Nuclear Nonsense in The Independent

Can you spot the difference between the two headlines below?

Two headlines for the same independent story about the plight of residents of the Chernobyl district of the Ukraine

Two headlines for the same Independent story about the plight of residents of the Chernobyl district of the Ukraine. The first one claims there are ‘cemetaries the size of cities’: this is not true.

That’s right: The first shocking headline claims the existence of’cemeteries the size of cities’. The implication is clear: that vast numbers of people have died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.

This was not my understanding, and  I was so shocked by this claim that I tweeted the author: you can read our conversation below:

weets exchanged with Thom Davies. I have no idea if this was personal or public conversation - twitter is like that!

Tweets exchanged with Thom Davies: Thom didn’t reply to my last question. t have no idea if this was personal or public conversation – twitter is like that!

After this exchange I thought I would re-read the article and was surprised to find that the headline had changed. Indeed, I wondered if I had been mistaken in what I had seen, but fortunately I had left a browser window open and was able capture an image of the earlier page.

So what have we learned?

Firstly we learn that there are no ‘cemeteries the size of cities’ containing the unacknowledged dead from Chernobyl.

Secondly we learn that despite the absence of ‘cemeteries the size of cities’, the Chernobyl disaster was just that: an ongoing disaster played out in the lives of poor people trying to earn a living.

The ‘point’ of the article was probably to draw attention to their plight and to cause people to think twice about nuclear power in the UK. However by making unjustified and hyperbolic claims, the whole article becomes discredited: which parts should we believe?

And finally we learn that The Independent is continuing its splendid tradition of nonsense front page ‘scare’ stories. They have sadly taken down their front page story from  Sunday 20th January 2008.

That story began routinely reporting results of an unrefereed conference article which claimed that mobile phone radiation affected the sleep of a cohort of people studied. Scratching around for supporting evidence they wrote:

It also complements other recent research. A massive study, following 1,656 Belgian teenagers for a year, found most of them used their phones after going to bed. It concluded that those who did this once a week were more than three times – and those who used them more often more than five times – as likely to be “very tired”.

I would like to finish by saying that ‘you can’t make this stuff up’. Except that The Independent can. And continues to do so.

8 Responses to “Nuclear Nonsense in The Independent”

  1. Vanessa Says:

    Hi Michael,

    Interesting. That is indeed a very sloppy headline. My experience of mainstream news offices though is that the headlines are written by different people from those who write the articles – and often in a matter of seconds.

    Given this, it seems a bit harsh to suggest that this poor headline should discredit the whole article (even if for some readers, it might have done).

    An alternative approach might be to acknowledge the possible devaluing of an otherwise informative article from a specialist author by a flawed editorial process – and perhaps even to credit the editors for the fact they changed the headline quickly.

    After all, we are all prone to inaccuracy at times.

    For example, you say that we learn from this that there are no ‘cemeteries the size of cities.’ We have not learned this at all: we’ve simply learned that there appears to be no evidence for such cemeteries.

    (As an aside: while there may well be an absence of cemeteries the size of cities in that region, it is possible, given scientific analyses of radiation-related death risks, that the victims of Chernobyl could fill a cemetery the size of a large town: http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2370256/chernobyl_how_many_died.html).

    As for hyperbole: it tempts the best of us. The headline “Nuclear Nonsense in the Independent” itself elicits an emotional response, one that could easily blind your readers to the quality of the article under consideration.

    Despite my above points I agree strongly with your mission to keep the press on its toes. They have much power and much responsibility and owe it to their readers – and the democratic process – to make sure they present scientific evidence with care and accuracy.

    All the best, Vanessa

  2. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Actually I think this piece of headline writing is pretty disgraceful – and plants seeds of doubt in peoples minds when what it could plant clarity. Explaining that people exiled from their homes are having a tough time is important news: claiming they are dead is something else.

    I have a great deal of sympathy with the people affected by the Chernobyl disaster. And the main lesson is that I think it represents something close to a nuclear worst case accident – and it happened.

    The article you referred to is clear, we don’t know the effects of radiation at low levels and that a linear-dose model is perfectly reasonable. However the fact that radiation dose in the UK doesn’t align with cancer deaths in the UK indicates it may well be pessimistic.

    However because it is impossible to ascertain which deaths are attributable to the received dose, I think the effect of the radiation doses people received from this disaster is (in my opinion) better expressed as likely number of months or years of lives lost. The likely effect is that people will die aged 65 rather than 75, or 63 rather than 68.

    Although I don’t underestimate the extent of the disaster neither do I overestimate it. There are no cemeteries the size of cities. Even in the worst case scenarios the death toll is small compared with, say, the deaths in the primes of their lives of 1 million people whose lives are claimed annually in road traffic accidents. In short the disaster is bad enough as it is: there is no need to exaggerate.

    M

  3. Vanessa Says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly about the headline. My point was that this still doesn’t make the whole piece anything like “nuclear nonsense”.

    My concern is that being quick to dismiss the possibility that more might have died (or had their lives shortened) than the official figures state can itself be irresponsible, given that it might encourage risks to be downplayed and future decisions skewed.

    That headline was (very wrongly) distilled from an interview with a man from the region named Viktor. He claims that many of the evacuees from the area did die prematurely. The quote from him in the article referred to “cemeteries … like cities”. It’s a metaphor mutated into a comparison, for the headline. An egregious error, yes, but that error doesn’t prove that large cemeteries of the Chernobyl dead do not exist.

    The secretive nature of the authorities, the fact that evacuees were scattered and died in different places from different cancers at different times, and the difficulty of arriving at meaningful figures using statistics, as you rightly observe, all make concrete numbers hard to identify. Still, it seems likely, given various anecdotal reports (this being a good, if lengthy example: http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/barys-piatrovich/chernobyl-first-month), that we have not been told the full story.

    And there are other aspects, like the inhibiting effects of radiation on the process of ecological decay (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00442-014-2908-8) and the likelihood that sea-level rise will inundate many existing reactors before the end of the century, multiplying the already daunting problems from Chernobyl and Fukushima; aspects which I believe do not receive due consideration.

    This is why my own preference is for directing energies towards tackling the media’s dereliction in its understatement of the impacts of nuclear accidents, not the overstatements. I do however agree that exaggerations are own-goals, given their tendency to reduce the credibility of the publication, so on this we have no dispute!

    I suspect that the underlying thread here is a difference in our understanding of the severity of the impacts of the disaster, which results in our diverging perspectives and emphases.

    I’m glad for the stimulation though – thanks for your post!
    Vanessa

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      For me it was an ‘anti-nuclear power’ article seeking to conjure a horrific vision, which is just nonsense, and not true. I obviously can’t prove that these cemeteries do not exist, but I think if they did exist I would have heard of them already. The story of Chernobyl has been told many times, and these cemeteries are not referred to: that’s why I read the article with such interest: Had I been deceived? Had there been a cover up? But the answer is No. There hasn’t been. In fact this was really a human interest story masquerading as news.

      The equivalent from the ‘pro-carbon’ lobby are the articles saying Wind Power is ineffective, ugly, harmful to psychological health. Basically all not true. These are story-lines that are not true but which by repetition gain a sense of ‘truthiness’ and people suspect they might be true.

      Sea level rise is very unlikely to be an issue this century. However in the coming centuries all coastal resources are certainly at risk. However 2100 is the limit of my long term worry horizon 🙂

      I think we are at the point where we have to agree to disagree.

      Best wishes to you and yours.

  4. Vanessa Says:

    I take your points. And I suspect you’re right about where we’ve reached in our discussion.

    Thanks 🙂 – and to you and yours too.

  5. daviesthom Says:

    Dear Protons for Breakfast,

    I am the author of this article.

