The problem with Abstract thinking

Decarbonise SA had a visitor recently. A new commenter took exception to the contents of the clip from Panadora’s Promise and fired off a bit of invective, albeit with some linked references. Here is the comment:

From the trailer:

1. Mark Lynas: “no increase in cancer amongst Chernobyl liquidators”

WHO: “a doubling of the incidence of leukaemia among the most highly exposed Chernobyl liquidators.” – http://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/chernobyl/backgrounder/en/index.html

2. Mark Lynas: “no children born deformed as a result of Chernobyl”

Science: “the frequency of both congenital and fetal abnormalities in the Republic of Belarus has apparently increased.” – http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/stem.5530150734/abstract

3. Dude in denim shirt: “Greenpeace claims 1 million deaths from Chernobyl”

Greenpeace: “93,000 cancer deaths, possibly up to 160,000 deaths from all other causes.” – http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/planet-2/report/2006/4/chernobylhealthreport.pdf

So, in just a few seconds of trailer we find it’s packed with false claims. Looks like weak propaganda, not credible documentary.

Left to right: Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, Michael Shellenberger
Left to right: Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, Michael Shellenberger

Some of you may recognise this type of opening foray. No time wasted in saying hi, nothing phrased remotely as a question like “What about this?”. Just an attack on the work of a great film maker. This type of opening leaves little room for back-peddling, and sure enough my visitor simply became more and more hostile.

What I recognised as I prepared an adequate response was something else familiar: cherry picking, including choice phrases from abstracts.

I am not a working scientist. But I use science in my work which I describe as environmental decision-making. Semi-regularly I need to go beyond summary documents and return to source articles. Based on this I can say one thing for certain: abstracts are not an adequate representation of a scientific paper. Abstracts are basically bait. They are there to pull you into reading the paper. To craft an awkward metaphor, they usually include all of the sex, but little of the awkward conversation that follows…

It is either lazy or deliberately misleading to go no further than an abstract when throwing around information that can have a serious impact on the lives and well-being of others.

It’s encouraging to hear in this recent interview that the response to Pandora’s Promise seems so far to be one of essentially accepting the message as it is presented. But I am quite sure that the film will stimulate many to selectively rake through scientific papers on the impacts of nuclear power and try to inflame, rather than inform, our society’s discussion on nuclear power. My advice would be this: if something stinks, click on the link and read the reference yourself. We can’t let these important discussions be ruled by Abstract thinking.

My response to the commenter is reproduced in full below. Thank you to several other commenters who did a great job in exploring the issues in further detail.

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Nuclear India? Guest radio spot on Triple J’s Hack

“I think it is much, much better for Australia to be on the inside of this development pathway for India, doing all it can to build the institutional strength required to run a good nuclear sector, putting downward pressure on the greenhouse gas emissions of this global giant, and enhancing regional security through clean development and secure energy supplies.” 

Over breakfast I read about the findings of an internal Indian Government report into the oversight of nuclear facilities.

Venezuela Oil Refinery Explosion

Just a quick reflection. If you are concerned about nuclear power, but ever use a car, the fuel in your car is a direct link to the global industry responsible for just this latest catastrophic mega-fatality (view video). 39 deaths, 80 injuries and massive uncontrolled release of toxins. No natural disaster trigger. Just a horrible, devastating accident.

We must urgently learn to measure our monsters. The data below is from the Energy Related Severe* Accident Database, maintained by the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland.

OECD Non-OECD
Energy chain Fatalities Fatalities/TWy Fatalities Fatalities/TWy
Coal 2259 157 18,000 597
Natural gas 1043 85 1000 111
Hydro 14 3 30,000 10,285
Nuclear 0 0 31 48

*Severe Accident  defined as more than five fatalities

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Waste Expectations

In this piece I really lay down the challenge for how we think about nuclear waste, drawing on the production and management of other waste types, comparing it to current and future management of spent nuclear fuel, including discussion of Generation IV reactors. This is one of my favourite pieces

The problem of nuclear waste has been solved. At least, compared to how we manage many other types of waste you are responsible for.

The Education Enigma: Guest post from Michael Bills

Read the outcomes of this excellent bit of research from an Adelaide high school student into knowledge and attitudes relating to nuclear power.

When Wright is Wrong- Article from Climate Spectator

Now, I have been guilty of the odd pun in article titles in the past (thanks to George Pell and Jim Green) but on this occasion, I swear it wasn’t me!!! Climate Spectator did it.

