Why is the New York Academy of Sciences allowing its name to be used in an anti-science FUD campaign?
Yesterday, I received a copy of a letter from Ted Rockwell, a member of the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), to the leaders of that organization. After a year of counseling others to be patient while he works through channels, he has decided to take off the gloves and directly challenge the decision processes within the organization that are allowing its name to be used in a campaign that is dangerous and in direct opposition to the scientific principles that the organization was formed to support. Here is the text of Ted’s letter:
Begin quoted letter
21 April 2011
New York Academy of Sciences
7 World Trade Center
250 Greenwich St, 40th Floor
New York, NY 10007-2157
Subject: Publication by NYAS of Annals Vol. 1181 on the Chernobyl Meltdown of 1986
The Board of Governors
The President’s Council
I write this as a concerned member of the NYAS, requesting action to end a stalled situation detrimental to NYAS’s reputation and well-being. The facts are these:
In 2007, the NYAS undertook to support the translation of a large number of scientific papers in Russian and other Slavic languages, on the effects of the 1986 breakdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Soviet Ukrainia.
In 2009, the English translation of this material was published as Volume 1181 of the NYAS Annals. Greenpeace claims that “based on now available medical data, 985,000 people died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.” The authority for this statement is “the book recently published by the New York Academy of Sciences.” That death-toll is not supportable by scientific evidence.
The Chernobyl incident has been thoroughly studied by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, the World Health Organization, the Red Cross, the International Atomic Energy Agency, et al., with update reports every few years since. These bodies all conclude that there has been no significant increase in the mortality rate or the incidence of cancer, birth defects, abnormalities and other health effects in the population exposed to fallout from Chernobyl, with two possible exceptions: A number of treatable thyroid nodules among children was attributed to the reactor, but since the nodule incidence (cases per thousand) was actually comparable to several other low-iodine countries without any radioactivity release, that attribution is being reexamined. A 2005 review of the data by an informal group call the Chernobyl Forum, included a suggestion that, based on the LNT premise (that even a single gamma ray could cause a cancer), 4000 additional deaths might ultimately occur. Since there is no indication that these deaths are likely, and since “prediction” of deaths by adding up of thousands of small individual radiation doses has been repeatedly forbidden as scientifically unsound, the suggested 4000 deaths has not been widely accepted.
The NYAS book concedes that its extreme conclusions cannot be supported by the methods of science in a scientific report; the report itself is a direct repudiation of the scientific method. For example, starting with page 2, it states:
“Some experts believe that any conclusions about radiation-based disease require a correlation between an illness and the received dose of radioactivity. We believe this is an impossibility. (p.2); Using criteria demanded by the IAEA, the WHO, and the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation resulted in marked underestimates of the fatalities and the extent and degree of sickness among those exposed to radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. (p.32 ); …it is not necessary to calculate standard errors…today’s ‘scientific protocols’ with for example, ‘confidence intervals’ and ‘case control’ are not perfect…It is correct and justified for the whole of society…to use the enormous database collected by thousands of experts.”
The Preface of the report states that the writing was undertaken “with the initiative of Greenpeace International.” The Acknowledgement section of the NYAS report opens with the explanation that the authors “provided original material or reviews of specific topics to Greenpeace International.” In effect, NYAS turned editing of the report over to Greenpeace, and now, Greenpeace cites NYAS as validating the scientific basis for its political agenda.
The report’s post hoc pattern-making method of analysis is widely disparaged in science. The editors say that any changes in cancer incidence must be due to the radiation from Chernobyl, because there were no other significant changes. But of course, if there were no changes, then there would be nothing to report. And, in fact, nearly everything they measured, changed. Which gave them much to report, but no basis for blaming it on radiation. Most of the variables they attributed to radiation have not be associated with radiation, and the authors offered no reason or evidence to assign them so.
Moreover, radioactivity does not have the scary properties attributed to it in the report. The report claims increases in a very wide range of symptoms, extending far beyond those previously shown to result from irradiation. In addition, it describes the effects as extending far into the future:
“Nearly 400 million human beings have been exposed to Chernobyl’s fallout and, for many generations, they and their descendants will suffer the devastating consequences…in 400 years (20 human generations) the local populations in the Chernobyl-contaminated areas can be less radiosensitive than they are today. Will individuals with reduced radioresistance agree that their progeny will be the first to be eliminated from populations?… The overwhelming majority of Chernobyl-induced genetic changes will not become apparent for several generations… Apparently, impaired immunity triggered by Chernobyl radionuclides adversely affected all of the individuals, without exception, who were subjected to any additional radiation.”
There is no credible science in the vast literature of radiation effects that would support such statements.
