Sunday, May 1, 2011

Answering Helen Caldicott

Cherry picking is for farmers

cherries In the OP ED pages of the New York Times, Helen Caldicott, a long-time anti-nuclear campaigner, writes “Unsafe at Any Dose” that physicists are ignoring health effects from ingested or inhaled radioactive materials. She goes on to say that only doctors, like her, are qualified to measure and assess the significance of these impacts.

Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges

In doing so, Caldicott blithely ignores the work of the National Academy of Sciences in its BEIR VII report which includes a panel of world class scientists from a dozen or more different disciplines. The report, which has the long title of “Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation” assumes that the probability of developing cancer is proportional to the dose, but they are clear that it is an assumption.

The BEIR VII panel expertise falls in the following areas. * Epidemiology & public health, medicine * Radiation oncology * Molecular biology * Radiation measurement, radiation physics * Biostatistics, mathematical statistics * Genetic effects of radiation exposures * Biophysics, bionucleonics * Risk assessment & risk management * Chemistry and toxicology.

It looks like there are a lot more than just physicians and physicists at work in this area. Sorry Helen, but your claim to exclusive rights to assess radiation health effects is a misguided effort.

It is also worth noting that the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP) is composed of scientists from multiple disciplines. The handbook for dose conversion factors for internal exposures by isotope (including radioactive daughters) is ICRP 68 which is available from ICRP.

Fukushima reactors did not blow up

In a second error, Caldicott tells readers of the New York Times that the Fukushima reactors have blown up, more or less. This is not true. While there are estimates of damage to fuel assemblies within the reactor cores for three of them, neither the reactor pressure vessel nor primary containment structures for any of the six reactors at Fukushima have been breached by the combined effects of a 9.0 earthquake and 15 meter high tsunami.

Peer review matters

Third, Caldicott cites a study published by the New York Academy of Sciences as her basis for claiming millions of deaths occurred related to the Chernobyl accident 25 years ago. In fact, no one in New York or at the Academy wrote the report. It is a translation of a single study in Russian which has not had the kind of scientific peer review that would establish its credibility.

Caldicot is cherry picking a convenient source to promote a message of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about nuclear energy. This is propaganda. It is not science.

Other voices

Finally, I’d like to refer readers to two other sources for critiques of Caldicott’s work. Cheryl Rofer, a retired scientist from Los Alamos, has a blog post in which she steps through the entire OP ED with some pithy comments about the potholes in Calddicott’s roadwork.

Also, see George Monbiot’s multiple reviews of Caldicott in which he documents her “misleading” presentations about the threats of radiation.

The New York Times likes to position itself as offering multiple points of view on its OP ED page. However, when it allows its pages to host junk science, it does a disservice to its own cause.

Update May 9, 2011

The New York Times published four letters to the editor in response to Caldicott's OP ED. All four are negative concerning her views. The credentials of the letter writers, including one Nobel Prize winner, are indisputable.

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Brian Robinson, Toronto said...

I'd rather you hadn't used the quotation marks around the word 'misleading.' They indicate that there might be some doubt as to whether Dr Caldicott's statements are misleading. They clearly are--she's been presented with the science, and she continues even with her more outlandish claims.

John In MA said...

I have followed this person's writings for a while, and even suffered through one of her books. In my opinion, she strays almost religiously from science into activism or ideology. I use the term of "religiously" due to her selective use and distortion of factual data. That she was printed in the NYT without rebuttal is also not so surprising, even though the paper has done a much better job in the past regarding science and especially in the field of energy.

Cyril R said...

How many people has 'doctor' Caldicott healed?

I'd say she scared a lot of people into bad health. And if she helped delay nuclear progression over fossil fuels, then she's helped murder lots of people. So much for the 'doctors vow' of healing people. Any doctor should promote nuclear power, being the power source with the lowest death rate per TWh.

What has Caldicott published in peer reviewed articles? I couldn't find anything, not just relating to radiation, but in general.

Brian Mays said...

Caldicott publishes only books and op-eds. The op-eds provide free advertising for her books.

It's how she makes her living.

She's much like Stephen King, making money by writing books that are intended to scare people. However, Stephen King is the more successful author, and he doesn't try to convince anyone that his books are anything but fiction.