We’re Rational, You’re Emotional 1

We’re Rational, You’re Emotional’,
And Other Common Myths of the Nuclearists
Part 1

The British journalist George Monbiot is the latest environmentalist and climate change activist to convert to nuclear power. Amazingly, it has taken the very meltdown and ongoing contamination of and by the Fukushima plant to finally convince him. He joins a gaggle of previous environmentalists-for-nuclear graced with illustrious names like James Lovelock, Jonathan Porrit, James Hansen, Stewart Brand and Tim Flannery. Their common, logically infantile and ethically untenable, position boils down to ‘coal is worse’ (more about that below).

With the overcompensating zeal of the recent convert who needs to bludgeon his own doubts and convince himself of his new creed, Monbiot has written two articles in The Guardian. The one plays down the likely effects of the Fukushima meltdown and reframes the disaster as actual ‘proof’ (‘scientific’, no doubt) of the minimal risks associated with nuclear power plants. The other negates all estimates of the numbers of Chernobyl victims but the official ones by the UN; the former are labelled as unscientific, irrational green scaremongering and conspiracy theories on a par with those of climate change deniers.

For those wanting latest (early April 2011) scientific figures on the contamination catastrophe at Fukushima, they might well start at: http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2011/04/05-8 and http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2011/04/05. With various emissions thousands or millions of times the legal limits, with iodine and caesium emissions currently 73% and 60% of Chernobyl levels, suffice it to say that the levels of radioactive caesium emitted into the Pacific Ocean will destroy the Japanese seafood industry and impact on others’ as well as the contamination is concentrated up marine food chains. Sayonara sushi, seaweed, tuna, shark. The emerging picture relating to the contamination of Japanese food growing districts and urban water supplies does not forebode well either.

I will leave the discussion of the various estimates of Chernobyl victims (from 6,000 to 1.8 million) to another article. Here I would like to concentrate on a few of the common myths that nuclearists like Monbiot use, ex- or implicitly, when discussing the nuclear issue.

‘We’re Rational, You’re Emotional’.

This is a favourite one at some point in the debate. Science and Reason are posited as being exclusively on the side of the nuclearists while anti-nuclear positions are denigrated as being merely emotional, irrational, conspiratorial, extremist.

It is revealing that this monopolising of calm, unemotional rationality for oneself is often, as in Monbiot’s case, put forward with great emotion. It doesn’t take much knowledge of psychology to work out that the self-styled representatives of science and Reason – still mostly but ever less exclusively men ‒ are also driven by complex emotions, the difference being that the emotions are covert and for the most part unconscious. These emotions may have to do with the unconscious defence of self-identity wedded to complex belief systems ranging from things like the efficacy of scientific and technological fixes for all social problems or the need for eternal economic growth to the ultimate meaning of life. All these may be seen as threatened by anti-nuclear stances and ‘green emotionalism’. Scientists, not being trained in areas like ethical thinking, emotional intelligence or social critique, may view all such ethical and ‘soft science’ perspectives as threatening. Denigrating them as irrational and emotional helps avoid them and suppress those aspects within oneself that might be tending that way. It takes a lot of emotion to remain emotionless. Denied is the simple human fact that emotions may guide and inform rationality to the mutual benefit of both heart and head. Yes indeed, the heart may have quite a lot to say about nuclear energy if it is allowed to do so.

‘Science’ is What We Say It Is

In all these anti-anti-nuclear diatribes the notion of ‘science’ is simply assumed as naively defined in the popular imagination: i.e. as an activity that is value-free, objective, non-ideological and non-political, as an institution that possesses a solid consensus on most issues and that can thus objectively guide political decision-making. In a secular world it has come close to replacing the Church as the supreme authority on interpreting reality and meaning-making.

In the real world of course, ‘science’ is a much more complex phenomenon. Rather than being non-political and objective, it is very often closely bound up with social and economic interests. Government and industry can often buy and/or cherry-pick the scientific results they need (as we know they may do with intelligence to justify military invasion). Thus, for example, officially ‘safe’ levels of chemicals or radioactivity in food vary greatly between countries and times and are often adjusted upwards during disasters in order to safeguard specific industries or the economic system as a whole. The definition of ‘safety’ becomes more an ‘economically feasible’ than a strictly scientific issue.

As buyers of research, governments and industry can also define the narrow parameters within which research shall take place. Toxics and radiation ‘regulation’ can decide to exclude the study of long-term effects, of effects in utero, cumulative effects, synergetic effects, sub-lethal chronic effects, for example, although these are all undoubtedly real-world effects of toxics and radiation. Using self-chosen parameters, the tobacco industry had scientists ‘proving’ for years that smoking was not linked to lung cancer. (Equally, it is simply not possible to scientifically ‘prove’ that it directly ‘causes’ cancer or that humanity ‘causes’ global warming; despite this, many governments have nevertheless restricted the unfettered freedom to smoke but refuse to restrict the freedom to burn fossil fuels).

In addition, many forms of scientific consensus are also not constant but change radically over time: thus officially ‘safe’ levels of radioactivity have constantly been revised downwards over the decades. ‘Safe’ one day, deadly the next, all based on old or new scientific evidence interpreted differently.

‘Science’ is also not a monolithic block of solid consensus: many issues and findings are hotly contested within scientific circles themselves and scientific controversies abound. During the Cold War, ‘father of the Soviet H-Bomb’ Andrei Sakharov maintained that the fallout from nuclear bomb tests would lead to massive increases in cancer and death rates globally while Edmund Teller, his US counterpart, vehemently denied this. Such scientific controversies also exist because scientific hypotheses, choice of data and results are all dependent on various assumptions made, scientifically unverifiable theories adhered to and methodologies employed. Certain assumptions made will mean that certain data are not even looked for or at. A different methodology applied to the same data may produce a completely different result.

All this should be kept in mind when the nuclearists maintain that ‘the science’ is on their side or, like Monbiot, that ‘the science’ says that the health effects from the Fukushima disaster will be minimal or ‘there is no scientific evidence’ for large numbers of cancers, genetic damage and deaths from the Chernobyl disaster.

Which science and whose science is he referring to? What assumptions was this science based on? Whom does this science benefit and at whose cost? Why does other science come to contrary conclusions? In the end the thinking person can only choose between the credibility of a science paid for by the industrial and state interests that caused the disasters or are keen to continue with business as usual and a science dedicated to the victims and prepared to question business as usual.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on April 6, 2011.

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