A year ago, when the report came in, it was immediately apparent that it was not a scientific report, had numerous demonstrably false statements, and was not an appropriate report for a scientific academy. I reported this fact to Douglas Graaten, NYAS Annals Director, and recommended that he announce that conclusion and immediately withdraw the book from publication. He said he was advised by counsel that the only course legally open to the NYAS was to establish a neutral scientific body to make an independent evaluation of the report. Presuming this would not take long, I agreed to hold off criticism of the NYAS by assuring questioners that the Academy was making a good-faith investigation of the reports’s scientific validity. He said this would take weeks, and it would not be ethical to hurry it. I sought a second opinion from Anita Fore, Director of Legal Services, the Authors Guild, and was told:
“I haven’t seen the contracts that NYAS has with the authors, but it would be unlikely that any contract would circumscribe a publisher’s First Amendment right to not be forced to publish something it doesn’t want to publish.”
After several phone checks that gave no indication of progress, I wrote Braaten:
“I keep telling people that I am confident that the NYAS will do the right thing. But that’s an increasingly difficult position to maintain. We’ve got to wrap this thing up, before much longer. The claim that this is not really an NYAS report just doesn’t wash. Why would you keep publishing a report if you didn’t think it had value?”
Braaten’s latest reply said in full:
“We are continuing our efforts to have the report evaluated. In the meantime the official position of NYAS with regard to the volume has not changed and is clearly spelled out in the statement we have posted on our website. And when a proper evaluation of the volume is prepared, it will be posted on our website.
“The volume is no longer for sale. However, we have no grounds for removing it from our website.“
Now, nearly a full year after I raised the issue, Greenpeace has announced that it is going to use this report, as expected, as the basis for its campaign timed to match the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl incident on April 26. Any hope that the whole matter will fade away has now been foreclosed by Greenpeace.
I want to ensure that the policy-setting bodies of the NYAS are informed and satisfied that this situation will be resolved promptly and satisfactorily.
End quoted letter
There were known and severe consequences of the Chernobyl power plant accident for first responders and workers who died of burns and overexposure to radiation during the accident and the immediate actions taken to stop the fire and materials release. This quote is from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) page that summarizes the results of more than 20 years worth of studies.
The Chernobyl accident caused many severe radiation effects almost immediately. Of 600 workers present on the site during the early morning of 26 April 1986, 134 received high doses (0.8-16 Gy) and suffered from radiation sickness. Of these, 28 died in the first three months and another 19 died in 1987-2004 of various causes not necessarily associated with radiation exposure. In addition, according to the UNSCEAR 2008 Report, the majority of the 530,000 registered recovery operation workers received doses of between 0.02 Gy and 0.5 Gy between 1986 and 1990. That cohort is still at potential risk of late consequences such as cancer and other diseases and their health will be followed closely.
However, the widespread consequences predicted by many people who spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about the use of nuclear energy have simply not been found by people who use scientific methods as the guide for their conclusions. Here is what the UNSCEAR Chernobyl study has found regarding the health effects to the general population.
Among the residents of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, there had been up to the year 2005 more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer reported in children and adolescents who were exposed at the time of the accident, and more cases can be expected during the next decades. Notwithstanding the influence of enhanced screening regimes, many of those cancers were most likely caused by radiation exposures shortly after the accident. Apart from this increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure two decades after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The incidence of leukaemia in the general population, one of the main concerns owing to the shorter time expected between exposure and its occurrence compared with solid cancers, does not appear to be elevated. Although those most highly exposed individuals are at an increased risk of radiation-associated effects, the great majority of the population is not likely to experience serious health consequences as a result of radiation from the Chernobyl accident. Many other health problems have been noted in the populations that are not related to radiation exposure.
The discrepancy between a known death toll of 28 first responders (out of a cohort of 600 highly exposed people, 134 of whom became immediately ill), plus 19 possibly related deaths, plus fewer than 20 deaths from thyroid cancer and an isolated book that claims nearly one million deaths is so incredible that it has contributed to the conversion of at least one form anti nuclear journalist into an active questioner of his former colleagues. When George Monbiot was confronted by Helen Caldicott a few weeks ago on Democracy Now with her updated claim that the NYAS book supports a number of nearly 2 million deaths, he began digging into the volumes of scientific literature that have been compiled in response to one of the most studied events of the 20th century. He has published a number of articles detailing the results of his research efforts, including Evidence Meltdown.
It was almost immediately apparent to the suspicious among nuclear scientists, engineers and other professionals that the book was being released as part of a planned strategy to spread fear of nuclear energy in the year leading up to the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident – which occurs tomorrow, April 26, 2011. A web search with the term “new york academy of sciences chernobyl report” returned more than 44,000 links, including videos, articles and blog entries like the following:
Chernobyl Radiation Killed Nearly One Million People: New Book
‘Chernobyl: A Million Casualties’ taped before Fukushima, now on BlipTV
Chernobyl: A Million Casualties? (Note: In this video interview, Karl Grossman makes the following statement: “This book was published by the New York Academy of Sciences, a rather prestigious organization.”)
