What is the cost of scientific misunderstanding? How many lives are lost as a result of false assumptions and inaccurate data representation? More importantly, what can I do, as a scientist, to address these misunderstandings and save those lives?
Everyone has probably heard of the kids in Disneyland in early 2015 who contracted measles because of low vaccination rates. While none of those cases led to death, they were needless and completely avoidable.
Another example – radiation exposure – hits closer to home. As a nuclear engineering student interested in energy policy, it worries me that unfounded fears of radiation lead to fears of nuclear power, which in turn limit the potential to increase our utilization of the densest source of emissions-free energy.
Did you know?
- Fly-ash emitted from coal power plants contains 100 times the radioactivity as nuclear power plants do. The total annual amount of radioactivity from living within a half mile of a coal plant is less than the normal annual exposure to X-rays. Note, you will not get cancer as a result of X-rays. You will not get cancer as a result of nuclear power plant emissions. You will not get cancer as a result of coal power plant radiation emissions.
- Over 1600 people died as a result of the stress of being evacuated after the March 2011 tsunami and nuclear incident in Fukushima, Japan. Nobody inside or outside the region died – and nobody is expected to die – as a result of radiation exposure from Fukushima.
Yet, immediately after Fukushima happened, this image got plastered all over the internet, eliciting fear of the impacts of radiation on the west coast of the Americas:
Of course, the problem here is that the image on the left is a cropped and fear-eliciting version of the map on the right – a NOAA map of the average tsunami height (in centimeters) as it traversed the Pacific. It has absolutely nothing to do with radiation exposure. I could talk here about the problems with scientific imagery manipulation, but that’s already been done. (“Manipulation of images with the intent to misrepresent data is nothing less than falsification.”) I could write about the fact that the internet has done amazing things for spreading lies and misinformation, and I could write about the reality that facts are just as prominent on the internet, and “facts are the lifeblood of rebuttals.” (For proof, re-read this paragraph.)
So how do we collectively escape the spiral of the fact/fiction argument? From my perspective, there is a clear solution: better education. We need to teach people to discern valid data from biased data, and to discern actual science from crazy rumors. Scientists are teaching children in Uganda to do just that: to identify scientific quackery so they can protect themselves from pervasive health myths. What if we taught children how to evaluate local vs global risk? Could they learn to identify which of the following has the highest radiation exposure: living near a nuclear power plant for a year, eating a banana, and getting an X-ray when they break their arm. (Hint: it’s the X-ray. Also, none of these exposure levels are even remotely dangerous.)
Psychologists have explained again and again that we have a terrible understanding of risk and risk exposure. The numbers that are used to explain the dangers of nuclear radiation are so tiny that they are literally incomprehensible. It is therefore my responsibility, and the responsibility of fellow nuclear scientists and nuclear energy supporters, to communicate that not only is nuclear energy not dangerous, nuclear energy is safe. I wholeheartedly believe this communication – this education – starts with kids.
That’s why the UC Berkeley Nuclear Engineering Department and the American Nuclear Society Student Chapter hosted over 30 middle school Girl and Boy Scouts on Wednesday October 19th to tour our labs and learn about nuclear science as part of Nuclear Science Week. These Scouts learned about radiation: exposure, sources, and impacts. We taught them about how radiation relates to nuclear energy, but also about how it relates to their grandma, uncle, or friend who underwent radiation therapy to treat their cancers. Hopefully we jumpstarted an interest in nuclear science and gave them the tools to come to their own conclusions. Maybe they’ll avoid falling prey to the outrageous image manipulations and outright lies that permeate the internet – about nuclear and about anything else.
If you’d like to learn more about nuclear science, please join some of our remaining Nuclear Science Week events (go here to learn about them: tinyurl.com/berkeleynsw) or reach out to me directly.
Kathy Shield (kshield@berk…) is a graduate student in the Nuclear Engineering Department. She intends to research nuclear energy policy and is interested in science education and outreach.