through the mass media. The mass media has a series of incentives, such as newspaper sales and cinema box-office revenues, which can reward lurid and spectacular material in which some effects are exaggerated while other, less photogenic or dramatic effects, are either ignored or minimized.

A survey of newspaper reporting of hazards in the UK and Sweden revealed that the newspapers were more likely to print alarmist reports rather than reassuring reports, and that these reports rarely employed statistics to express the degree of risk.

An example from fiction is in the Nevil Shute novel “On the Beach” which describes a future after a large scale nuclear exchange. The exponential decay of the radioisotopes in the fallout is ignored. During the long time which would be required for the radioactive particles to be transported by wind from the northern hemisphere to Australia many of the radioisotopes would have decayed away. Using simple mathematics it is possible to calculate the decay of the radioactivity, for those who do not wish to repeat the calculation a suitable example of such results was published by T. Imanaka et. al. It is patently clear that during the time required for the fallout to arrive in Australia that the intensity of the radioactivity would decrease and the population would have time to construct shelters to further reduce their exposure. A version of “on the beach” where members of the public were to enjoy the benefits of this decrease in radioactivity level during the transport of the fallout who also protect themselves using sheltering and some behavioral modifications would be unlikely to be as entertaining as the version of the “On the Beach” which was published.

A more recent example of a deep flaw in popular culture is in the 2006 television series Jericho, in this Robert Hawkins dons a plastic suit and goes out as heavy fallout from a very recent nuclear detonation arrives in the town. During this time the other residents of the town are sheltering in places such as mines. While the plastic suit might have protected Robert Hawkins from inhaling or otherwise absorbing radioactivity, the majority of the radiation from the fallout would have penetrated the plastic suit and delivered its energy into his body. Here the entertainment industry ignores the considerable threat which would be likely to cause a mortal injury. It is likely that the more complex and insidious threat from internal contamination is more captivating for the general public than the simpler but greater threat in this exposure scenario due to external exposure.

I have to ask should Dr Phillips trust the generally misinformed general public over people who have had some specialist training in the subject ? The thing is that science is not a democracy, it does not matter how many people say that “2 + 2 = 5” it is still wrong. Even if Chalmers students and people who passed their GCSE in maths (Who I suspect have a good or at least reasonable understanding of maths) are in a minority the equation “2 + 2 = 5” is still wrong.

I hope that people do not misunderstand me, I would be glad for people like Dr Phillips to write about the social issues associated with nuclear technology. I just want them to write the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I also want them to avoid writing incorrect things on the subject.

If for a moment they feel unhappy about being required not to write “incorrect things” then I suggest that they consider the Mark Foreman book of english history (A spoof book thank goodness), here is a short part of the book.

[nonsense]King Henry the 8th had jack the ripper hung drawn and quartered. He also opened an institute devoted to women’s rights, he also had afternoon tea with both the pope and Martin Luther King on a regular basis. He was keen to encourage the Americans to declare independence and become an independent country (USA)[/nonsense]

I imagine that any history student will be unhappy about this nonsense book (Trust me I will not print such rubbish), in the same way I get unhappy about nonsense on matters of science and technology. By the way I have told Dr Phillips about this article but she has chosen not to discuss the matter with me privately.


2 Responses

  1. Thank you, Mr. Foreman, for reading my articles on the multiple forms of fallout—health, cultural, and political—of the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima. It is so good to know that people are paying attention! I do not wish to answer your critiques point by point, based as they are on cherry-picking sentences out of context. Such a de-contextualized debate would be fruitless. I invite the Dear Readers to read my articles on cultural and political responses to nuclear disaster in Ukraine and Japan and draw their own conclusions:

    Half Lives and Healthy Bodies: Discourse on Contaminated Food and Healing in Postchernobyl Ukraine (2002):

    Chernobyl Forever (2011):

    Fukushima is Not Chernobyl? Don’t be so sure… (2013):

    Chernobyl’s Sixth Sense: The Symbolism of an Ever-Present Awareness (2004):

    And here’s a fun spoof about post-Chernobyl “revitalization” I did with one of my students, An Illustrated Guide to the Post-catastrophe Future (2012):

    Dr. Sarah D. Phillips, PhD, Professor of Anthropology, Indiana University, USA

    • As I do hold the view that freedom of expression does extend to those who do not share my views, I have chosen not to censor the above comment. I have also chosen to reply in private to Dr Phillips regarding her claim that I was cherry picking.

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