The nuclear plant problem in Japan — and the problem with ideologues in science *UPDATED*

Mr. Bookworm, New York Times reader, was telling the children that there was a total catastrophe in Japan, with the Japanese and the world exposed to the possibility of massive radiation poisoning.  I calmed the children’s fears by telling them that the paper could be right, but it could be wrong.  First, newspapers sell well on disasters, so it’s in their interest to play them up.  Second, I said, it’s doubtful that most of the reporters have any understanding of nuclear technology, so they’re winging it.  (What I didn’t add is that, almost certainly, the Times’ reporters have as their only “experts” anti-nuclear activists.  There’s nothing wrong with getting the activists’ point of view, but the reporting would be more honest if (a) the Times revealed their biases and (b) the Times talked to some people on the other, non-hysterical side.)  The children, bless their hearts, said “Mom, we know that!”

Anyway, if you want a view from the other side, written in the clearest English I’ve ever seen in a science-based article, read Charlie Martin on the nuclear meltdown and the media.  Whether or not you agree with him, he writes so well, you will certainly understand him.

By the way, this is a great place to tell a story I’ve had in my brain for several days.  I have to digress a teeny bit to set the story up, so please bear with me.

I own a Kindle.  I love the convenience (no more suitcases full of paperbacks when I travel), but I find the book pricing off-putting.  With the choice of free books at the library, or cheap books at Goodwill, I’m not thrilled about spending $10.00 on a book.  What makes it worse in my mind is that, while hardback books are marked down about 40-50% (hence the $10 or $12 Kindle pricing), paperback books are priced down only about 5%.  I’m too cheap to buy a full-priced paperback at the best of times (preferring to gamble that I’ll find something I like at Goodwill or the library), so I’m certainly not going to buy the same book for a mere 5% discount.

So I’ve got a Kindle, but I’m unwilling to buy the books.  The answer is to get the free books that show up on Kindle.  Sometimes, there are real finds there.  For example, if a reputable author is publishing the most recent book in a long-running series, the publishers will put out the first book for free, as a loss leader, to entice people.  That works for me and I have been enticed.  There are also free classics (or low priced, 99 cent, classics).  There are a lot of books that are pure garbage and are free because no one will or should pay any other price.  And there are books that see a publisher just trying to get titles out there and gin up some interest.

That last e-publishing approach is how I ended up with a free copy of Sherry Seethaler’s Lies, Damned Lies, and Science: How to Sort through the Noise around Global Warming, the Latest Health Claims, and Other Scientific Controversies. The publisher’s blurb promises that the book will help savvy news consumers understand the science in the news:

Every day, there’s a new scientific or health controversy. And every day, it seems as if there’s a new study that contradicts what you heard yesterday. What’s really going on? Who’s telling the truth? Who’s faking it? What do scientists actually know—and what don’t they know? This book will help you cut through the confusion and make sense of it all—even if you’ve never taken a science class! Leading science educator and journalist Dr. Sherry Seethaler reveals how science and health research really work…how to put scientific claims in context and understand the real tradeoffs involved…tell quality research from junk science…discover when someone’s deliberately trying to fool you…and find more information you can trust! Nobody knows what new controversy will erupt tomorrow. But one thing’s for certain: With this book, you’ll know how to figure out the real deal—and make smarter decisions for yourself and your family!

Watch the news, and you’ll be overwhelmed by snippets of badly presented science: information that’s incomplete, confusing, contradictory, out-of-context, wrong, or flat-out dishonest. Defend yourself! Dr. Sherry Seethaler gives you a powerful arsenal of tools for making sense of science. You’ll learn how to think more sensibly about everything from mad cow disease to global warming–and how to make better science-related decisions in both your personal life and as a citizen.

You’ll begin by understanding how science really works and progresses, and why scientists sometimes disagree. Seethaler helps you assess the possible biases of those who make scientific claims in the media, and place scientific issues in appropriate context, so you can intelligently assess tradeoffs. You’ll learn how to determine whether a new study is really meaningful; uncover the difference between cause and coincidence; figure out which statistics mean something, and which don’t.

Seethaler reveals the tricks self-interested players use to mislead and confuse you, and points you to sources of information you can actually rely upon. Her many examples range from genetic engineering of crops to drug treatments for depression…but the techniques she teaches you will be invaluable in understanding any scientific controversy, in any area of science or health.

^ Potions, plots, and personalities: How science progresses, and why scientists sometimes disagree
^ Is it “cause” or merely coincidence? How to tell compelling evidence from a “good story”
^ There are always tradeoffs: How to put science and health claims in context, and understand their real implications
^ All the tricks experts use to fool you, exposed! How to recognize lies, “truthiness,” or pseudo-expertise

At first, the book seemed to live up to its promises.  Seethaler explained that it was entirely legitimate for scientists to disagree, because science is not as black-and-white as elementary, middle and high schools imply.  Different techniques, different equipment, and different starting hypotheses can all result in differing outcomes that are open to legitimate dispute.  Seethaler explains that, quite often, conventional wisdom has proven to be plain wrong.  The nature of hypotheses is that they are tested, and then tested again, especially as new information and technology come along.

Seethaler also talks about modeling.  The way in which a scientist sets up a model — the parameters he chooses, the information he enters, and the calculations he applies — may dramatically affect the conclusions he reaches.

In light of all these variables, Seethaler acknowledges that, as she says, “scientific revolutions really happen.”  Conventional wisdom frequently gets turned on its head.  Few things are fixed in the world of true science.  What’s important, she says, is that “disputes are not a sign of science gone wrong.”  Instead, they represent scientists dealing with all of the problems, and variables, and information, and scientific development described above.  This can mean, Seethaler writes, that one person, one outlier, can turn conventional wisdom on its head.

After all this, you’d think, wouldn’t you, that Seethaler would carry these conclusions through to the subject of anthropogenic global warming, right?  Oh, so wrong.  Turning her back on everything she wrote in the preceding chapters, Seethaler has this to say on global warming, in the context of a warning the newspapers like to play up conflict, but don’t really understand scientific methodology:

Another problem is what sociologist Christopher Tourmey referred to as pseudo-symmetry of scientific authority — the media sometimes presents controversy as if scientists are evenly divided bewteen two points of view, when one of the points of view is held by a large majority of the scientific community.  For example, until recently, the media often gave equal time and space to the arguments for and against humans as the cause of global climate change.  Surveys of individual climate scientists have indicated that there is discord among scientists on the issue, but that the majority of scientists agree that humans are altering global climate.  One anlaysis of a decade of research papers on global climate change found no papers that disputed human impacts on global climate.  Also, all but one of the major scientific organizations in the United States whose members have expertise relevant to global climate change, more than a dozen organizations in all, have issued statements acknowledging that human activities are altering the earth’s climate.  The American Association of Petroleum Geologists dissents.  Therefore, there is a general consensus within the scientific community that humans are causing global climate change.  While it is legitimate to explore the arguments agianst the consensus position on global climate change, it is misleading for the media to present the issue so as to give the impression that the scientific community is evenly divided on the matter.

Have you read any media in the last ten years that “gave equal time and space to the arguments for and against humans as the cause of global climate change?”  I haven’t.  With the exception of Fox, the media has monolithically climbed aboard the AGW bandwagon, and ignored or discredited any contrary voices.

Also, considering that Seethaler spent pages and pages and pages warning against assuming that science is fixed, explaining how different approaches to models and hypotheses can affect scientific conclusions, and applauding outliers who challenged (correctly) institutional consensus, do you find it as peculiar as I do to have her suddenly announce that AGW is definitely proven and that any voices to the contrary should be ignored?  It also doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that, in this monolithic intellectual climate, the absence of published papers challenging AGW may arise from the fact that the challengers are being barred at the gates.

I deleted Seethaler’s book from my Kindle at this point.  The woman is a foolish ideologue, incapable of practicing what she preaches.  She’s also probably pretty typical of the science writers and “experts” bloviating about the very real nuclear problems in Japan.  That is, there are real problems, and real risks, but never trust an ideologue to be honest with you when it comes to the conclusions to be drawn from the facts.

UPDATE:  Another good example of the media’s gross (and, I suspect, intentional) scientific ignorance.

Controlling the hysteria about Japan

The earthquake/tsunami/potential nuclear meltdown in Japan is one of the great disasters to hit the Western world.  It’s worth remembering, however, that the media is a visual engine that lives to convey disaster.

This post is an excellent antidote to that media tendency, as it carefully explains why the world is not ending in Japan.  This is Japan’s Katrina — not politically, of course, but in terms of the scope of the disaster.  It was a regional earthquake, not a national one.

Further, Japanese systems handled the quake itself fabulously.  There is nothing that can be done against a tsunami, though, and that’s where the real tragedies unfolded, as can be seen vividly in this NYT’s interactive feature.

Ten thousand dead, the current estimate, is a heartbreaking number, especially in a small county.  Nevertheless, when you think of a 9.1 earthquake, followed by a tsunami, followed by nuclear reactor problems, you realize that the number is actually exceedingly low.  It’s low because (a) Japan was prepared and (b) the earthquake and tsunami, thankfully, affected only a relatively small area of the country.

