Saying the Wrong Thing

The Guardian yesterday wrote an encomium to the UK government’s Chief Scientific Advisor Prof. Sir John Beddington (I hope they don’t mind that I quote in full):

Politics may not be the enemy of scientific method, but they are hardly intimate friends. Science inches along by experiment, evidence and testing (and retesting); politics is often about bold moves executed on personal judgment. So the chief scientific adviser to the government has his or her work cut out. But John Beddington, who has held the post since 2008 and retires this month, has trodden a thin line with grace. Three crises broke on his watch – the Icelandic volcano eruptions, Fukushima and ash dieback disease – and in each he showed a useful caution: compare the political hysteria over Fukushima in Germany with the calm that prevailed here. Mr Beddington has also been an advocate for science, by spearheading the push to install a chief scientist in each Whitehall department. And in raising the alarm about “a perfect storm” of rising population, falling energy resources and food shortages, he did the right and brave thing.

Concerning what he said on Fukushima, I wrote to the ProcEng list on 16.03.2011:

………. (BBC tweet at 1431): “The UK Government’s Chief Scientific Officer, Prof John Beddington, has sought to allay fears of radiation exposure. He told a press conference at the UK embassy in Tokyo: “What I would really re-emphasise is that this is very problematic for the area and the immediate vicinity and one has to have concerns for the people working there. Beyond that 20 or 30 kilometres, it’s really not an issue for health,” he says. The full and very interesting transcript is available on the embassy’s website.”
The key phrase, for those not familiar with British modes of writing, lie in the phrase “very interesting”. I infer that the BBC thinks Beddington[‘s comment is contentious]. …..

The Guardian cites three well-known events. The Icelandic volcano eruption and the ash-dieback event pose/posed no threat to human life and very little to general human well-being as broadly construed. The British air traffic service provider reaction to the Icelandic volcano eruptions was exemplary, in particular in face of the engineering uncertainty and the pressure from the airlines.

However, the Fukushima event involved some considerable danger to people. He got that wrong, contrary to what The Guardian suggests. At the time he was making his soothing statement above, the Japanese government itself, extremely concerned about the lack of reliable information on the accident it was receiving from TEPCO, was discussing plans to evacuate Tokyo. And not even TEPCO had an accurate idea of how dangerous the circumstances were. The event at Fukushima, as we now know, could have been very much worse than it was and is, and, even though we were spared the very worst, it still could be worse than we think. Sir John, a population biologist and not a safety engineer, was inadvertently misleading his audience on a matter concerning danger.

That is, of course, one of the disadvantages of the job, when one must make public pronouncements on matters on which one is not especially expert. But I wonder why he had not received better advice?

Moving on, it is hard to leave this particular comment of The Guardian alone:

compare the political hysteria over Fukushima in Germany with the calm that prevailed here

The Guardian calling the German reaction “political hysteria” is just silly. There is considerable and long-standing political opposition to nuclear power here in Germany, including a permanent platform from a major party who has been in government, namely the Green Party. Chancellor Merkel simply adopted the Green Party platform, whereas her party had previously been “for” continued use and further building of nuclear power stations. That is normal democratic, opportunistic, representative politics. Considering that the building and use of nuclear power stations involves large amounts of taxpayers’ money being paid to private corporations – in Germany’s case, to assure them a “reasonable profit” to which they claim they have a legal right – there is a moral obligation for politicians to pay significant attention to what ordinary people think on the matter, and some evidence that, apart from the Green Party, they had not been doing so. (A more detailed comment from TheRealPM is on the Guardian page.)

Lest we forget, nobody, not even Germany, has solved the problem of what to do with the waste. It’s fifty years and counting. Someone will have to think of something soon.

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