Following the lead of Joe and George in previous weeks, my Nerd Alert post today is driven by my own (meandering) experience. It won’t contain any links to new science papers. This week there’s been no space in my life for reading the latest developments in neuroscience, or indeed any new science whatsoever.
You see, recently I shifted from working in a lab to working in a press office – specifically, at the Science Media Centre in London. Broadly, the SMC works in various ways to give journalists access to scientific expertise. Perhaps our most important job is this: when a big story breaks, and that story has science in it, we drop everything in order to source comments and put journalists in touch with relevant experts. Think swine flu epidemic, or the unspellable Icelandic volcano, or – you guessed it – last week’s earthquake and the subsequent, drawn-out chain of events at the Fukushima #1 nuclear power plant in Japan. It was a long week.
The nuclear incident received prolific coverage which varied widely in tone, but with a noticeable tendency toward the hysterical. Several comment articles have now been published which address this, pointing out that although a nuclear reactor flirting with meltdown is certainly newsworthy, the fact that it totally overshadowed a nation-crippling natural disaster with a death toll climbing towards 10,000 is bizarre. If anything was ‘apocalyptic’ about last week in northern Japan, it wasn’t Fukushima. Three such pieces – from Reuters, the BBC and, yes, the Daily Mail – are especially worth reading and make this point far more eloquently than I could. What I offer below is a reflection based on my perspective, which was that of a man fighting to keep his head above a tide of media enquiries, only to see the opinions that he sourced from overworked experts fall almost entirely by the wayside of a great screaming highway of ‘news’.
When it first became apparent late on Friday evening that the Fukushima plant was in trouble, it also became apparent that I was going to have a working weekend. Complex stories like this are the reason the SMC exists – and work we did, helping put many print and broadcast outlets in touch with nuclear physicists, engineers and radiation specialists. By Monday, many scientists had appeared on the TV news channels and we were encouraged by the relatively cautious tone that we saw in the newspaper coverage. The story rolled on, with a second explosion, several injuries and further fuel rods becoming exposed as the ‘Fukushima 50’ tried to maintain coolant levels. The SMC team broke several of Newton’s Laws of Logistics in order to assemble six top academics from around the UK to brief journalists on Tuesday morning. The take-home message from that meeting, which spilled over into countless broadcast interviews, was a cautious one. Although the available information was limited, what was available, together with our experts’ pooled knowledge of Japanese reactor design, suggested that the Fukushima incident was serious but would never amount to a disaster on the scale of Chernobyl – and furthermore, the precautions taken by the Japanese authorities were sufficient to protect the population from harmful levels of radiation.
The week’s lowest ebb came when my colleagues and I saw that evening’s TV news and read Wednesday’s front pages. Throughout the print headlines and even on the BBC, the pervasive atmosphere was one of impending doom. Politicians joined in, calling for their citizens to leave Tokyo (or even just ‘consider leaving’ – because that’ll really help). All this was in stark contrast to the comments we had heard – and had issued to the media – from various academic experts on nuclear engineering and safety. Even Sir John Beddington, the British government’s chief scientific advisor, had briefed the British embassy on Tuesday that Tokyo would ‘unequivocally’ not have a problem even in a worst-case scenario. In a small organisation, used to working closely with the media and advocating engagement to a wary academic community, Wednesday was a tense day punctuated by outbursts of frustration. (And here I must apologise to my good friend Hugh Trimble who suffered my own venting of radioactive steam over wurst and weissbier that evening. Your next wurst is on me!)
Despite fluctuations, the SMC aggravation barometer stayed high for the rest of the week. While the scientific advice remained cautious, media outlets continued to cover what was clearly a Good Story and governments continued to cover their cowardly backsides – whether by promising to re-evaluate nuclear safety, which seemed reasonable, or by chartering planes to evacuate Tokyo, which didn’t. Professor Beddington revised his opinion as the spent fuel pond situation worsened, but still maintained that hightailing it from Tokyo was unnecessary. The ongoing wait for nuclear apocalypse got page 1 and the tsunami’s mounting body count was relegated to page 2. Pity the Japanese residents, faced with such an alarming and confusing news deluge that many were left not knowing who to believe.
The question I am interested in is the source of the disconnect. Whence this perspectivectomy? Was it misunderstanding? Was it mistrust? Was it the presence of other, agitating voices using the opportunity to further their campaigns? I saw some but not a great deal of evidence for this, and I would be interested to hear anyone else’s views. As for mistrust, there is certainly a stigma of this kind associated with the Japanese government and TEPCO – but this doesn’t explain why the opinion of so many articulate and knowledgeable British scientists, including their most senior representative to government, was apparently disregarded. Is it that anyone who studies nuclear physics or radiation is perceived, by vague association, to be representing the nuclear energy industry and to have a vested interest in its future? This strikes me as a lazy and callous assumption but it may well have played a role; my colleague Fiona Fox confronts it in more detail in her blog post for the BBC. Also important is the human tendency to cower before the ‘invisible hazard, mysterious and not understood’ (as David Spiegelhalter puts it); once the devastating physicality of the tsunami was past, this shadowy nuclear hazard – particularly if exaggerated – was the far more attractive news story.
And therein lies an old conflict: between the news editors’ drive for impact and the correspondents’ ties to the evidence. As a newcomer to the whole media relations fracas, this episode is the first time I have come hard up against that conflict. I heard one journalist describe the fatigue of facing ‘too many chiefs’ pushing for alarming headlines and decrying the experts for being ‘too cautious’, while the writers themselves threw their hands up in exasperation. Wherever in the chain of news command this drive arises, its effect is to put pressure on the journalists themselves, some of whom – particularly the science and health correspondents – were in this case trying to inject some appropriate caution into the narrative.
So the difference between available evidence and headlines was amplified, partly by the newsy drive to exploit our fear of the unknown and partly, perhaps, by a mistrust of ‘nuclear’ sources advising caution. There may well be other reasons to throw in, but however high they pile it seems to me that the stakes in this case were also extraordinarily high. A densely populated country had just withstood the fourth-largest recorded earthquake, was hit by a tsunami and then faced a serious problem with one of its 55 nuclear power plants. Perspective, here, was more necessary than ever. And at a time when news is undeniably global and in a situation where hard facts ‘on the ground’ are scarce, to drum up the drama in spite of scientific advice to the contrary is as irresponsible as it is infuriating.
P.S. Since writing, further interesting commentaries have been posted by the Spectator and by Professor Nick Pidgeon courtesy of Channel 4 (that one even has a Simpsons video!). In the US there is an editorial on ‘Nuclear Overreactions’ in the Wall Street Journal and a response from the Columbia Journalism Review.
P.P.S. Randall Munroe of xkcd fame has put together a nice little graphic that puts different radiation doses in perspective: