Hey, remember the Cold War? Remember doing nuclear drills in elementary school where we all got under our desks with our hands over the backs of our necks and tucked our heads between our legs in case a bomb dropped? Did it occur to anyone else that if a nuclear bomb did drop, we wouldn’t have had time to even kiss our own asses goodbye, despite being in the perfect position for it? Yeah, me too. One of my biggest anxieties as an adolescent was that someone would “push the button;” searing everyone I knew into a blinding ash stain like that scene from Terminator 2. I was terrified that people in charge, whom I would never meet, could “mutually ensure each other’s destruction” and obliterate the rest of the world with a knee-jerk decision. That fear was bad enough. Then in the spring of 1986, the reality of nuclear disaster became clear to the world with the explosion and subsequent fallout of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. With that disaster came the invisible specter of radiation poisoning, and of cancer from radiation. People didn’t really seem to know how radiation worked, but everyone knew you don’t win cancer. The only scientific information about radiation we had ready access to, was what the media doled out to us in fear-laden images and sound bites, or in books. Remember printed encyclopedias? I was 11. What did I know of medicine? I only knew that I had lost my dear friend and grandmother to a slow wasting end from cancer. Hers wasn’t from radiation, but cancer is never a good way to go. Folks were quietly terrified of the thought of a prolonged death due to invisible waves of, what? …of beams? …of pollution? …of radioactive something or other? It was a lot to handle. People were just plain scared.
So, here we are today with another nuclear disaster at our backs. The meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in March 2011, following the earthquake-driven tsunami that mauled the coast of Japan, has brought those memories around again. We, the public today, don’t know much more about the science of radiation than we did in the 1980’s. Cancer is on the rise in our world. Most folks know someone who has struggled with that illness. People are scared again.
Things are different this time though. This is a very different world from the one where huge secretive governments were a moment away from wiping all of humanity from the planet, and where invisible fallout from Chernobyl might creep in and take one of us, or someone we care about. The meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima were very different accidents, with very different severity. The Internet showed up between then and now, forever changing the way that we communicate, and with whom. The number of opinions and voices connecting each other via social media, and the web give resounding chorus and self-confirming power to today’s fears over nuclear radiation. And that’s part of the problem. We have instant access to any of the science that we could ever need to educate ourselves, and more. There’s so much information available today, that it’s hard to weed out what sources are valid, and what sources are just distraction. How do we know who to listen to over a chorus so loud? Which voices in the din do we trust? Scientists today are front and center in both our pubic and social media; willing, and frankly eager, to help. We trust them to tell us about medicine, predict terrible weather, provide food, and develop the technologies that connect everyone else’s opinions on all of those things. Still, how do we know we can trust them about the real threats from radiation as a result of the Fukushima disaster? How do we know they’re not just part of the same massive behind-closed-doors governments that threatened us decades ago, or who lied about the severity of the Fukushima meltdown? How do we trust our food from the oceans? How do we go back in the water?
Peeling Hot Dogs
When I was roughly 7 years old, I learned about the concept of poison from a TV program. I learned that poison was in lots of things. It was different from venom, which came from obvious threats like spiders, or the rattlesnakes we had to worry about when we wandered off the beaten path in my native desert town of San Diego. Poison on the other hand, was less overt. It was in some plants. It was in some foods. It could be in the air, or the water. I learned that poison could kill me, or take away someone I loved. Poison was invisible, and it could get me. With the small amount of information that I owned, I was terrified of poison. I knew enough to be scared, but not enough to understand that I could just find out what to avoid. I didn’t know enough to be empowered to do anything about it. I was left with a frustrating combination of trying to protect myself, and needing to trust the only source I had available; but how much did mom really know? So, I began asking her about every single meal as if it might be my last, “Mom, is it poison?” …every meal.
“No, it’s not poison. Why would you think that?”
“But, how do you know? Are you sure it’s not poison?”
“Yes I’m sure. You eat it all the time. It just isn’t poison.”
