This post is not directly about climate, but concerns our relationship with reason and science, in which there are parallels with the conduct of the climate debate.
Shrill cries of alarm
Shortly after the momentous earthquake and tsunami wreaked such terrible havoc in Japan on March 11, the press and broadcast media began a chorus of shrill, poorly-informed warnings about the nuclear crisis developing at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Sober description of fail-safes
Then a blog posting appeared on March 13, describing the operation of those 40-year-old reactors and their numerous fail-safe systems. It was written by one Dr Josef Oehmen, a mechanical engineer and scientist, and concluded there was no reason to be alarmed and very little possibility of a meltdown. Even if a meltdown occurred, he said, the plant’s systems and trained engineers would handle the event safely. The article was quickly picked up and widely distributed around the Internet.
It was published here as Nuclear reactor: blast impossible, meltdown no sweat.
Maladroit attack on public peace of mind
On March 15 one Justin Elliott published Debunking a viral blog post on the nuke threat which tried to pour cold water on Oehmen’s analysis. Elliott didn’t do this by refuting what Oehmen had said or by disagreeing with his analysis; instead, he ripped into Oehmen’s reputation.
Oehmen’s article begins with a candid admission:
I am a mechanical engineer and research scientist at MIT. I am not a nuclear engineer or scientist, or affiliated with Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, so please feel free to question my competence.
But in a supremely bungling introduction, Elliott swaggers right on past this clear, honest disclaimer and arrogantly reports, as his own words, that Oehmen has no special expertise in nuclear power. Hmm. The cautious would note that and read on with care. Note his condescending confirmation that Oehmen does indeed work at MIT.
Of course, anyone is free to read and pass on information on nuclear power plants or anything else, without needing qualifications in the field to do so — like journalists, for example, who do it every day. I haven’t looked into Justin Elliott’s qualifications; is he a nuclear physicist? Is he qualified to debunk descriptions of a nuclear power station?
We could go on in this vein but without profit; the only matter for judgement is the statements being made, for the authority to make them derives from their inherent truth and not from the author’s qualifications.
Then Elliott tells us that Oehmen’s key claim, that there will not be any “significant” release of radioactivity, appears to have already been proven false. But what Elliott cites is a brief release far below dangerous levels, which harmed nobody and quickly dissipated. It is a travesty to describe it as a significant release — blatant scaremongering — and doesn’t disprove Oehmen’s central theme at all.
Elliott mocks Oehmen’s essay for being widely republished and picked up by pro-nuclear groups, though they are clearly beyond the author’s influence and are no reason to criticise him.
Herald swallows the lot
Now we come to the substance of this post, for the Herald’s editor, Tim Murphy, sent that feeble polemic to the NZ Climate Science Coalition to rebut the suggestion that the Herald use the original post by Oehmen, offering the public some factual information about the strength of the defences in the Fukushima nuclear power plants and giving them confidence thereby that the worrying crisis might somehow be brought to a satisfactory conclusion.
Cannot see logical fallacy
But it seems that Mr Murphy was impressed with the few doubtful assertions in Elliott’s ad hominem attack on Dr Oehmen that actually relate to the nuclear situation and considers them sufficient to demolish any confidence we might draw from Oehmen’s factual article.
It’s a surprise that Murphy’s undoubted journalistic skills can’t detect the logical fallacy of the ad hominem strategy. Since that strategy consists in ignoring the case being made and instead attacking the man who makes it, its skill in refuting the argument is precisely zero and therefore one’s acceptance of it declares a shabby reasoning.
The so-called ‘debunking’ post emphasises Dr. Josef Oehmen’s lack of nuclear qualifications, but it is simply repeating what Dr Oehmen himself says openly at the outset. More damaging for its own purposes, the article fails to mention either Dr Oehmen’s descriptions of the nuclear reactors or their multiple fail-safe systems.
Inherent safety of reactors not disputed
Because he doesn’t mention them, he can hardly dispute them, so he most certainly does not refute them. Our perception of the nuclear ‘crisis’ is unaltered by his arm-waving.
For without evidence of weaknesses in the reactor systems, why should our confidence in them diminish? Why should we believe the news media when they use an alarming word like “surge” to describe an increase in radiation “800 times more intense than the recommended hourly exposure limit in Japan,” yet knowing that the radiation level would have to increase about a million times before anyone risked the beginning of physical harm?
The misleading use of ‘surge’, gentle reader, is blatant scaremongering (apologies for repeating the term). Did Murphy assign a single reporter the task of researching the facts of managing a damaged reactor of that design?
His message to the Coalition’s secretary, Terry Dunleavy, states:
I imagine there is no chance the NZCSC will distribute this to its mailing list or back to Bob Carter!!
Well, that shows how little he knows, for he is quite wrong. In fact, every active member of the Coalition got a copy of the ‘debunking’ article, including Bob Carter. What would we be afraid of? We can read and reason. The debunking the editor sent us in such ebullient mood was a flimsy piece of work — an incompetent refutation and a mischievous interference with trustworthy information which had promised to relieve a large number of people of a considerable anxiety.
This message from the editor of the long-diminishing, newly-tabloid NZ Herald provides good evidence that, surprisingly, he cannot reason. For he missed the logical deficiency in the scurrilous attack on Oehmen’s knowledgeable and well-intentioned article.
He also overlooks the fact that our organisation is called the NZ Climate Science Coalition and has nothing to do with nuclear power. Why should he suppose we would not distribute an interesting couple of articles on nuclear power?
Is he so biased against us for our defence of climate realism that as a matter of course he disagrees with anything we say?
It’s a shame that he embroils the Herald in the bias he embraces for himself. It’s a shame that he abandons objectivity and a pity he has lost his reason.