Experts in the nuclear debate

In class last week, we had a discussion about experts, and their role in scientific controversies.

First of all, what do people designate as an expert? If you listen to those who are concerned with evidence, lack of bias and rational choices, these experts must fulfill a variety of criteria. Most importantly, they should be currently publishing in their field, their field should be highly relevant to the items being discussed and they should be free from commercial interests.

While most people will understand the need to be free of commercial interests, comparatively little thought is given to the question of the expert’s expertise.

By this I mean, someone may be an expert in, say, nuclear reactor design, and then try to opine on the ability of renewable energy to cover the base-load energy demand in a region. Unlike what TV scientists like Dr. Samantha Carter (a physicist with a remarkable ability to do biological, geological and pathological research) lead us to believe, scientists who are experts in one particular field, do not have the requisite expertise to comment on loosely related fields, and they shouldn’t be allowed to.

In my example, above, the nuclear physicist should be considered an expert when the debate surrounds the safety of modern nuclear reactors, or the efficiency of the nuclear reaction itself, or even the costs associated with building a nuclear reactor, but as soon as that physicist comments on how well renewable energy works, they have ceased to be an expert, and merely become an educated commentator.

Unfortunately, this is the sort of ‘expert’ we see on both sides of the nuclear debate. This is partially because the arguments for and against nuclear power cover a wide variety of scientific fields and sub-disciplines, and most formal debates want to limit the number of participants. These debates (like the one I posted a couple of weeks ago, from TED) often rely on the drawing power of ‘celebrity’ scientific personalities. While these people may be experts in their respective fields, their opinions tend to become much more emotional, and combative, as they tend to argue similar points in the opposite directions. Where an expert would have an advantage in this part of the debate would be to be able to cite the most recent and relevant literature, to move the argument on either way.

In the TED video linked in an earlier post, we saw a debate between two people who were put forward as ‘equals’: Mark Z Jacobson and Stewart Brand. But this is not what was actually going on. Mark Z. Jacobson is a civil and environmental engineer and the director of the Atmosphere and Energy Program at Stanford University, where he researches the environmental impacts of different technologies on the environment, so far so good. Stewart Brand, however, is not an expert; he studied biology at university in the 1960s, but is really famous because of his involvement in the Whole Earth Catalog, a series that promoted communal living in the 1970s. From there he has been involved in many different projects, but his current position seems to be campaigning for a pragmatic approach to addressing climate change. I’m not saying that he is not an important figure, but he attempts to use rational arguments for most of this debate, which is lacking in an ethos angle, when you know he does not have the credentials to back them up.

There is another common type of debate seen around nuclear power, one where there are no experts. Often this comes in the form of ‘debates’ on news shows, that pits two commentators against each other. Obviously, this sort of debate lacks any rigour or accountability, but it is often used because it draws a crowd.

Say something controversial.


The pro-nuclear movement: an introduction

So far, when discussing the major players in this field, I have looked at the anti-nuclear movement, in an earlier post which charted their history, development and current status. This blog will be a bit different to that, as the pro-nuclear movement is much harder to define. Not only is there not a singular ‘pro-nuclear’ movement as there is with anti-s, there are also a lot more vested interests in nuclear technology, which confound the definition slightly.

One of the most blatant (but probably not demonstrative) differences between those that support and those that oppose nuclear is the fact that the former has a dedicated Wikipedia page:

while the latter has merely a list of environmentalists that support it:

I suppose, besides those with commercial interests, it’s hard to pin down the pro-nuclear movement because for a long time the anti-nuclear movement was the minority. There was no-need for the ‘establishment’ to directly interact with the protesters, because the majority of the public supported them. With rhetoric like Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech, most in the West were probably ambivalent or directly in support of nuclear power.

But then let’s go back to that Wikipedia page, “List of pro-nuclear environmentalists”. Now those with pro-nuclear leanings are in the opposite situation, they are the other, with the anti’s being the norm. Slate has a good article (here) that has a good discussion about the changing nature of the nuclear debate, and the problems faced by those environmentalists who take a pragmatic approach to fighting climate change [I may do a whole post on it in the future actually].