The media coverage reminds me of the 1989 earthquake coverage in San Francisco.  I was out of town when the quake hit, and was absolutely paralyzed with fear when I saw reports that made it look as if the City was in flames.  In fact, the City was inconvenienced by the power outages, but the damage was local:  a small part of downtown, the Marina district, the Nimitz freeway in the East Bay, a few square blocks near UCSF Medical School, and one collapsed segment of the Bay Bridge.  But the media couldn’t downplay it, it had to up-play it.  This was the same media that reported cannibalism after only two days in New Orleans.

Sheep? *UPDATED*

There is a horrific story out of Japan today about a man who crashed a truck into a crowd of people, and then proceeded to complete the carnage by stabbing as many of them as possible. The story says that the man ended his spree only when surrounded by police:

A witness told NHK the suspect dropped the knife after police threatened to shoot him. An amateur video filmed by a mobile phone showed policemen overpowering the bespectacled suspect.

I’ve never been in a violent situation (thank God), so I have absolutely no idea what the dynamics are. I don’t know what it feels like to be paralyzed by gut-clenching fear. I don’t know what I would do if a maniac headed towards me (or anyone else) with a knife. And I don’t know how many people were already incapacitated because of the initial truck crash. But . . . . But . . . .

It’s always seemed to me that the nature of a knife is that, in a crowd, it’s a “one person at a time” weapon. When Brits used to boast about their lower death rate from crime, it was easy to point out that they had just as many violent attacks, only they did it less efficiently with knives in bars. In other words, back then, they were as willing to kill as Americans but, because they didn’t have a gun culture (something that has changed, as they now have both a knife and a gun culture), the damage was more limited.

How is it, therefore, that this guy was able to inflict such spectacular damage with a knife? Was there no one there who could take on a guy wielding a knife? It’s possible, of course, that everyone in proximity was already too damaged by the car crash to be of any defensive use, but I do wonder.

I suspect that, as Ymarsakar (who blogs at Sake White) might say, modern Japanese society has bred itself down to sheep-like status, with its individual members incapable of defending themselves any more. All they do is wait for the guard dogs to come to their defense. (Jews, between 1938 and 1945, learned that the guard dogs often do not come. That’s why Israel, up until recently, has done such a damn good job of defending herself.)

Do you all have more information or different opinions? As you can see, I’m just wildly hypothesizing here about a story that struck me as both horrible and peculiar.

UPDATE: I wasn’t the only one who noticed this. As 11B40 points out in a comment, CDR Salamander made exactly the same point, only better, because he knows about combat and combat training.

Education without meaning

Regular readers know that I periodically rant about public school education, which feeds kids massive amounts of bite size, PC information, leeched of content and meaning. One of my bookworms, having spent weeks studying California missions, was able to name all the missions, describe adobe production, and detail the abuses heaped upon Indians. She had no idea how the missions got to California, how the Spanish were involved in the missions, how the Spanish got to California, the religious purpose the missions served, etc. It’s as if the school gives the kids lots and lots of little pieces of marble, and announces that, in their hands, they hold David.

Just the other day, you heard me grumble about a massive school recital that had teachers blathering on about global warming (it’s all our fault, in case you didn’t know), and kids zealously wrapping about recycling. The walls were festooned were pictures of kids picking up garbage from the beach.

In other words, after a year in public school, my bright little bookworm has learned math at a procedural level, without having any idea what she’s doing (which is why, within weeks of a lesson she’s aced, she’s entirely forgotten how to to do), she’s well on her way to being completely up to date on all the horrible things Americans and other white people have done to every one else in the world, she lectures me about waste, and she’s reading for an advanced degree in beach cleaning. Grrrr.

It turns out I’m not a lone malcontent. The same dreary politicization of education, with children being forced to memorize endless factoids that are not allowed to hold any place in their imagination, while at the same time being deluged with political pap, is going on in England, all in preparation for tests that are aimed at memorization skills and multi-culti mastery. At least one prestigious think tank is now on the attack (emphasis mine):

The curriculum in state schools in England has been stripped of its content and corrupted by political interference, according to a damning report by an influential, independent think-tank.

It warns of the educational apartheid opening up between the experience of pupils in the state sector and those at independent schools, which have refused to reduce academic content to make way for fashionable causes.

No major subject area has escaped the blight of political interference, according to the report published by Civitas.

“The traditional subject areas have been hijacked to promote fashionable causes such as gender awareness, the environment and anti-racism, while teachers are expected to help to achieve the Government’s social goals instead of imparting a body of academic knowledge to their students,” it says.

