Friday, 13 May 2011

Manufacturing Doubt

Manufacture of Doubt

There is an industry for this!! There is probably an industry for everything but in this case, a book called “Merchants of Doubt” (2010) has been published which outlines the ways in which the public relations (PR) industry has systematically sought, trained and paid scientists and politicians to cast doubt on research on such varied issues as dangers of cigarette smoking, pesticides and ozone depletion. A few years earlier, Devra Davis mentions the “maturing of the science of doubt promotion” in the forward to her book The Secret History of the War on Cancer (2007).

How does it work? A 1969 memo from a tobacco company executive states "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy".

The public relations industry creates doubt, uncertainty, and confusion. Be it tobacco, exposure to radioactivity, the dangers of DDT, acid rain or global warming – the doubt industry is having a heyday. Witness the scientists who currently eagerly walk to centre stage to stow doubt in a willing public about global warming.

After all, if global warming is a threat, then we might be required to change something. Human beings – even those who live on the edge of adventure and imagine themselves to be flexible, nimble and contrary to mainstream thought – find that change, internal and behavioural is not an easy thing. “A potent subset of the scientific community leads the world in denial” and, the world, eager to believe that it does not need to change any fundamental beliefs happily and vehemently complies.

The most pressing issues of our era are skewed by manufacturers of doubt. Global warming, radiation from nuclear power plants, and rising cancer statistics become mired in complex arguments between people who otherwise agree – because something has led them to doubt the findings of their comrades and fellow travelers.

The woman who speaks out about the dangers of radiation, Dr Rosalie Bertell – with impeccable credentials – is “an old lady and a nun at that”. The mathematician, Dr. Gordon Edwards, who has voluntarily spent decades researching nuclear power, has “a personal axe to grind”.

In 2009, I had the privilege to represent the Saskatchewan Medical Association (SMA) at the Uranium Development Partnership hearings. The SMA is a conservative organization, slow to change and most members were quite supportive of the nuclear power, Saskatchewan was openly supportive of and a recipient of enormous grants from Cameco, a uranium mining global giant. My presentation had to reflect the organization, the board of the SMA approved it so it did.

It questioned regulatory bodies, reviewed the literature with respect to radiation exposure and concluded that more studies should be conducted including a baseline health study of Saskatchewan residents who might, in future, be affected by a nuclear power plant. It said nothing about whether or not radiation was harmful and nothing about my personal beliefs.

Nevertheless, the president of the Saskatchewan branch of the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) phoned the SMA the following morning before 9:30 am and asked him if “Dr. Dewar had represented the organization appropriately” and if “everything that Dr. Dewar had said had been approved by the SMA”. I know this because I phoned at 9:30 am to debrief with the executive director. Later the Sk CNA person wrote a letter to the SMA casting doubt on the material that I had presented to the SMA. The SMA appropriately forwarded the letter to me and I responded immediately, closing my letter with “please provide the exact nature of the research which is questionable”. He never responded. He didn’t need to because it didn’t matter – the only thing that mattered was the doubt cast upon me and my presentation.

A more recent similar episode occurred this past winter after the Ottawa Citizen published an opinion piece written by Dr. Caldicott and myself. Our piece was fully referenced (which the Citizen published on line). The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in the person of Mr. Binder wrote a reply claiming that they had more than 150 peer-reviewed studies in their Port Hope Synthesis Report which proved that “there was no danger to radioactivity in Port Hope”. Who besides those of us who have read the Synthesis report know that there are only 120 references and that, of these, less than 50 are studies, none of which are “peer-reviewed”?

When the Merchants of Doubt get such publicity, how can truth prevail?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

George "Must-be-Bought"

George “Must-be-bought”

On March 14, George wrote “as long as the following four conditions are met, I will no longer oppose atomic energy.

Its total emissions – from mine to dump – are taken into account, and demonstrate that it is a genuinely low-carbon option.

We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried.

We know how much this will cost and who will pay.

There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes.”

None of these requirements have been met yet on March 21st, George was unequivocably convinced that nuclear power would save the world from global warming.

The nuclear industry has huge pockets – Cameco gave a million dollars to the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) allegedly on the sole condition that they make no statements in opposition to uranium mining. The FSIN did not need to support mining, it merely had to quit squeaking about such little things like environmental assessments, potential water pollution, and loss of traditional land use.

Total emissions – from mine to dump – are not “green” but estimates of the full cycle are much lower than coal or gasoline, closer to that of natural gas as a source of electricity. Hydroelectric, wind and solar outrank nuclear power. And conservation would cut needs and use by a whopping 25 to 40%! Even if it were a long term viable choice for the environment, it takes an estimated 10 years before one plant can go into production and we would need to be building more than 400 NOW to tackle global warming.

There are better cheaper more environmentally friendly choices.

As for George's other assertions, nothing comes close. The natty little problem of waste disposal remains, no one knows how much decommissioning or waste disposal will cost and, of course, while there is a legal guarantee that civil materials won't be diverted, there are no means of enforcing it.

There is absolutely no reason for George to have changed his tune except that he was bought. His credibility is seriously undermined.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden

We received the news of his death on May 2nd as we were preparing to leave Iraq. No matter which language of the t-v channel, news of Osama bin Laden's death was the headline. People celebrating in streets, politicians frantically positioning themselves, Obama declaring it a “great victory” for the United States – a tiresome litany.


Who was Osama? Was he, in fact, the leader of al-Qaeda? Did he order the destruction of the twin towers where 2500 civilians were killed? Is al-Qaeda a centralized organization or a loosely knit of collection of men who espouse a brutal Islamic fundamentalist jihad on the West?

Whoever he was, he was summarily executed by US hit-men. Do we believe in justice, the court of law and the opportunity to open a crime to “the facts”?

Ah. That is exactly what the United States, and others who manufacture and supply the world with guns and ammunition, do not want. The release of Saddam Hussein to his executors before hearing him on the witness stand, before hearing about those who supplied the means by which he betrayed his own people and about undercover agents who played roles in, and supplied weapons for, wars with Kuwait and Iran is highly suggestive of a trend to muzzling inquiry.

What could Osama have told us? Would we have learned why his family was spirited out of the US after 9/11 when almost every other plane on continental USA had been grounded? Perhaps we might have learned more about his actual role in the 9/11 incident – still believed by many academicians to have internal US involvement just as did the Gulf of Tonkin incident. A legal process would have served to demystify him, debunk his cause and undermine the brainwashing of his followers. An opportunity lost. As we were leaving Iraq, echoes of his elevation to sainthood was already occurring. We can expect the “blow-back” to be extensive.

It was an extra-judicial killing, outside due process of law, carried out unitlaterally by agents of one country (as far as we know). Sadly, the media is now hailing vengeance as an instrument of justice.