Brave New Climate has a really good blog about this very issue (here), and in it, the author talks about the fact that there is a ‘movement’ associated with the anti-nuclear position. This sense of a distinct identity and collective will is missing from the pro-nuclear side, and it seems that because of this, there will always be a louder anti-nuclear voice drowning them out. As the author notes, the pro-nuclear side is reduced to individuals talking on their soapbox and calls to reason and to ‘just run the numbers’.

The biggest difference seems to be the language used by the two groups. People who are pro-nuclear seem to be much more likely to use fact and reason-based arguments, whereas the anti-nuclear people seem to be more likely to engage in emotional arguments. I’ve put a video below of a debate hosted by TED around nuclear power. If you watch it you will see that both of the speakers start off talking calmly and attempting to use facts to persuade people. However, the anti-nuclear speaker starts to weave a bit of emotion into his presentation when talking about the threat of nuclear disaster, and when given the chance to speak again on the rebuttal of his opponent, he seems visibly emotional and he resorts to sarcastic comments and unfounded statements that don’t actually address his opponents arguments. This is not to say that pro-nuclear speakers never get emotional, it just seems that it is a much more common tactic in the anti-nuclear movement.

However, there are some similarities between these two opposing viewpoints. Like Greenpeace for the anti-nuclear movement, there are organisations like the World Nuclear Association and the Nuclear Energy Institute in the US. These bodies however, are much more corporatised than the anti-nuclear movement (probably a vestige of their activist past) and are much more involved with governmental lobbying activities rather than trying to influence public opinion. The other big similarity is that both sides have the planet’s best interests in mind, both camps are championed by environmentalists, mostly concerned with climate change.

The problem seems to be now that there is no action on either front. If either side were to “win”, at least something would change. Perhaps the best option for these two camps is for them to team up against those who would argue that nothing needs to be done.

Say something controversial.


Nuclear vs. GMO, similar controversies?

Last night I went to an event to promote the release of a book about scientific controversies and the interaction between the scientific community and the broader public sphere.

During his speech (and I checked, it’s the same in his book), this author compared the controversies and public debates on nuclear power with the more recent controversy surround the introduction of GMOs into the food supply.

I must admit, I have a bit of a personal interest in the GMO debate, as my undergraduate degree was in plant biotechnology. So, while I am always willing to talk to and debate about GMOs, I must admit it was a little bit interesting to hear this author make such a comparison.

On the surface, the debates can look quite similar. The proponents of both industries use similar points to argue in favour of their technology: that their technology is about making a cleaner, more productive and more efficient world, with less damaging effects on the environment (controversial, I know). The opponents of both of these technologies also campaign in a similar vein, with common frames between them: ‘science gone mad’, public health risks, ‘the benefits don’t outweigh the risk’, and that science is ‘playing “God”‘. They are also both mainly public controversies, as the scientists behind the technologies have mostly resolved any doubts over the safety and efficacy of their respective technologies.

However, I think that these debates are not as similar as it might seem. While both use technologies that are seen as extremely complex and dangerous, but when you compare where they came from, they’re really different. GMO technology is just a small, logical progression from advanced breeding techniques developed over the last century, which in turn are based on breeding techniques developed since humans started farming. Contrast this with nuclear power, whose closest technological relative is probably high explosives; they are not even in the same ballpark as nuclear power, technology-wise or danger-wise.

Also, I think the most important distinction between nuclear and GMO is the fact that there has never been any documented harm to humans from GMO technologies. As previously discussed, the anti-nuclear movement has every right to play upon the danger of nuclear power, given the damage done by the few nuclear accidents there have been (not to mention all the damage done by intentional bombings and above-ground testing). To conflate Chernobyl and Hiroshima with the imagined potential harms of GMOs not only minimises the suffering of those involved in those incidents, but also negatively effects the campaign to promote GMOs, which are trying to solve many of the problems that we face in the world today.

Say something controversial.


Also, just because it’s my pet topic, if you have any doubts about GMOs, please watch this video of Mark Lynas, a former anti-GMO activist, speaking to the Oxford Farming Conference in 2013: