Monday, March 21, 2011

Trust and Authorities

Rather than hearing only a few voices from traditional media, I much prefer the cacophony of internet articles, news and reports about the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, yet the array of more or less informed opinions is bewildering. It would be nice to have a quick way to recognize authorities on an emerging topic. Here is what I have noticed. Some media:

- are not up to date and keep reports that are more than 24 hours behind
- do not date the events they report ("This morning" quickly gets old as a way to date events!)
- do not give quantitative information, confuse legal limit with safe limit, confuse or perhaps intentionally try to confuse short-term risk with long-term risk, confuse individual risk with a population's risk (if an individual now had an additional 3% risk of dying from cancer, that might be acceptable for some individuals under some circumstances; if the Tokyo agglomeration was going to have an excess 1 million deaths from cancer, that would be a major, major public health issue.)
- confuse units (micro versys milli), confuse reactors, confuse reactors with plants, confuse core with spent-fuel pools, confuse containment vessel with outer shell, confuse kilometers with miles, etc.
- do not specify where measurements were taken ("at the plant": 1 km from reactor, at reactor, inside reactor? That's different by orders of magnitude.)
- focus on the future at the expense of description of the present
- when asked to make a prediction, only give a best case description, or only give a worst-case description
- do not put their quantitative information in context. What is safe? How safe is safe?

I found that interviews of scientists and experts do not actually yield a more level-headed assessment. The main effect seems to be to give more confidence to whatever assessment the newspaper is aiming for, but the resulting article is more biased than it would otherwise be. Just because scientists are able to avoid basic mistakes does not mean that they do not emphasize only the information that goes the way they want it to go! On the contrary, I am afraid that they come off looking not very good. One can definitely not consider them to be trustworthy authorities.

I found that the wikipedia website on the nuclear accident was one of the best sources of information. Sometimes a useful information appeared and later disappeared, but not often. That's a little bit mysterious: how can something as loosely controled as wikipedia give such reliable information?


  1. Its the power of the consensus versus the limits of the dictatorship of editors! ;)

  2. Do not forget that TV interviews are edited to narrow to the sentences most "interesting" for the media, and that paper interviews are not verbatim transcripts either (for good reason: verbatim conversation transcripts are hardly readable). On at least one occasion I've caught a science journalist adding "explanatory" details that turned out wrong, because he wanted to make the scientist's explanations clearer.

    I remember being interviewed and what I said being pared down so that it seemed more agressive than it was. I also remember being turned down by France Info because I did not want to summarize what I thought into a yes/no answer quotable in 30 seconds to a question which I thought was beside the real point.

    I personally do not like the interview format for scientific matter; I much prefer the kind of articles found in e.g. Pour la Science (French version of SciAm): written by scientists for a general audience with general scientific knowledge.