We can begin by asking why there is such sustained and vociferous opposition to nuclear power. This campaign has now convinced so many people that nuclear power is unacceptable as an energy source that Governments refuse to build nuclear power stations. If they seem to favour nuclear power in any way, they know that they will lose votes, and that is what Governments want to avoid at all costs. The arguments in favour of nuclear power are now so strong that this all seems incomprehensible.
It is sometimes suggested that the origin of the opposition to nuclear power is the fear of atomic bombs. This is not so. In the immediate post-war years many scientists devoted considerable efforts to educate the public: they wrote articles and books and organised lectures and exhibitions. They founded the Federation of Atomic Scientists in the USA and the Atomic Scientists' Association in Britain to further this work. The result of these efforts was general public enthusiasm for the potentialities of nuclear power, and people looked forward to the Atomic Age.
This gradually changed as a result of a well-planned and large-scale campaign by the Soviet Union designed to weaken the West. It was clear to the Soviet leaders, whose aim was world domination, that the economy of the West depends on the availability of energy, so they first tried to jeopardise the supplies of oil by destabilising the countries in the Middle East that supply so much of Europe's oil. It then became apparent that the West could obtain much of the needed energy by developing nuclear power, and so this became a prime target. A massive propaganda campaign was therefore launched against nuclear power. Of course, like all well-designed campaigns, it pretended to act for the public good. It was based on genuine science, but distorted to serve its propose. The dangers of radiation were correctly described, but grossly inflated; it was not pointed out that with proper care, these dangers are negligible. Nuclear reactors were described as likely to blow up and spread radioactivity everywhere; it was not pointed out that reactors in the West were so designed and managed that this could not happen. (The accidents at Three Mile Island and especially that at Chernobyl were a godsend to the campaign.) The disposal of nuclear waste was declared to be a vast and unsolved problem. People were horrified by these revelations, and took no notice of the explanations of the nuclear scientists. The campaign was cleverly designed to enlist the support of well-meaning people who lacked the technical knowledge to understand how they were being deceived. It was spearheaded by Communist parties throughout Europe and taken up by left-wing parties everywhere. Finance on a massive scale to support the campaign was provided by the Soviet Union (Andrew and Mitrokhin 1999). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many hard-core leftists found themselves without a cause, and so transferred their energies to the anti-nuclear campaign.
Emotion and rhetoric proved once again more powerful than scientific analyses and statistical data. People joined the campaign in their thousands, went on protest marches and contributed their money. Left-wing politicians and academics joined the chorus of condemnation. Gradually the mood of the public changed, and the enthusiasm and euphoria of the sixties was replaced by determined opposition. Especially after Chernobyl, country after country cancelled their nuclear power construction programmes and abandoned nuclear power. The Swedish Government closed its Barseback 1 reactor after it had operated for 23 years, and the resulting shortfall of 4 billions kWh per year had to be obtained by importing it from German and Danish coal power stations, thus increasing Sweden's carbon dioxide emissions (Nuclear Issues 23, March 2001). Subsequently the Barseback 2 reactor was closed as well, although it still had 20 to 30 years of productive life remaining. Again, for political reasons Germany dismantled a 1300 MWe nuclear power plant at Mulheim-Karlich that had only operated for two months.
While attacking the Western nuclear power programme, the Soviet Union feverishly built their own reactors, designed to produce weapons grade plutonium as well as power. Their reactors were so poorly designed, so hurriedly built and so poorly operated that the disaster at Chernobyl was almost inevitable.
One might have hoped that those who control the mass media would have understood the origin of the campaign against nuclear power, and have considered it their duty to print and broadcast the truth. That would be a vain hope. Newspapers are engaged in a life and death struggle with their rivals, and television producers are under huge pressure to maintain and increase their ratings. They know very well that their readers and viewers are attracted by sensational scare stories, whereas the comments of the scientists, full of jargon and incomprehensible numbers, are certain turn-offs. So if someone says that there are far more cases of childhood leukaemia among people living near nuclear power stations this is given blazing headlines. Any subsequent analysis by scientists, explaining carefully that the increased radiation around power stations is minuscule and cannot possibly cause such effects is simply ignored. It is seen as an attempt at a cover-up by the nuclear industry. Such stories have encouraged some families with affected children to take the nuclear industry to court. The medical evidence is such that they have lost their cases.