    I did not choose the original title. As I believe I pointed out in a following tweet (not shown above).

    As Vanessa rightly suggests, it is standard practice in journalism for the titles and taglines to be the choice of the editor. As soon as I read the title, I immediately emailed the editor to get it changed. Which he promptly did, within minutes. I agree with you, to put “cemeteries the size of cities” in the title like this is obviously misleading, as this is not what the article is saying – and precisely why I had the title changed immediately. It seems in your critique of the article you have focussed upon this.

    For what it is worth I do not think the editor did this on purpose as some kind of anti-nuclear (or in your words ‘Nuclear Nonsense’) agenda – but was merely the consequence of a misreading and rushed deadline. As Vanessa suggests:

    “An alternative approach might be to acknowledge the possible devaluing of an otherwise informative article from a specialist author by a flawed editorial process – and perhaps even to credit the editors for the fact they changed the headline quickly.”

    As is quite clear is you read the text, the cemeteries quote comes from an interview with a research participant who was stressing how Evacuation and forced displacement has killed more people, in his opinion, than living with the constant threat of radiation. Like many others who live near the Exclusion Zone, he believes more people have been killed through forced evacuation than from staying to live with the radiated landscape.

    It is a widely held opinion that the stress of becoming an environmental refugee has negatively impacted the lives and health of the hundreds of thousands who were forced to abandon their homes. Something supported by other academic research on other disasters, and from many interviews I have conducted with evacuees.

    The revised title, made minutes after I emailed the editor now reads:

    “Ukraine’s other crisis: Living in the shadow of Chernobyl – where victims receive just 9p a month and are left to fend for themselves”

    This is something I stand by 100%. And I am grateful for The Independent’s swift action on this.

    I am guessing your following critique is based on the briefly shown original erroneous title:
    “by making unjustified and hyperbolic claims, the whole article becomes discredited: which parts should we believe?”

    It is clear (from reading the main text) that the original title is an editorial error. If you believe other parts of the article are in anyway hyperbolic or unjustified I would very much like to hear, as this is a topic I take incredibly seriously. I very strongly dispute for example that what I have written counts as ‘Nuclear Nonsense’. It is based on three years of in-depth ethnographic research with communities throughout Ukraine.

    Your assumption that the point of the article was “to cause people to think twice about nuclear power in the UK” is also unfounded. As the author of this article, I can tell you that the point – would you believe it – was to draw attention to the plight of people I have spent years getting to know in Ukraine, who are continuing to suffer from nuclear disaster. Something I believe this article achieves.

    You say that the “article [is] seeking to conjure a horrific vision, which is just nonsense, and not true.” I would love to know on what basis you think what I have written is both ‘nonsense’ and ‘not true’?

    I am glad this article, for whatever reason, has caused a discussion, as I believe it is an important subject, especially for those involved.

    If you are interested further in my research on this subject, I can suggest reading this peer reviewed academic article:

    https://www.academia.edu/5632843/A_Visual_Geography_of_Chernobyl_Double_Exposure

    Best wishes,

    Thom Davies

    http://www.thomdavies.com

    • DanS Says:

      Thom,

      If the motivation for you studies isn’t Anti-nuclear, why now visit Japan and study those displaced by the Fukushima nuclear disaster (as stated on your website) rather than the much larger number displaced by the natural disaster? It would seem to me that data from the later would be equally valid and wouldn’t imply bias in your thesis?

  6. doug1943 Says:

    The scientific ignorance — and even lack of ordinary common-sense skepticism — on the part of reporters for respectable media, including the BBC, always surprises me.

    They do a pretty good job of grilling politicians. But let some ‘campaign’ group say, for example, that all cases of cancer in the Middle East are caused by depleted uranium, and they swallow it whole.

    Every publication ought to have one designated Devil’s Advocate, whose job is to scrutinize the stories written by the other journalists, and try to debunk them, even if only internally.

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