Fact Check

November 16, 2013 - 4:06pm -- swingbug

I was having a phone conversation today with a friend and we got around to the nuclear power plant meltdown at Fukushima and the cleanup and potential danger that it still poses two years down the line. What we ended up talking about was the difficulty in deciphering science from fiction in the news, and mainstream versus alternative media sources.

Because, here's the problem. Information moves fast these days. Reporters (and editors and bloggers and...) are under a lot of pressure to get their stories out before everybody else has already reported on the same thing. There's not a lot of time for fact-checking and conferring with experts. Not everybody bothers. And it's not just the local paper on your doorstep that's got your attention. There are millions of sources vying for your eyes and ears. It leads to headlines like "This Week, World Ends!" such that you can almost hear Orson Welles reading aloud in your head, รก la War of the Worlds.

While I don't think reporters (on either side of the spectrum) are evil guys in dark hats twirling mustaches and wondering about how they're going to scare the shit out of people today, they're not unbiased either. They have to sell papers (or clicks, in this bright and shiny digital world we live in) and these days, it's a little hard to tell the difference between a good strong source that checks their facts before pushing a headline, and an unqualified looney on the internet with access to a WordPress site. 

So how do we sort the fact from the fiction? For issues like this, I try to look towards real science for information. So I did a search across some of my favorites, in addition to a general google search across the wilds of the internet. Here's what I found from sources I trust.

This Week in Science

Justin, Kirsten, and Blaire do a pod/video cast talking about the science news of the week. It's broadcast on TWIT TV and also on our local free-format radio station run out of UC Davis. They did what I thought was a very good segment on the Fukushima situation in September, particularly pertaining to leaks from the plant and what those numbers bouncing around in the news really mean. Check it out, it's the second segment in, after some research on gut bacteria, and followed up by a segment on climate change. Listen at least through the climate change segment, in which they have a discussion about fact-checking and news versus editorials that I think is pretty central to what we're talking about here. Or what I'm talking about anyway.

In particular, they discussed this article published on discovery.com that discusses the radiation measurements pertaining to leaks at the plant site, and the importance of discussing the measurement units, the location the measurements were taken at, and the type of radiation being measured when considering the implications of those numbers.

Science Friday

NPR is my go-to source for world wide news and Ira Flatow on Science Friday runs a good show. This article on the Science Friday website discusses radiation levels detected in blue-fin tuna caught off the California coast. If you'll allow me to paraphrase, the article cites government sources that say radiation has been detected in these fish and is probably linked to the Fukushima plant but that levels of radiation are well below that which would be harmful to humans according to the FDA.

Me personally? I think this is cause for major concern, especially as it relates to how we're going to move forward and learn from this incident to better prevent a repeat performance at some future time and place. I don't think it's the end of the world. Honestly, at the end of the day, I'm way more concerned about climate change.

So hey, swingbug, aren't you just a looney on the internet with a WordPress site, as you put it?

Good point, and no, I don't think I am. Here's why. I'm not purporting to be a news agency. I'm an average joe with a little bit of science background who did a little research. What I've provided above are links to articles from news sources I trust that are reporting the results of proper scientific inquiry.

(And also, I built my site in Drupal, not WordPress.)

I recognize that my trusted news sources may not be yours. You may be reading stuff that's got a different take on this situation. But you know what, I know lots of intelligent people with backgrounds in stuff like public health and nuclear medicine, so let's open up a dialogue. Click the comment button. Give me your source. Let's discuss.

This discussion thing is important, and here's why. No matter how serious the situation is, if we panic and hide under the couch, we're not any good to anyone else. And the couch likely won't thank you either. If this is your issue, awesome. It's a worthy issue. Talk to people, have conversations. You got skills? Donate your time to folks working on the problem. Take a step in a direction that will help out the world and help you sleep better at night.

If we're not here to help each other, I don't know what we're here for.

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