Written for CCNews by Mike Sterling
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Milton Caplan recently wrote an article about gaining public confidence in complicated disciplines like science and engineering . He wrote about balance in journalism and how it influences policy.
Caplan is the President of The Energy Collective. He specializes in advising governments and utilities on how to increase confidence and reduce risk for new nuclear projects with a focus on managing nuclear projects for success.
He has a stake in our confidence to be sure as he makes a living from confidence and how it is achieved. His arguments are to the point, however, and the ones we quote are on balance in reporting. He has some good points.
Too often large news sources put stories in the hands of people whose background is journalism and not technology. They work hard and compile quotes. What else can they do? Scientists don't morph into journalists or do journalists change into scientists.
Great news organizations have writers and staffs who are science and technology writers and they are specialists. It does not mean they can make their living as engineers or scientist, but they have insights.
Without them, these organizations are at risk in an increasingly complex world.
Small news outlets cannot afford specialists and talk radio takes on anybody who will chew up some air time especially if some hint of conspiracy can be alleged. The art of producing the headline often shows itself to be stronger than balance.
But, should big news organizations line up their sources on opposing sides one for this side and one for the other, quote for quote? Is this what balance is all about?
Caplan, looks at this type of balance and what it is and is not. He says:
"The media is also part of the solution. Poor reporting looking for the sensationalist point of view is not helpful. Science journalists must be the ones to cover science issues and they must take the time to report on them correctly.
Just this week there was a fascinating editorial in the Canadian newspaper, the Globe and Mail when a reader complained about the lack of 'balance' on the vaccination issue."
The response by the Globe is important reading, The Globe says:
"The reader is correct that news stories should be fair and balanced, but if The Globe were to include someone 'credible' from the anti-vaxxer community, that would be false balance.
False balance is when journalists twist themselves into a knot to try to balance scientific and expert views with someone whose views are not fact-based, expert or scientific. False balance is not only poor journalism, it can harm the readers understanding because it suggests there is a balance between the views. In politics, for example, it is important and responsible to offer fair weight to different parties views. It is not responsible to offer equal weight to science versus flimsy beliefs."
We've seen this term 'balance' used again and again. The idea is to bring the naysayer forward and let them as a group debate the issues with the scientific community 'mano e mano' . They will come armed with their experts as we have seen..
Interview A and then interview B, who disagrees with A. Interview C and find a D to counter balance C and on and on....
Bring forward the minority scientist too and let him or her debate with the conventional scientific community on some aspect of something.
Do it all without organized peer review and a moderator, without precise statements put forward and argument clarity sacrificed. Make claims and let the public sort it out.
As Caplan points out, people don't like to go to a science class in an area they don't understand. But, they love the idea of a debate on issues that really are settled and they don't know it.
Some recent examples of science denial are:
We all would like every scientist to stand up and give a 100% answer such questions, but it will not and should not happen. But, we cannot suffer fools either.
Spent Fuel Stored in Water
I went to open sessions about the DGR featuring pseudo experts in which they made gross mistakes because they just did not understand the science. To be factual, understanding of the science was not crucial, but fact checking was.
One non-qualified expert seemed not to know that spent fuel bundles are stored in water for as much as 10 years n the United States and Canada and beyond.
Some power plants use above ground water storage on a continuing basis. But, the 'expert' told an audience questioner that water contacting the fuel bundles would cause a catastrophic explosion. Not a soul in the audience challenged the assertion.
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It was a crazy forum, a kind of Mad Tea Party and no place to point out the obvious. No, moderator at all. A high school debate class would have been puzzled.
Would an open debate help? It was called for by many on the nay side. NWMO, OPG and CNSC have met the outside activists many times in the past. All you have to do is look at the detailed hearing record compiled by CNSC which is on the public record. The same faces and voices appear time after time
A well run debate would take over a year to set up and execute. In fact there was a vehicle for the debate and it did take place over a two year period with ten years background. It had three excellent moderators.