The report, The Corruption of the Curriculum, comes as the General Teaching Council, representing the teaching profession in England, calls for the scrapping of all national curriculum tests.

Civitas casts doubt on the value of much of what children are now “taught”. History has become so divorced from facts and chronology that pupils might learn the new “skills and perspectives” through a work of fiction, such as Lord of the Rings, it says.

Teenagers studying for GCSEs are being asked to write about the September 11 atrocities using Arab media reports and speeches from Osama bin Laden as sources without balancing material from America, it reveals.

In English, the drive for gender and race equality has led an exam board to produce a list of modern poems from around the world without a single poet from England or Wales being represented.

The new 21st-century science curriculum introduced last September substitutes debates on abortion, genetic engineering and the use of nuclear power for lab work and scientific inquiry, it says.

Designed to make science more popular, the results of a study show it has had the opposite effect, with pupils less interested in the subject and less keen to pursue it in the sixth form than they were under the previous, more fact-based lessons.

Future scientists will be even more likely to come from independent schools because the new GCSE courses will leave state pupils ill-quipped for further study, it says.

Most comprehensive schools are teaching the new science for examination next year but the vast majority of independent and grammar schools have seized the opportunity to continue to teach biology, chemistry and physics as separate subjects.

Martin Stephen, the High Master of St Paul’s, a leading boys’ independent school in London, warned of the “terrifying absence of proper science” in the new courses and said his pupils would be taking the International GCSE in the three separate sciences.

If we’re not careful, just as our past was once England (and a fairly good legacy of freedom and democracy it gave us), soon our future will be England too, and that, sadly, is a very depressing thought.

UPDATE: On the subject of what an English education once was, let me recommend one of my all time favorite books, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. In his book, Fussell examines the intellectual life of the British as they went into World War I, and how it changed as they went through and eventually came out of the first modern war. It’s a beautifully written book, balancing a history of the war itself, literature, poetry, and the biographies of the war’s great literary figures (from Rupert Brooks, to Robert Graves, to Siegfried Sassoon). I can’t find my copy right now, but I distinctly remember him writing that it was the first war were every soldier, from top to bottom, was literate, and even those soldiers from the lowest social echelons were literate in a way we can’t imagine today, casually making reference to Shakespeare, Chaucer, Pope, Bunyan, etc. Even when I lived in England, some 25 years ago, I was impressed with the casual familiarity my British friends had with their country’s great literary works, something I doubt you’d find amongst college students nowadays.

Incidentally, I have in the past recommended another of Fussell’s works, a collection of essays entitled Thank God for the Atom Bomb — a book, interestingly enough, that no longer seems to be in print. In that book, Fussell compelling argued that Truman, in dropping the bomb, was not motivated simply by a desire to show off to the Soviets. Instead, he had before him accurate information that the Japanese intended to fight to the last man, woman and child. They’d already shown staggering, indeed insane, fortitude, in prior engagements with the Marines and the Navy. They’d also shown themselves to be particularly cruel to prisoners (think Bataan Death March). Truman had reason to believe that, even though America would definitely defeat Japan, it could only be done at the cost of another 30,000 – 40,000 American lives, with an almost unlimited number of suicidal Japanese deaths. In this context, it made perfect sense to drop a single bomb that would (a) result in about the same number of Japanese deaths anyway (because no one could have imagined the years of radiation poisoning; (b) end the war in minutes; (c) save tens of thousands of American lives in a war the Japanese started and, oh yes, (d) give the finger to Uncle Joe in Moscow.

As it turned out, Fussell’s theory about the reasonableness of dropping the atom bomb turned out to be right on the money. After decades of historical revisionism that tried to paint the Japanese dead in Hiroshima and Nakasaki as the first and worst victims of America’s heedless plunge into the cold war, recently revealed papers showed that Truman (and Fussell) were right.

Sometimes it’s worth remembering that there might be a certain virtue to the “ripping off the bandaid” school of warfare, since slow bleed warfare can be just as deadly, but possibly even more demoralizing, not only for the inevitable loser in the war, but for the victor too.

UPDATE II: Re Rob’s comment: Rob, did you read the article about the use of computers in Marin County? At great expense, all the kids from 5th grade and up have been given computers, despite the fact that more and more studies are showing that, for at least half the kids in any given class, the only things they learn are (a) how to use computers (which is useful, but could be a discrete class); and (b) how to cheat. Knowledge is not improved and, indeed, analytical abilities go downhill as kids simply get better and better at cutting and pasting, with ever less time going into thinking.

