Chris Mooney & Carl Zimmer on Unscientific America

Two emigrants from ScienceBlogs to Discover Blogs, Chris Mooney and Carl Zimmer, are on Bloggingheads.tv. The focus is the new book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, coauthored by Chris & Sheril Kirshenbaum. A comment from below seems appropriate:

I remember an interesting (if apocryphal statistic) about radiation levels in the UK - you could get a higher radiation dose from living in the relatively undeveloped and unspoilt Cornwall than from living next to Sellafield (the UK's nuclear processing plant, aka Windscale) simply because the granite rocks underlying Cornwall naturally lead to high levels of Radon and hence higher radiation doses than you;d get from the discharges from a controversial nuclear reactor site.

Yet try convincing a non-scientist that they're safer (radiation-wise) living next to a nuclear power plant than their nice house in the wilds and you'd fail - that kind of quantitative appreciation of risk is simply not part of the way the public is presented complex (scientific) issues.

I'm a little less generous to the public than the commenter. Probability is just not the mind's forte, or at least scientific probabilities (Gerd Gigerenzer points out that humans are rather good with probabilities which they might have had to compute in a natural ecology).

Carl & Chris below the fold....

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That quote is, er, stupid. Radiation levels in Cornwall are immaterial, we know that people have lived there for centuries without developing extra heads. It's proven to be safe. And in Cornwall, one is not going to find a cloud of radiactive smoke from a nearby nuclear plant dropping nasty isotopes on one's garden.

What about Windscale/Sellafield? Should anyone be apprehensive living there? We know (a) there's a load of nasty radiactive material inside there, (b) that the operators have a record of incompetence, accidents and cover-ups, (c) that it is unwise to trust soothing statistics concocted by PR men from any industry.

In this hypothetical case the hypothetical skeptical non-scientist would be wiser than the hypothetical gullible numbers enthusiast doing Bayesian or frequentist calculations on small and unreliable numbers about serious risks.

As for understanding probabilities: just how many not-in-a-thousand/million-years nuclear accidents have there been so far? Windscale's fire, Three Mile Island's meltdown, Chernobyl's explosion - and I'm sure there have been more.

Probabilities are not as important as many statisticians think.

I agree with Sam C. Even if there is a medically significant difference in the background radiation levels, there is every reason to believe that the levels at Cornwall will remain stable regardless of the state of the infrastructure and of the diligence (or lack thereof) of the people who live and work there.

And one suicide bomber or rogue missle could also significantly change things for the worse at Sellafield.

Chris Mooney kind of sounds like he wants people to believe in Scientists (as a sort of Priestly class), rather than for people attain a level of Scientific literacy and deciding on Scientific questions on their own.

scientists *aren't* a priestly class?

Razib, you said...

Chris Mooney kind of sounds like he wants people to believe in Scientists (as a sort of Priestly class), rather than for people attain a level of Scientific literacy and deciding on Scientific questions on their own.

scientists *aren't* a priestly class?

Oh, I agree.... For all intents and purposes, for most people Scientists *are* a priestly class. If a person doesn't bother to or can't understand the Science they believe is true, then Scientists are no different than a Priesthood to them.

Today, many governments relationship with Scientists seems to be an institutionalized form of the Appeal to Authority Fallacy.

I suspect that if and when Scientists have "real" (coercive) power and control, those in power will (coercively) control who gets to be called a Scientist. I.e., it won't be enough to have studied, understand, and practice Science to be called a Scientist. But it will be, if not explicitly then effectively, licensed. I don't think it would be out of the range of possibility that licensing of who can call themselves a Scientist could give rise of a cabal of Licensed Scientists.

I suspect that if there's ever an attempt at meritocracy, that it will likely turn into technocracy or fascism (because of the coercive nature of the state). IMO both outcomes would be bad (but I suspect there are some who would disagree).

For one thing, apocryphal IS apocryphal, so perhaps the Cornwall overall average rads dose is actually smaller than living next to Windscale. In this case, apocryphal IS the key issue.

Assuming for the sake of argument that it's correct, then yeah, it would matter - for one thing, radiation is cumulative in a half dozen ways. You would not want to build your reactor/waste disposal where there's already natural radon*. Nature for the most part is distributing the background radiation widely and in a diffuse manner, and people should follow suit. (*For areas with comparable populations, in particular)

Obviously, terrorism and disaster concerns are valid, too, but probability and statistics are entirely germane. Every anecdotal case is part of every statistical picture.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 21 Jul 2009 #permalink