Clearly, she couldn’t be trusted. I took control of the situation by refusing to eat until I couldn’t function without food. In a stroke of irony, the one thing I deemed healthy to eat was hot dogs, but only on one condition. Mom had to peel them. If hot dogs were poisonous, then surely the deadly toxin must be contained in the skin. So, for a week or two of my childhood, Mom diligently peeled my hotdogs until one day, I suspected she had overlooked the possibility that hot dog peels weren’t the only invisible threat to my 7 year-old existence. I looked at her sidelong from my tiny throne at the dinner table, disgracefully peeling 3 Ball-Park Franks with a look of worried servitude. I crooked my finger toward the now shriveled and unpeeled hot dogs, pointed, and like a mini Howard Hughes asked, “Are thooose poison?”
She plopped my plate of lewdly exposed meat product (hot dogs are pretty much the particle-board of meat) in front of me with an exasperated sigh and said, “Yeah, they’re poison. I’m trying to kill you.”
I ate. I never asked again.
The public conversation about radiation from Fukushima has followed a similar vein. For two years the idea of radiation in the ocean simmered in the background of our collective consciousness, largely ignored. Then, suddenly, a handful of inflammatory articles on social media sparked a rash of fearful conversation that has yet to subside. Old fears of secretive governments, of cancer, and of invisible threats have been rekindled. Today’s Internet effectively allows the cacophony of opinions on the matter to be raised to a confusing white noise. Anyone who bothers to take a few minutes to write can create their own blog or official looking website to announce to the world that they are the new authority on any matter because, y’know, they said so, and it’s in typed letters on a screen. The emotionally reactive nature of social media buoys up the most extreme ideas and arguments to the top of the news feed, and voilà! …cheap thrills and confusion abound. But, where do regular everyday folks who are legitimately concerned go for good information?
Usually, we turn to science for clear understanding. Scientists are increasingly trying to engage people themselves through educational websites, their own blogs, and a mainstream media that sometimes gets it right. It may not seem like it, but scientists are people too; people with the same needs, the same cares, and the same fears. Science is the discipline that tells people how we know stuff about our world. It’s how we know how to take care of our children’s medical needs, stay connected to one another through technology, and provide innovations that let us solve problems in the world together. Science gives us the information we need to make informed decisions about what we should and shouldn’t be concerned about in the world. Scientists are generally a helpful lot, but because each branch of science is so incredibly complicated, they don’t always say things in a sensitive way that is easy to understand for everyday folks.
When a handful of scientists tried to engage in the raging, reactive public conversation about radiation from Fukushima reaching the west coast of North America, the conversation was confusing and more than a little muddied by fear. To put it in 7-year old playground conversation terms, it went something like this…
“Ahhh, radiation is coming to get us! The government can’t be trusted! We can’t eat any more fish from the Pacific or we’ll get cancer and die! Stay out of the water!”
“What!? Holy crap, are you guys serious? Wait here, we’ll go find out what’s going on. Hey, everybody calm down. We looked at some research and data, and it turns out that we’re all going to be safe. Nobody worry.”
Sometimes, when people are afraid but don’t have enough information to make their own informed decision, it simply isn’t enough to hand over a bunch of data and tell us not to worry. Unfortunately, modern communication has made it safe for people to rage in a comment section with relative anonymity while scouring emotionally driven social media networks for opinion-based and unscientific articles that support their feelings instead of actually learning the fundamentals of the subject they are arguing. Upon hearing that there is no threat from radiation to worry about, folks once again turned to the confusing news on the Internet for answers, adding mistrusting sentiment to the din. Turning to social media for information instead of verified scientific sources is like providing the argument that scientists are wrong because you heard it from little 7 year old Susie on the playground, and she heard it from Johnny who is a big kid in Mrs. Baumgartner’s sixth grade class. Johnny is at least 11 years old, so you know it’s true.
Instead of everybody learning more about how radiation works, and the relative health risks, the conversation turned to anger over scientists saying there’s nothing wrong. Some of the most engaged (and entertaining) scientists responses have been typically scientific. Present data, and point out where people are wrong. People get angry. Present more data, and point out where people are wrong. People get more angry. Present clinical diagnosis of angry people…
Where is this conversation going?