When a scare story breaks, there are always anti-nuclear activists, with little knowledge and no reputation to lose, who are willing to make wild and unsupported statements that are eagerly quoted by the media. Genuine scientists are not willing to make statements until they have examined and weighed the evidence, and this may take weeks or months, by which time it is too late to say anything that will be heard.
Many arguments were used against nuclear power. One of the most plausible began by pointing out, quite rightly, that there are still many dangers and uncertainties associated with it. Would it not therefore be prudent to declare a moratorium on future development until it can be shown to be perfectly safe? It is such a promising source of energy that it is important to avoid undue haste that might do great harm. What could be more prudent and statesmanlike to wait for five years and see if by then it has been made perfectly safe? This is a very attractive idea, but it is simply a delaying tactic masquerading as concern for humanity. Many people, including Church leaders and the World Council of Churches, fell into this trap. If this argument had been accepted, then after five years it would be repeated again and a further moratorium proposed. The opponents of nuclear power would never have accepted that it had finally been proved safe. By that time the technological expertise would have dwindled and huge financial losses incurred, and it could then be argued that nuclear power is uneconomic. It has to be recognised that no technological process is perfectly safe, so what has to be done is to examine all the ways of producing energy as critically as possible, taking into account other considerations such as cost, capacity, reliability and effects on the environment, and then make our choice. To do nothing is often the worst choice of all. It is greatly to the credit of the experts convened by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that they accepted the need for decision and speedy action, and vehemently rejected the call of a moratorium (see Section 10.4).
Another campaign designed to discredit nuclear power that was disguised as a noble humanitarian gesture was to bring children from the region around Chernobyl to Britain and to provide them with medical attention and a healthy life. These children were designated 'victims of Chernobyl' who had been exposed to deadly nuclear radiations that would greatly shorten their lives. Pictures of the children and their tragic stories were given great publicity in the media. In fact there was no evidence that they had been exposed to abnormal amounts of radiation, and their generally poor state of health was due to decades of malnutrition.
The campaign against nuclear power has also used the clusters of leukaemia cases around Sellafield and the effects of the discharges of radioactive material into the sea. These questions have been discussed in Section 4.5 on nuclear radiations.
This campaign was continued for decades by the media and in schools and universities, and eventually emotion and rhetoric proved once again more powerful than scientific analyses and statistical data.
There is a hard core of people who are opposed to the modern technological society as such; they consider it to be evil and do all they can to destabilise it. They do not care whether the arguments they use are true or not. The same arguments against nuclear power are repeated again and again and are printed by the media as if they were a new revelation although they have been repeatedly refuted. They make no attempt to assess the advantages and disadvantages of any new technology such as nuclear power or genetic modification, and ignore the great advantages they can bring in the form of the energy and food so desperately needed by the poorer people of the world. All this is of no concern to them.
Strong opposition to nuclear power comes from members of the post-modernist anti-science movement. It is difficult to discuss anything with them because they deny the whole idea of objective truth, maintaining that all beliefs are subjective, and depend on personal whims, desires and prejudices. They do not accept that people believe anything because they have considered the arguments and reached a decision. Thus according to them some people accept nuclear power for some irrelevant reason such as their presumed support of the prevailing political-industrial-military complex. It is hard to reason with people who do not accept reason. Some people have so far lost the concept of truth that they assume that everyone acts for some ulterior motive. Thus I was once asked if I was paid by the Atomic Energy Authority to speak in favour of nuclear power.