I was put out by a piece that ran on Climate Spectator this week authored by Matthew Wright of Beyond Zero Emissions. It was poorly researched and ill reasoned, and to my astonishment ran on a climate change site with not the least consideration of the issue of greeenhouse gas emissions. Once again, BZE seem to actively confound the issue of solving climate change with the issue of stopping nuclear power. They believe, it would appear, that they must undermine nuclear on every occasion in order to get anywhere with their plans.

I’m constantly annoyed by things I read, but this time I dropped an email to Tristan Edis and he agreed to publish a response provided it got to him before the momentum was lost. Here is the result, which also now has the benefit of some relevant charts and images.

For reasons unknown, comments have been closed on my article and comment on Wright’s have been deleted altogether. Discussions can be taken up here should anyone wish

It is a longstanding tactic of anti-nuclear ideologues to paint the nuclear industry as a technologically stagnant, declining dinosaur with no future, for the simple reason that no one likes to back a loser. It’s a great way of keeping Australians from bothering to look more closely. The article by Matthew Wright (The end of nuclear, May 8) continues this tradition.

Actual data works against Wright’s contention

Environmentalism in the mud: responding to Jim Green’s attack on Barry Brook

“This has got to stop, and it stops when people start taking a stand… The schism in environmentalism over nuclear power is now well underway. It is sad that the other side seem to have decided in their righteousness that they are allowed to play dirty and go after individuals, using the same cherry-picking abuse of science that is all to familiar in climate change denial.”

I was saddened this week to be forwarded a hatchet job on my friend and collaborator, Professor Barry Brook, authored by Jim Green of Friends of the Earth (FoE). Saddened, but not surprised. FoE has form in this department, having deployed these guerrilla tactics before against James Lovelock when he became inconveniently persuasive on the subject of nuclear power. It would seem that it is now Barry’s turn.

Jim Green, Australia's anti-nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth

I have come to know Barry very well over the last 12 months. I know him well enough to know that he is both the last person who would ask for defending, and the most deserving of defence. So I offer this response to Green’s work. I really, dearly hope it will be read outside my circle of existing readers and supporters. I have some important things to say.

Fukushima’s long-lived outrage is no nuclear accident

What is the risk from a nuclear power plant melt-down?

If you reach for the well known formula of Risk being the product of Likelihood and Consequence…then you are missing something big. That formula is going to give you some idea of hazard, as in the  potential harm that can be estimated by science.  Risk needs to capture so much more. You need to work out the hazard, then add the outrage.


Outrage is the overall negative human response to an event.  How angry are people? How afraid? How upset? How emotionally charged? How suddenly and unusually ready to blockade, write letters, make signs etc? How prepared to change behaviour, take precautions (make no mistake, outrage has its place)?

The major outcomes of Fukushima have little to do with hazard and everything to do with outrage. Consider:

How close did Japan really get to a widespread #nuclear disaster? Cross post from Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

As we approach the first anniversary of the Sendai quake and tsunami, I am steeling myself for the inevitable blanket commentary of a nuclear disaster that never was, while we roundly forget about the genuinely horrific human tragedy of that event with some 20,000 lives lost in 7 minutes of terrifying natural calamity.

It has already begun, with a the release of a report that focusses on the very worst case scenario possible that never actually happened. In a low blow, this report went to media first before experts, leading to unmitigated headlines lifted straight from the report with little critical examination.

So I’m very grateful to my friends Ted and Michael for being early in the response, asking us to think very hard about the stories we choose to tell ourselves. The original article is published here, which is also the best place to leave a comment. Please read on.

Posted Thursday, March 1, 2012, at 4:55 PM ET

With an eye to the first anniversary of the tsunami that killed 20,000 people and caused a partial meltdown at the Fukushima power plant in Japan, a recently formed nongovernmental organization called Rebuild Japan released a report earlier this week on the nuclear incident to alarming media coverage.

Japan Weighed Evacuating Tokyo in Nuclear Crisis,” screamed the New York Times headline, above an article by Martin Fackler that claimed, “Japan teetered on the edge of an even larger nuclear crisis than the one that engulfed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.”

The larger crisis was a worst-case scenario imagined by Japanese government officials dealing with the situation. If workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant were evacuated, Fackler writes, some worried “[t]his would have allowed the plant to spiral out of control, releasing even larger amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere that would in turn force the evacuation of other nearby nuclear plants, causing further meltdowns.”

Fackler quotes former newspaper editor and founder of Rebuild Japan Yoichi Funabashi as saying, “We barely avoided the worst-case scenario, though the public didn’t know it at the time.”

To say that Japan “barely avoided” what another top official called a “demonic chain reaction” of plant meltdowns and the evacuation of Tokyo is to make an extraordinary claim.

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