Chernobyl Death Toll: 4,000 or 1 Million?
There is little doubt that the New York Academy of Sciences name is being used as a tool to provide credibility to an incredible claim that is part of a focused effort to increase fear, uncertainty and doubt about the use of nuclear energy in service of mankind. It remains puzzling to those of us that respect the scientific method and respect the bodies that have been organized to support science and vet pretenders why the NYAS continues to allow its name to be used in this manner.
My assertion is that the real number of deaths directly attributable to the materials released by the accident will end up to be very close to 50, not 4,000. That is tragic. What is even more tragic is that even most of those deaths could have been prevented with a more judicious application of time, distance and shielding principles that recognized that sending people into intense radiation fields in order to stop a fire was probably as unnecessary as sending oil refinery workers in to stop the fire at Chiba. (That fire, a direct result of the same earthquake and tsunami that destroyed Fukushima Daiichi, was allowed to burn itself out – a process that took ten days.)
Fortunately, it appears that despite the fear and confusion campaign, nuclear professionals have learned a few things during the 50 years years that we have been operating nuclear energy facilities. At Fukushima, workers were protected from the most intense radiation. The public was promptly evacuated to a safe distance and children were not allowed to drink iodine-131 contaminated milk and water. Even with three severely damaged reactors plus a damaged used fuel pool, the most likely number of casualties from that potentially more damaging accident is zero.
The next step in our progression to radiation understanding is to reduce the fear of radiation so that the negative health effects of physical displacement and feelings of being victimized can be reduced to near zero. I hope that the Japanese remember that even after a major release of radioactive materials, vast areas do not need to be permanently depopulated. Hiroshima and Nagasaki became vibrant cities within a few years of their destruction by atomic bombs. After stabilizing the reactors, the next step will be to perform careful surveys, decontaminate and restore access wherever possible.
New England Journal of Medicine, April 20, 2011 Short-Term and Long-Term Health Risks of Nuclear-Power-Plant Accidents. (Note: If you want an unbiased, medically correct source of information about health impacts from nuclear power plant accidents, please read this study. It should be required reading for all regulators and decision makers.)
Dose-Response Journal (January 2010) Observations on the Chernobyl Disaster and LNT, Zbigniew Jaworowski
Make no mistake, this is the modern version of Lysenkoism. It is a farce that is so ridiculous, you have to read it for yourself to believe it. For example:
“True statistical significance” being something different than what is used in that “Western science” with it’s silly “scientific protocols.”
Protocols? We don’t need no stink’n protocols!
They go on to rail about such “scientific protocols” as t-tests, standard errors, confidence intervals, and having a proper control group — you know, the bread-and-butter of biostatisticians and epidemiologists everywhere. One author even complains bitterly that a paper of his was criticized for citing a work of fiction!
I’m not making this up, it’s all right there on pages 36 and 37.
The report contains other jewels as well, such as when they cite, as a credible source, an HTML page hosted on website for an antique tool museum. The report is filled with such hard-hitting science as that.
Lysenkoism happened in a totalitarian dictatorship where alternative points of view were ruthlessly suppressed. How the hell did something similar happen to science in the Free World?
Heh … have you been on a university campus recently?
Yes, I have been on an American university campus quite recently. I do not understand your implication – are you saying that the vast majority of professors and students are not there to think and learn?
Rod – It’s not called the “ivory tower” for nothing.
My comment was intended to be very tongue-in-cheek, but you must admit that a lot of nuttiness comes out of academia these days. Just look at any of the work of Mark Jacobson. He’s a sloppy scholar. I’ve found dozens of mistakes and faulty reasoning in his papers, but he keeps on getting published. He promotes “politically correct” energy technologies, however, so he’s the director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere/Energy Program.
You can get far if you play for the right team.
Jacobson is what Amory Lovins could have been, if he had managed to score a PhD.
@Brian – I agree that Jacobson is a fine example of why no one should pay attention to letters after a person’s name without understanding a bit more about them. In his case, that PhD was awarded in civil engineering, a discipline whose course work has little to nothing to do with designing and operating an electrical power grid. It is almost as valuable as the PhD in Sociology earned by writing a paper about Egypt during the period of Nasser that has allowed the Vermont Law School (no relation to the University of Vermont or any other university) to set up Dr. Mark Cooper as an expert on the economic comparison between solar electricity and nuclear electricity.
I do not know the specifics of why Stanford chose Jacobson for his current position, but I do understand why it is politically acceptable to favor an “anything but nuclear” energy strategy. I know you disagree with my analysis, but I remain firm in my diagnosis that The Establishment loves our current energy mix and knows that nuclear fission is the only real threat to their wealth and power. People with money have an extraordinary influence on political acceptability these days – most politicians and media sources seem to be for sale or rent to the highest bidder.
Even many universities are subject to being led by the same kind of people who make decisions at the top of many organizations – the kind whose only score card is denominated in dollars and cents.
Rod – Actually, Jacobson’s PhD was awarded in “Atmospheric Sciences” from UCLA. FWIW, UCLA has historically had a very good atmospheric sciences program with some very impressive names in its faculty — e.g., Akio Arakawa, who back in the 1960’s laid out much of the numerical foundation that many weather and climate models still rely on today.
Yeah … and they say that nuclear technology is “old.”
@Brian – thank you for the correction. I need to go back and figure out why I thought it was a civil engineering degree.
Just out of curiosity, is there any significance to your use of quotes for Atmospheric Sciences?
Rod – You probably thought that he had a civil engineering degree because he is a professor in Stanford’s “Civil and Environmental Engineering” department. It’s a natural mistake.
By the way, there was nothing unusual or ironic about my use of quotes. I had intended the quotes to indicate that I was trying to state as precisely as I could what his degree most likely says on the piece of paper (just as the quotes above mean that I’m repeating verbatim what the department calls itself).
Usually, atmospheric sciences is a subdiscipline of either meteorology or (more generally) environmental sciences. Thus, there are many people who have a similar degree (in terms of coursework and research) as Jacobson, but their degrees would read “Meteorology” or “Environmental Science” (BTW, I know people like this), because of the choice of nomenclature used by their respective schools. Apparently, UCLA awards a degree in the specific field.
My guess is that some members of the NYAS are taking the position of two wrongs make a right:
The two “wrongs”
1) The lack of use of scientific protocols in the publication
2) Allowing anti-nuke organizations to use the NYAS status to reinforce their position
The “right” in their mind is the elimination of the threat to humans posed by the expansion of nuclear power. Some of the members may have actual fears of radiation, some may believe that more nuclear energy will lead the world to an inevitable nuclear weapon exchange, while others may just believe that humans shouldn’t have near limitless sources of energy and should learn to live with less. Whatever the reason(s), I’m sure there’s an agenda driving the slow pace of action on the part of those who should be reviewing the document.
This document should be an embarrassment for the NYAS. However, it serves to demonstrate how deeply “green thinking” (i.e., Greenpeace propaganda) has infiltrated the bureaucracy of the various “scientific” organizations out there.
Sadly, the NYAS is only the tip of the iceberg.
Surely intentional nuclear war is only really likely in a world facing imminent Malthusian catastrophe — and would therefore be more likely if we are denied increased use of nuclear energy?
Or are you thinking of accidental nuclear war?
The “inevitable nuclear weapon exchange” is a reference to the Scientific American article “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables,” M. Z. Jacobson et al. (2009). In the article he inflated the CO2 contribution of nuclear energy by adding in CO2 emissions from some future nuclear exchange and resulting firestorms. Nuclear power looked so good compared to his renewables that he had to handicap it with some fictitious war emission. Yet another fine example of “bad” science being used to attack nuclear energy.
I just want to say “Thanks” to Ted Rockwell for continuing to pursue this. I’ve been seeing references (or, even worse, unattributed “statistics” from that study, stated as facts) to that study in discussion after discussion online for the past 6 months.
Seems like every time nuclear power comes up in an online discussion lately, someone is talking about a million deaths from Chernobyl.
See, for example, http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=2100414&threshold=0&commentsort=1&mode=thread&cid=35923050
I don’t know for sure that poster is getting his huge figures from that NYAS report, but I can’t figure any other source he could be getting it from.
How soon till Greenpeace launches a series of “teach the controversy” lawsuits in the U.S. to force schools to teach that Chernobyl resulted in a million deaths? After all, the NYAS *published* the report, so there must be legitimate scientific controversy about this issue (at least until such time as NYAS repudiates this report).
At least, that’s what the plaintiffs will argue.
Yes, let’s teach the controversy. It would expose students to a much vaster level of knowledge about nuclear power than they now receive.
There was no way they were going to let the 25th birthday of their poster child pass with only fifty “candles” on it. They needed a roaring conflagration, appropriate for the biggest nuclear disaster of all time.
They have obviously been planning this party for a long time, and Fukushima was just the icing on the cake.
If NYAS would allow its name to be associated with antinuclear junk science and fear mongering, then the name of NYAS simply means nothing.
Rod and George,
Thank you for a spectacularly well written critique of the NYAS report.
We need your message published in the general press. I doubt NYTimes will touch it, though they did print 4 anti-Caldicott letters today. Can you write it as an op-ed and submit it to the Washington Post and/or Wall Street Journal?
One of the authors of this report is being addressed by individuals such as Ralph Nader no less as “Academician Yablokov” and is said to be a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. I have found it impossible to confirm whether or not he is in fact a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Could somebody do this please?
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