Concern for the environment is rightly a very popular concern, and this has been used in the campaign against nuclear power. However the policies advocated by many environmentalists are often more destructive than the alternatives. This has led several distinguished people such as Bishop Montefiore to resign their membership of prominent environmentalist organisations. The environmental scientist James Lovelock, noted for his extensive researches that have led to the concept of gaia, the idea of the earth and its ecosystems as a closely interdependent organism, has also dissociated himself from extreme environmentalists and declared his support for nuclear power as the only way to save the environment.
It is sad that many environmentalists refuse even to discuss the advantages of nuclear power for the environment. I recently read a book by an environmentalist who described his excellent work in opposing unnecessary hydroelectric developments in Tasmania and the destruction of the forests by logging (Brown 2004). He appended the Green Party manifesto that declared its opposition to nuclear power. I wrote several times to him asking for the justification for this, but received no reply. Such people are so sure of the correctness of their views that no dialogue with them is possible.
After the Chernobyl disaster there were stories of increased numbers of deaths, even as far away as the USA, due to the radioactive cloud that spread over the northern hemisphere. In one newspaper, the story was illustrated by a grim picture of the death of the reaper. This story seemed very implausible: the doses in Europe were far too small to cause such effects, and indeed none were recorded, and those received in the USA were far smaller. So I obtained from the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Harwell, the numerical data on which this story was based. It was then evident that the data did not support the story, due to an elementary statistical error. I wrote to the newspaper explaining this, but they were not interested in publishing a correction; they were pushing the latest scare story. Even if they had published a correction few people would have noticed it, and all the readers would be left with the image of death the reaper associated with nuclear power.
Disasters like Chernobyl have led to calculations of the number of cancer deaths to be expected from such emissions of radioactivity. The death rate attributable to large doses of radiation is known, and it is then assumed that the death rate at smaller doses can be obtained by assuming that the death rate is proportional to the dose. This gives a very small figure, but when this is multiplied by the population of a large country a figure of some thousand deaths is obtained. Of course the fallacy is to assume proportionality, which ignores the possibilities that there is a threshold dose and that the body can repair small damage (see Section 4.5). Some time ago a prominent left-wing politician attacked nuclear power, using just this argument. I wrote to him asking for justification, and he referred me to a source that he could not then remember, but which I could find for myself if I took the trouble, but he doubted if I would do so. I asked him if I could publish his remarks, and he indignantly refused. This is typical of what happens when a scientist tries to inject some truth into what is euphemistically called the debate on nuclear power.
On another occasion I wrote an article on the Sellafield reprocessing plant and among other things I pointed out that coal power stations actually emit more radioactivity that nuclear power stations, although in both cases the amounts are minuscule. The reason for radioactive emission from coal power stations is that coal contains very small amounts of uranium, and some of this is emitted as smoke into the atmosphere. Nevertheless my statement was considered so preposterous that it was rejected out of hand. So I wrote again giving the detailed statistics (see Table 6.5) based on measurements compiled by the International Atomic Energy Agency that supported my statement. This letter was not published.
These experiences show that the reactions of politicians, journalists and scientists to the news of a nuclear accident are quite different. Politicians will be concerned to assess the effect on their own reputation and that of their Party, and most importantly on their chance of re-election. They welcome the news if it seems to be to their advantage and will downplay if it does not. In general, they decide their policies so as to follow the contemporary beliefs about what should be done. If these really are for the general good, and often they are, that will be done. The problem arises when Governments see what needs to be done, but also know that it is very unpopular, and then they will procrastinate and follow the general will. By the time the effects make themselves felt, the next election will be long gone. If anyone protests, they will be ignored or brushed aside. The anti-nuclear activists among them will eagerly publicise any accident, and embellish their accounts with lurid tales of the consequences. They are absolutely sure that they are right, and if anyone so much as gently enquires about the logical reasoning behind these stories he is likely to be accused of impertinence and stupidity*.
One might hope that politicians would have the courage to take the hard decisions that are required to safeguard our long-term future. They have before them the evidence of countless scientific studies and reports by the Royal Society and the Federation of British Industry. However the next election looms larger in their minds than the future of mankind. The evidence for climate change is now so compelling that Governments have to be seen doing something about it. They dare not risk offending public opinion by choosing nuclear power. Instead they fasten on the renewables, especially wind power as a safe political choice, in spite of the arguments showing its futility. Conferences are arranged to consider the problem of global warming and climate change and consider all means of preventing these harmful emissions such as improved energy efficiency, carbon emission taxes and wind and solar power, except the one source that is demonstrably the only practicable way to solve the problem. Nuclear power is taboo. To further bolster their popularity, the Government seems determined to destroy our nuclear industry. There is now hardly any research and development of nuclear reactors, and flourishing nuclear enterprises like Bruce Power in Canada have been sold for derisory prices. When the pressure of events forces us to return to nuclear power, we will have to obtain the technology from France, Germany or Japan.
Journalists will welcome the news of nuclear accidents, and will go ahead and write scare stories, adding fuel to the flames by recalling similar accidents that happened in the past. They know that people love reading about disasters and that accounts of them sell their papers and increase their popularity. They have no interest whatsoever in knowing whether the story is true or not, and are quite indifferent to arguments that throw doubt on the report. If a scientist writes to correct these accounts, he is usually ignored.
The scientist will react to the news by asking himself if it is true. He will compare the reported events with what is already known about similar events in the past. Is the new event in accord with the laws of
* Several examples of this behaviour are given in Hodgson, EE. (1999) Nuclear Power Energy and the Environment (London: Imperial College Eress), pp. 161-165. See also The St. Austin Review, September/October 2004, p. 43-44.
nature? What are the results of studies of similar events? If it reports statistics about injuries, he will want to examine the methodology of the observations, how were the results evaluated statistically, and was there a control group for comparison? Is there any reason to suspect the results, does the laboratory have a good reputation for careful experimentation? Is it possible that in some way the political views of the scientists influenced their work in any way? This process may take months or years, but the scientist must keep an open mind before publishing his analysis. By the time he has made such a critical analysis, Congress or Parliament will have decided on their course of action and the conclusions of the scientist have had no effect. The media will no longer be interested; they are already describing the latest scare story. The scientist is of course appalled by all this, and may write a letter to the newspaper, but it will almost certainly be ignored. Soon he gets tired of writing letters that are never published, and so he writes no more.
It should also be mentioned that there are some writers, with some scientific training, who may describe themselves as nuclear consultants, who amass and distort scientific data in such a way as to support the anti-nuclear case. To the uninitiated it appears scientific and convincing, and only a real scientist can see how the data have been twisted, exaggerated or ignored in order to present their case. Their writings are of course used as a source of data and are widely quoted by journalists and all who oppose nuclear power.
Well-informed critiques of nuclear power have at least the merit of providing the opportunity to continue factual discussions. More damaging is the tendency of some writers to ignore nuclear power or to brush it aside with a few dismissive and often erroneous remarks. Thus Al Gore in his valuable and wide-ranging book 'Earth in the Balance' devotes barely a page to nuclear power. He notes 'the political difficulties involved in building new nuclear reactors' and states that 'uncertainties about future projections of energy demand and economic problems like cost overruns were the major cause of the cancellations by utilities, well before accidents like those at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl heightened public apprehension'. Predictably he raises again the long-laid spectre of nuclear waste, remarking that 'growing concern about our capacity to accept responsibility for storing nuclear waste products with extremely long lifetimes also adds to the resistance many feel to a dramatic increase in the use of nuclear power'.
Without giving any supporting statistics, he declares that 'the proportion of world energy use that could practicably be derived from nuclear power is fairly small and likely to remain so. It is a mistake, therefore, to argue that nuclear power holds the key to solving global warming'. The most cursory glance at the contribution of nuclear power to world electricity production shows that this is completely false. He does, however, admit that further research into new types of nuclear reactors, including fusion reactors, 'should continue vigorously' (Gore 2007, pp. 328-329).
Another example is provided by the valuable and well-informed book on 'Global Warming', where Mark Maslin just says that 'many countries are also discussing renewing their nuclear programme as a non-carbon-emission source, but problems of safety and dumping nuclear waste still remain the main objections' (Maslin 2004, p. 141). Two pages later, he concludes that 'ultimately, a combination of improved efficiency and alternative energy is the solution to global warming'.
The reactions of the Churches will be described in Chapter 10. 8.6. Psychology
In the present context psychology will be taken to mean the study of irrational behaviour: why do people behave in ways that are completely unjustifiable? Sometimes there are underlying reasons for this, but in other cases it remains obscure. There is obviously considerable overlap with the behaviour described in the previous section on politics.
Very often the conclusions reached on complicated technical problems depend more on preconceived attitudes than on objective scientific evidence. In most cases superficially plausible arguments can be made both for and against any proposed course of action. This primacy of attitudes over beliefs was already pointed out by Locke and Hume. Our attitudes determine the weight we give to arguments. Thus if we are averse to nuclear power we will tend to believe that leukaemia clusters around nuclear plants such as Sellafield are caused by nuclear radiations, that the safe disposal of nuclear waste is a great unsolved problem, that the Gardner hypothesis about the effects of parental irradiation is preferable to the explanation given by Kinlen, that all our energy shortage can be solved by using renewables and so on.
All these attitudes can be shown to be incorrect, but they nevertheless persist.
In a situation with many arguments and counterarguments there is a strong tendency for judgements to be affected by political and economic considerations. Thus those responsible for the fossil fuel generation will tend to downplay climate change, though it is more difficult to avoid admitting the pollution by other chemicals. The proponents of nuclear power, on the other hand, will emphasise climate change because this enhances the desirability of non-polluting nuclear power. Governments will be attracted by the idea of imposing taxes on carbon emission because it is a lucrative source of revenue.
Attitudes are reinforced by emotive words. Thus the disposal of nuclear waste is described as 'dumping', a word that conveys careless behaviour by people who ignore the likely results of their action. Some new energy sources are called the 'benign renewables' although they are not particularly benign and are not, strictly speaking, infinitely renewable. There is liberal use of soothing phrases like 'care for the environment' and of words like 'green' and 'peace'.
The primacy of attitudes over belief and the general gullibility of so many people is also shown by what Park (2000) has called pathological science, junk science, pseudo-science and fraudulent science. Taken together, they may be described as Voodoo science. Pathological science occurs when reputable scientists manage to deceive themselves. They observe some effect that seems at first to be a great discovery, but are unable to bring themselves to make the crucial experiments that would show whether it really is what they think it to be. Junk science is when scientists concoct plausible but scientifically false arguments in order to confuse or deceive juries and judges who lack sufficient knowledge of science to realise that they are being fooled. Examples of pseudo-science are types of spiritual healing based on quantum mechanics, reports of the Earth being visited from Mars and the whole range of quack medicines. Initially, the exponents of these views may really believe what they say, but if belief wanes and yet they continue their activities they gradually slip over into fraudulent science.
Pathological science typically begins when an experiment gives a result that is plausible at first sight but extremely unlikely on further examination. One has to be very careful at this point. When we say that a result is extremely unlikely we mean 'according to the present laws of physics', and of course we know very well that there have been genuine surprises in the course of scientific history. We know that there are laws that have stood the test of time, such as the conservation of energy, and so it is extremely unlikely that an exception can ever be found. Even in this case, it was later found that mass can be converted into energy and vice-versa, so that instead of the two laws of the conservation of mass and of energy we have the conservation of mass-energy. Another law that cannot be circumvented is the second law of thermodynamics.
