Mr Strangebloke, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love… George Monbiot?

No, don’t worry. I haven’t stopped worrying and there’s no danger of me making a carbon friendly pedalo with which to cross oceans in an ecological sound way to bring George flowers. Still, with his growing… er, well, there’s no other word but reasonableness towards nuclear power (blogged all over the place a couple of weeks or so back) I am starting to wonder if he’s been treated just a little harshly and feel obliged to give him a little respect. Of course, if I was one of the committed ecolytes of one or other leader of the Green Cause, perhaps even Georgie himself, I might have read his latest thoughts in increasing horror and now be wondering if a close examination might find a little X on the back of his neck.

Over the past fortnight I’ve made a deeply troubling discovery. The anti-nuclear movement to which I once belonged has misled the world about the impacts of radiation on human health. The claims we have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong. We have done other people, and ourselves, a terrible disservice.

Fuck me sideways with a broken fuel rod, did he actually just say that or are we dreaming? Hang on…


Nope. It’s real.

I began to see the extent of the problem after a debate last week with Helen Caldicott, the world’s foremost anti-nuclear campaigner. …

In the debate she made some striking statements about the dangers of radiation. I asked for the sources. Caldicott’s response has profoundly shaken me.

First she sent me nine documents: newspaper articles, press releases and an advertisement. None were scientific publications; none contained sources for the claims she had made.

I hate to say it, George, but… no, you know what, I think I’ll come back to it later.

But one of the press releases referred to a report by the US National Academy of Sciences, which she urged me to read. I have now done so. It supports none of the statements I questioned; in fact, it strongly contradicts her claims about the health effects of radiation.

And then of course there’s the c-word.

For the past 25 years anti-nuclear campaigners have been racking up the figures for deaths and diseases caused by the Chernobyl disaster, and parading deformed babies like a mediaeval circus. They now claim that 985,000 people have been killed by Chernobyl, and that it will continue to slaughter people for generations to come. These claims are false.

Again, another quick look at the by-line is very hard to resist at this point. George Monbiot is now saying, as many pro-nuke people that George himself has opposed have said before him, that the deaths caused by the world’s worst nuclear accident were vastly inflated.

Of the workers who tried to contain the emergency at Chernobyl, 134 suffered acute radiation syndrome; 28 died soon afterwards. Nineteen others died later, but generally not from diseases associated with radiation. The remaining 87 have suffered other complications, including four cases of solid cancer and two of leukaemia.

In the rest of the population there have been 6848 cases of thyroid cancer among young children – arising ”almost entirely” from the Soviet Union’s failure to prevent people from drinking milk contaminated with the radioactive iodine isotope 131.

So a relative handful of deaths and overall fewer than 7,000 people made ill, as much as 98% of them unnecessarily. Props to George Monbiot for being so frank about this, though I’ll knock off a few points for not getting in a remark about tinfoil headgear at this point.

Caldicott told me that the UN committee’s work on Chernobyl was ”a total cover-up”.

These are UN deer responsible for the mind control rays used on the tourists

George doesn’t point out either that such a cover up would necessarily need the Ukraine on board, and it’s hardly in their interests to play this down. There are still real problems there and they need money, and the Ukraine is not exactly filthy rich. If the UN was sweeping it under the carpet they’d be calling bullshit as loud as they possibly can.

Caldicott pointed me to a book, which claims that 985,000 people have died as a result of the disaster. Translated from Russian and published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, this is the only document that looks scientific and appears to support the wild claims made about Chernobyl.

A devastating review in the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry points out that the book achieves this figure by the remarkable method of assuming that all increased deaths from a wide range of diseases – including many which have no known association with radiation – were caused by the Chernobyl accident.

Incidentally, if the idea sounds familiar it might be because it’s close to anti-tobacco arguments: nobody dies of anything but whatever the particular subset of Righteous have targeted.

But then George has to go and spoil it all.

Failing to provide sources, cherry-picking studies, scorning the scientific consensus, invoking a cover-up to explain it: all this is horribly familiar. These are the habits of climate-change deniers, against which the green movement has struggled valiantly, calling science to its aid. It is distressing to discover that when the facts don’t suit them, members of this movement resort to the follies they have denounced.

Oh, George, they’ve been at it for fucking years, which is why I stopped believing in warble gloaming back in the mid 90s. Don’t you remember the late Dr Stephen Schneider explaining how it was important to emphasise the scare scenarios while avoiding mention of any doubts or holes in the theory?

We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

This despite the fact that he much later conceded that man made warble gloaming isn’t actually proven, though he personally still believed in it because, reading between the lines, the evidence was convincing enough for him. So is that the kind of cherry picking and distortion we’re talking about, or is it different from peddling exaggeration and bullshit about the risks involved in nuclear power generation? Oh, and you missed out character assassination, suppression of contrary opinion, and – and this is quite a biggie – banging on about fucking consensus as if what’s objectively true or false is subject to some kind of white coat vote or something. Look, George, this is known as an appeal to numbers and is a well known fallacy. To put it another way, suppose every scientist in the world agreed that according to their theory gravity makes objects fall at precisely – precisely – 10m/sec2. It’s a nice, neat and above all plausible value. But suppose that you yourself then got a long tape measure, an accurate stopwatch, something to drop and somewhere with different heights to drop it from, and you then repeatedly measured the value at 9.807 m/sec2. Do the assertions of hundreds of thousands of scientists count for more than that of one person, even when that person has taken the trouble to actually measure it? Well, George, if you value scientific consensus above scientific method then yes, yes they do, but you must not pretend that consensus is necessarily the same thing as objective truth.

Historically, George, the consensus has got things completely arse about face on many occasions. At one time there was a consensus that everything revolved around the Earth, and those who said otherwise were literally treated as heretics. The consensus was of course, wrong. There was a consensus that light travelled through something called the luminiferous aether, which lasted decades after first the Michelson-Morley experiment cast serious doubt on it and then after Einstein’s work showed there was no reason to think there was any such thing at all. There was a consensus, or rather two, that the world was shaped either by volcanoes or by periodic floods depending on which side of the argument you were on. Neither consensus allowed for glaciation, much less continental drift pushing up mountain ranges. There was a consensus that the universe was fixed and had always been as it is now (or since it was made by the deity of one’s choice), despite Newton’s laws suggesting back in the 17th century, had anyone noticed, that it might either be expanding or contracting but the one thing it certainly couldn’t be doing is sitting still. Today the consensus is a fixed speed of light, plate tectonics, the Big Bang and that the only things revolving around our planet are its own moon and anything we stick up there. Consensus has a track record of being wrong, do you see? And that means we should still take that with a pinch of salt, or rather a pinch of healthy scepticism. We certainly should when served up a theory based as much or more on computer simulations of how the climate is thought to work than anything else.

You were doing so well, George, but I suppose two Damascene conversions is a little too much to ask. Still, credit where it’s due. Coming around to a balanced position on nuclear power is a pretty big deal.


Posted on April 7, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Mr Strangebloke, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love… George Monbiot?.

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