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
OK, now who to trust?
There is a common misconception that scientists all work for the government and are just trying to line their pockets with research money. Scientists aren’t exactly rolling in the kind of cash that lets them lounge upon their throne of platinum test tubes while throwing unsuspecting peasants into a pool of sharks with laser beams attached, (though I’m happy to take donations because, well, laser-sharks).
No, you’re thinking of politicians.
The general (and hugely oversimplified) idea about radiation goes something like this. We live in a world with a surprising amount of background radiation. It comes from minerals in the soil, it comes from the sun and stars, and it even comes from plants and animals, including us. We are exposed to natural background radiation all the time. But wait; if we are exposed to radiation all the time, why doesn’t it affect everyone? When we are exposed to very high levels of radiation, it can damage our DNA, causing cancers. If there is always some level of radiation in the world, wouldn’t it make sense that we would have some natural way to deal with it? It turns out that most organisms are pretty resilient. We have mechanisms in our cells that find damaged bits of DNA and repair them. Radiation from specific sources like a nuclear bomb test, or a nuclear power plant carries a specific signature, like a fingerprint. Just because radiation from a source that we know of shows up in a scientific test, doesn’t mean that it is in high enough levels to be any more harmful than the natural radiation you would get from trees, some rocks, or your little brother.
What about that radiation from Fukushima? We will probably see radiation with the fingerprint from Fukushima on the west coast of North America. After being diluted by the entire Pacific Ocean, it won’t be any more harmful to you or I than getting zapped by your home television, or the computer you are using right now. But why take my word for it?
Peel Your Own Hot Dog
When people try to figure things out for themselves without the help of scientists, we sometimes come up with funny ideas. Cool words like “sublimation” made it into the common conversation a few weeks ago when folks in the south tried to melt snowballs with cigarette lighters. What’s the harm in learning? So what if people try a few things, tinker, and make hilarious YouTube videos about it? Eventually, folks will turn to the tried and trusted framework of science to really dig in and figure it out on their own.
But, what about all those government-funded evil scientists with giant death-rays in their secret volcano lairs? Don’t trust em’ I say! Let’s go find out for ourselves. What if there was a way for us all to study the radiation in Pacific Ocean water? If we all got together and paid for it, then we could probably trust the scientists we fund together, right? What if scientists also tested the organisms most likely to take up the highest amounts of ocean radiation? Surely, if we don’t find it there, then it must be safe to go back in the water.
Again, scientists are a generally helpful lot of people with the same concerns as you and I. Two separate projects have been started to help us monitor our water, and to test the kelp and other algae in the Pacific. The Center for Marine and Environmental Radiation at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is a crowd-funded citizen-science (you do the work) program to test the water itself for radiation from Fukushima. Another project called Kelp Watch 2014 is a collaboration between Cal State Long Beach and UC Berkeley who are testing radiation levels in kelp and other marine algae in the Pacific, which absorb more radiation than other organisms. Kelp Watch is largely donation funded as well, and supplemented by grant sources, which they transparently tell you on their own site. For a great general explanation of how radiation really works, what your relative risks from ocean radiation might be, or to see the results from testing that has already been accomplished by people like you, visit these organization’s websites. Collaborative public science projects like these can help you learn a lot about our world, and may just give you a better understanding of how the whole process of science works. Knowing how science works in general my just help you in your quest for other types of information on the Internet when new problems arise. Be critical of what you find. Ask questions. It won’t hurt to learn about how we know stuff. It may not be as fun as the drama on the high seas of social media, but you may just discover that our world is a much more incredible place offline, than on.
Do you want to be worried? Does the terror of radiation give you the same feeling as riding the Zipper ride at a run-down traveling carnival? No problem. Using the ocean less isn’t going to hurt it.
So, are the fish we eat radioactive? Let’s ask mom.
“Yeah, they’re poison. Science is trying to kill you.”
I’m no cognitive animal scientist, but I’m pretty sure that the fishes of the Pacific won’t mind one bit if you don’t eat them. If we’re not going to eat the fish, let’s at least avoid asking anyone to peel our fish sticks.