In many cases our confidence in these laws is so strong that any device that purports to act in a way that goes contrary to them can be dismissed without detailed examination. Thus it was long ago decided that claims for any device that claims to produce more energy than it consumes, and for any alleged perpetual motion machine, can immediately be rejected. The same applies to the gravity shield, because if it were possible to shield any body from the effects of gravity it would be easy to construct a perpetual motion machine.
Experienced scientists who are familiar with a certain type of phenomena generally know what sort of result to expect from an experiment. Occasionally they are surprised, and then it usually turns out on further investigation that there is a perfectly intelligible reason for what they observed. The tip-top and the gyroscope can serve as simple examples.
It may happen that a new experiment with an unexpected result opens up vistas of practical applications and thus of money-making on a huge scale. This immediately generates psychological pressures that some find difficult to resist. In spite of all this, the scientist must curb his enthusiasm and make careful tests to verify the result. If the effect occurs, it will have such and such consequences, and these must all be verified. If all the tests are passed, the work is written up for publication. The apparatus must be described in such detail that it can be replicated elsewhere, so that other scientists can verify the result. The article will then be peer-reviewed and if accepted will be published in a recognised journal. Then, and only then, it is time to call in the Press and announce the result to the world.
A good example is provided by cold fusion. The story is so familiar that it is hardly necessary to describe it in detail. It is well-known that the heat of the sun comes from the fusion of hydrogen nuclei to form helium. In principle, the simplest way to do this is to take two deuterons, nuclei of deuterium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen (each comprising a neutron and a proton) and combine them to form an alpha-particle, the nucleus of helium. However, a simple calculation shows that the two deuterons repel each other electrostatically so strongly that it is just not possible to make them combine at room temperatures. They will only combine if they are heated to temperatures of some hundreds of millions of degrees, and physicists are trying to do this by designing fusion reactors. The great attraction of achieving fusion is that deuterium occurs in ordinary water, and so fusion could provide an essentially limitless source of energy.
Two electrochemists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons from the University of Utah, claimed in 1989 that fusion had been observed during electrolysis of heavy water (water containing deuterium instead of hydrogen) with a specially prepared deuterium-impregnated cathode of the metal palladium. This of course was a startling news. It had to be taken seriously because Fleischmann was a very distinguished scientist and professor at the university of Southampton, and Pons was a full professor of chemistry at Utah and both had a long list of publications. Scientists around the world rushed to make the experiment. Some, generally in the more poorly equipped laboratories, jumped on the bandwagon and announced success, but scientists in the major laboratories failed. Fleischmann explained that it was very difficult to make the palladium cathodes, but did not provide sufficient details. He also failed to make two crucial tests. Firstly, if fusion took place, helium should build up in the cathode, and its presence should be detected. Secondly, the helium should be formed in a highly excited state, and should decay by emitting neutrons. These neutrons should be detectable, but they were never conclusively found. In spite of these doubts, Congressmen argued that the potential rewards were so large that it was worthwhile providing massive support. Scientists were generally highly sceptical, and it was considered unacceptable that Fleischmann and Pons did not first publish their results in the usual way, with a full description of their apparatus, and so expose them to critical examination. Soon the whole affair died a natural death.
There is an instructive comparison to be made with the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity by George Bednorz and Karl Mueller in 1987. This effect was totally unexpected and was not predicted by existing theories. It also opened the way to potentially very important applications. The announcement caused great excitement and, like cold fusion, hundreds of scientists rushed to reproduce the result.
The crucial difference was that the discoverers had followed the rules and made a public announcement at the same time as a detailed account of their experiments was published in a peer-reviewed journal. Everyone who repeated the experiment obtained the same results.
A further comparison can be made with the alleged correlation between childhood leukaemia and proximity to nuclear power stations. The statistics, though rather poor, deserve to be taken seriously. It is natural to begin by asking whether the leukaemia is indeed caused by nuclear radiations. Calculations of the radiation doses that can be attributed to the nuclear reactors show levels that are far too small to cause the observed effects. Furthermore, examination of the distribution of leukaemia cases over the whole country shows several statistically significant clusters of cases in regions far away from nuclear power stations. The connection with nuclear power stations can therefore be ruled out, and the way is open to look for the real cause. This has been plausibly identified as the Kinlen effect, as already described.
This would have been a rational objective way of dealing with the matter. Instead, it was eagerly enrolled as part of the campaign against nuclear power, distraught parents of the afflicted children went though the trauma of making and losing claims against the nuclear power company, and a huge amount of money was wasted in vain attempts to prove the presence of any real connection.
Concern with their health leads many people to buy medicines that claim to cure their ache and pains. Among these may be listed bee pollen, vitamin O, homeopathy, biomagnetic therapy and a host of others. They are widely advertised and sold in huge quantities. Their success is supported by numerous testimonials from satisfied customers, but none has even been proved scientifically to have the effects claimed. The best that can be said for most of them that they do no harm, except to one's pocket. These are examples of fraudulent science.
An example of junk science is provided by the alleged effect of the electric fields from overhead power lines, in particular that they can cause cancer in people living near them. It is very easy for journalists to write tear-jerking stories about stricken children living near power lines, and these stories soon lead to the discovery of further cases. There is widespread concern long before a careful statistical analysis shows no evidence for the effect. Organisations of concerned people are formed to protest against the danger. This provided the occasion for what is known as a mass tort blitz. The idea is that lawyers encourage thousands of people to file lawsuits against the power company. The complaints are carefully worded. They do not say that electric fields cause cancer, because that can quite easily be disproved. Instead, they say that there was a widespread perception of hazard that has substantially reduced the value of their property. Thus they do not have to prove the existence of a hazard, but only that people believe that there is a hazard. No company can cope with such a situation and they are forced to come to a settlement. As it happened, judges realised what was happening and were able to invoke another law that put a stop to the whole campaign. This story provides an example of a totally unsubstantiated worry that was used by unscrupulous lawyers in an attempt to bankrupt a company. A careful scientific analysis of the strengths of the electric fields and the distribution of cancer cases would have soon shown that the fears were groundless.
Throughout history there have been people who believe in astrology. Our destiny, according to astrologers, is determined by which planets were in the ascendant when we are born, and thereafter our lives are governed by the stars. There is certainly evidence for the influence of the sun on our lives; it provides the heat and light without which we could not exist. The moon is the principal cause of the tides, with a lesser influence from the sun. These are well-understood effects of the radiation emitted by the sun and of gravitational forces. There the influence ends. The planets are much too far away to influence us either by radiation or by their gravitational attraction. The stars are at unimaginably greater distances. Yet although astrology is complete nonsense hundreds of books on astrology disgrace our bookshops and numerous magazines have an astrology page that purports to give advice on how to plan our week, based on the sign of the zodiac we were born under. Astrology is a very lucrative profession; there are more than ten times as many astrologers in the USA than there are astronomers.
Another familiar example of junk science is provided by all the stories of UFOs, little green men and other aliens from outer space. In one case, a farmer found some pieces of metal and plastic on his land, which were later shown to be the remnants of a weather balloon. He reported his findings to the local police and a journalist got to hear of it and suggested that they were the remains of a space ship. Then the story took off and with each retelling more details were added. The authorities had to take notice and ordered an enquiry. They were hampered by military secrecy, and soon it was being said that there was a massive cover-up to conceal the truth. And so it went on. Books were written and sold in large numbers. Eventually the official report, a massive tome, appeared. But few people were interested. It was much more interesting to read about the little green men.