It was called the Joint Review Panel (JRP) hearings held in the community in which the DGR is proposed.
It's a challenge to think of a question not asked and answered or a subject not studied over the past 10 years concerning the low and intermediate DGR, which now is in the public record and open to every human with the Internet.
Was there an opponent not interviewed that wanted to be? What subjects were missed?
Well, there were some who wanted to be heard and seen more. One submitted over 3000 pages of emails. He was interviewed by the panel at length.
Not called as a witness because he lacked credentials, he none the less was heard time and again as an intervener and questioner. Very fair treatment was observed throughout.
Before the hearings NWMO and OPG held open houses They did not lecture people. They were trying to inform without lecturing. There were no great crowds at these open houses. They were not attended in large numbers.
One in Saugeen Shores that included the Town Council was well attended. Many on the nay side left and did not linger to speak to the presenters or ask them one on one questions. I watched this carefully.
The no side did not engage the other view. That's the truth of the matter. I was at the Fire Hall in Southampton one Saturday. Very few people showed up. The no side was represented there, however, trying to sign up adherents. There was no attempt to talk to the many experts available that day.
I remember the nay side bringing in an activist to present. The woman's web site visuals showed Bruce Power's Nuclear station to be on Georgian Bay.
So much for prior research. Where am I, what day is it and what should I say to this audience? It was like a political stump speech with something for every issue that might garner support.
It will take a very long time to produce an information transfer of facts on any complex topic.
Caplan says this is the only way, but calls for the right type of reporting and balance. That too is hard to achieve.
It matters little if it is double blind study on the alarming growth of diagnosed autism or potential dangers of long term storage of nuclear waste. People don't engage if they don't trust.
We guess that the causes of autism must be complex and they await discovery. At present there is no connection found between vaccination and the affliction. Geology shouts that the earth is not 6000 years old either. Could both these claims be false? Take an educated guess.
Ominously the growth of autism is going in step with our way of living in general. But this is no excuse to deny established facts. The search for reasons has to be reasonable.
Remember it was a bad study that started the autism worry that continues to harm children whose parents believe in something disproved years ago.
The scientific community caught the mistake quickly, but could not snuff out the conspiracy theorists once they gained momentum. Catching the mistake was back page and not balanced by the original hoopla. The untruths fell on fertile soil and have flourished.
There was a tremendous amount of information presented for consumption over the past ten years about the DGR. The local nay side took over 8 years to take note of it at all. They awoke like they were residents of Sleepy Hollow. What! You mean here? You want to dig here? Why did you hide this from us?
All sides were represented at the JRP hearings and the three panel members will make a recommendation around May 6 of this year after a ten year study by many agencies and experts. We should trust their decision either for or against.
I have little hint what the decision will be from the JRP. They listened carefully and asked great questions. They even could defer an answer, but that is less likely.
All questions were fielded with polite candor and the questioner was given good summaries and direction to obtain the facts. This is all in the huge record of the hearings and the supporting literature. Balance was achieved, but little of it was reported.
Some things just are never sure 100%. If you fear what is not sure, you have to have policies and procedures that layer after layer produce better and better 'sureness' with more and more facts.
How do you do that? You use only known engineering and don't invent things that cannot be tested or have not been tested and peer reviewed.
You cannot, however, fall back and say we have to test over a 200,000 year period and can't do so, therefore, we can't go ahead.
You cannot say that there is technology out there now that makes the question moot. Look further and see what time frame and risks are involved in this new solution.
Don't make anything more complicated than it needs to be.
As I wrote recently -- Would you dig up the waste, if it already had been buried for 60 years? Would you feel safer with it at the surface or 2500 feet below your feet in 400,000,000 million year old stable limestone? If you would dig it up, can you predict 100% safety? If you leave it above ground can you say it is safer than below for 200,000 years? What solution to you propose and how do you back it up with facts?
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Sunday, March 01, 2015