Things are not going to change, however, if the school supe’s comment is anything to go by, a comment that tells much more about educators and this particular superintendent’s ego, than it does about the children’s needs:

“We hosted the Ministry of China here,” said Chris Carter, superintendent of Reed Union School District, of which Del Mar is a part. “A man who wants to know what we do, how we do it — and take it back to 230 million students. And here, we get negative press for it.”

I’ve never had any dealings with this superintendent, but I’ve heard from those who have that this is pretty typical of her attitude: I’m right and everyone else in the whole world is wrong.

UPDATE III: This is a very meandering post. Let me meander back to my point about the atom bomb: Truman properly fulfilled his function, as commander in chief, to dramatically minimize American casualties while still achieving the inevitable end of American victory — an end that would have been equally bloody for the Japanese, although they would have died more traditional deaths, at the receiving ends of bullets, bombs and bayonets.

Over at America’s North Shore Journal, the blog’s proprietor has looked as something the American press routinely ignores in its rush to publish casualty numbers out of Iraq: the proportion of Americans killed in the line of duty to the portion of Jihadis killed. The numbers are striking: our troops are being incredibly effective, while minimizing the risk to themselves — which is, after all, the way wars should be fought, unless you’re a member of the American media or the liberal establishment, in which case you pray for American deaths for reasons of political opportunism.

Speaking of which, I saw in the grocery store a Newsweek cover, which I can find at Newsweek’s website, so I assume it’s old, which asked whether Bush’s departure from White House means America can repair its standing in the world. Or, decoded, it asked whether, when the cowboy who looked after America’s interests leaves, can we please, please, please have either Edwards, or Hillary, or Gore, or Obama, or some other good Democrat who will willingly subordinate America’s interests to UN and European policy makers so that, even as we’re destroyed from the inside out, and from the outside in, liberals won’t have to suffer anymore by being insulted at cocktail parties by the transatlantic cronies.

(Hat tip for update III goes to the temporarily ailing lgf.)

UPDATE IV:  Here’s Cal Thomas on the same report about the British education system.

Quisling continues

Norway's government earned an ugly name for itself during WWII because of the conduct of one Vidkun Quisling. He was the leader of Norway's Nazi party and, after the Germans invaded Norway, he was the Government's first leader. For the remainder of the War, Norway had a collaborationist government. Unlike their leaders, most ordinary Norwegians acquitted themselves fairly well during the war.

Norway is again making decisions about dealing with murderous fascists, since its government just announced that it is planning on opening negotiations with Hamas. This would be the same Hamas that loudly cheered the murder of 9 people in Tel Aviv yesterday, and the brutal injuries inflicted on almost 70 others:

The Norwegian government says it is considering meeting representatives of Hamas during their visit to Oslo in May even though some countries have refused to recognize the new Palestinian government.

"The government believes in dialogue, including with groups whose actions we do not agree with," Norwegian Aid Minister Erik Solheim told public radio NRK.

Solheim did not specify at what level a meeting could be held, saying only that Norwegian high-ranking civil servants or members of parliament could take part.

The spokesman for Hamas' parliamentary group, Salah Bardawil, and Mohammed al-Rantissi are scheduled to visit Oslo on May 15 at the invitation of the Norwegian Palestine Committee, according to Norwegian news agency NTB.

Solheim said Tuesday: "Dialogue is the best way to stress that we cannot accept violence against civilian targets."

"The goal of a dialogue with Hamas must of course be to obtain a progressive change in Hamas' point of view when it comes to resorting to violence and recognizing the state of Israel," he said.

In post-Cold War politics, dialogue is everything; morals, values, and integrity are nothing. I have my doubts, by the way, that the ordinary people of Norway will replicate their WWII conduct and separate themselves from their government's newest Quisling act. Despite the damage Islamic immigrants inflict on ordinary Norwegians, Muslims can proudly announce that Norway as a whole sides resolutely with the fascists in the Middle East, and turns its back on the only Democratic government out there.

Interestingly, on the same day that Norway abandoned any semblance of decency, Japan announced that, while it will continue to honor prior commitments to the Palestinian people, it will not have any future dealings with Hamas. I'd prefer it, of course, if Japan would cut that entire rotten edifice off at the knees (since Hamas is controlling the Palestianians now and will benefit from all funds already promised), but it is still a step in the right direction, and shows Japan acting with a wisdom and integrity utterly absent from most of Europe. I don't know if this represents a Japanese cultural trait, the fact that Japan doesn't have any Islamists within its midsts (so it's not running so scared), or Japan's still close relationship with the US. Regardless of the reason, I'm grateful.

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