Much more serious is the effect of military secrecy. No one in their senses will want to deny that there is a need for secrecy in matters concerning national security, but secrecy is not without its dangers. Proposals for new devices may be accepted without proper scientific scrutiny, and this can lead to an enormous waste of money. A spectacular example of this is the 'Star Wars' initiative by the USA. The President announced that he had ordered the construction of a nuclear shield, batteries of nuclear rockets that would intercept and destroy any incoming ballistic missiles. This was a very attractive and superficially plausible idea that promised to make the USA invulnerable. Immediately it was published that prominent scientists with great experience of nuclear weapons pointed out that the whole idea was quite unworkable. It would be easy, for example, for the enemy to equip their missiles with multiple warheads and decoy systems so that the defence would easily be saturated and many of the incoming missiles would reach their targets. A successful defence requires destruction of all the incoming missiles, and this is impossible to guarantee. The whole project was a reckless gamble and a huge expense. It was of course never built, and it could be argued that it forced the Soviets to undertake such expenditure themselves as to make them practically bankrupt, and thus hastened their demise. Nevertheless it is a chastening example of the dire effects of military secrecy.
Much the same can be said for another proposed offensive weapon, the X-ray laser, or Super-Excalibur as it was called. This was intended to focus the intense burst of high-energy radiation from an atomic explosion to form a beam of devastating power. This also was announced with great publicity and was eventually forgotten when it proved completely impracticable.
There is no end to people's credulity; there seems to be a built-in desire to believe in occult forces. Further examples are provided by reports of spoon-bending and psycho-kinesis. Very extensive studies have shown that hidden cards can be identified with a probability just above chance, providing evidence for extra-sensory perception. Further examination does not substantiate such claims. 'In 1987, the National Academy of
Sciences undertook a complete review of all the literature on parapsychology. The report concluded that there was 'no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of parapsychological phenomena' (Park, loc. cit. p. 197). Despite years of failure there are still some people who hope that the next experiment will produce evidence of extra-sensory perception. All this is pathological science.
It should perhaps be pointed out that there is much deliberate fraud, and it might be thought that physicists are the best people to investigate and expose such frauds. This is not so; the best people to do this are professional magicians. We are all familiar with the absolutely amazing things they can do; they produce effects before our eyes that we cannot understand. They know all the tricks whereby these effects are produced, and they are the ones best qualified to expose fraud when it occurs.
Quantum mechanics provides a fertile source of inspiration for a whole range of mystics and new age enthusiasts. They know nothing about quantum mechanics itself, a very powerful and successful theory used everywhere by atomic and nuclear physicists. They have only read some sensational stories about the mysteries of the fuzzy quantum world, the action of the observer in collapsing the wavefunction, the instantaneous transmission of information by non-local forces, the tunnelling of particles through potential barriers and the wave-particle duality of all fundamental particles. This heady mixture of fantasy and erroneous physics fills their fevered imaginations and leads a whole range of nonsense that may indeed look plausible to anyone who knows nothing about physics. It is superfluous to add that quantum mechanics is a method of making objective and exact calculations about the world, and that the nonsense begins when people try to interpret the meaning behind it all. This is still a contentious subject, and it is essential to emphasise that quantum mechanics is a statistical theory that is fully consistent with a completely deterministic world.
A well-known exposure of the decline in scholarly standards in some sections of the academic community is the Sokal hoax. Alan Sokal, a respected physicist, wrote an article called 'Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity' full of outrageous howlers taken from the writings of postmodern commentators on modern science. This article was accepted and published by the journal Social Text. Subsequently Sokal revealed that it was a 'deliberate farrago of deliberate solecisms, howlers and non-sequiturs, stitched together to look good and to flatter the ideological preconceptions of the editors'. It was an elaborate hoax written to expose the appalling decline in standards of truth, reason and objectivity in certain literary and sociological circles. In subsequent writings Sokal and Bricmont provide many more examples of established academics writing complete nonsense about modern science (Bricmont 1997; Sokal and Bricmont 1997; Bricmont 1998, 2003; Sokal 2008).
With such massive evidence of people's ability to believe complete nonsense without paying any attention to the results of careful objective scientific studies, it is no wonder that there are still so many who believe all the nonsense about nuclear power.
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