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Jul 23

Michio Kaku = Douche

Here’s a section of the book chapter I wrote for ASIOS’s upcoming book. Since it’s only going to be published in Japanese, I wanted to share some of it with you. Keep in mind that it’s written for Japanese readers, and for each person or media source I wrote about, I was asked to explain why Japanese people should care.
 
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Michio Kaku, despite his Japanese name, is American, and not very well known over here. Kaku is a MichioKaku_commonsrespected theoretical physicist, professor, and the co-founder of string field theory. He also is a populariser of science, meaning that he works to communicate science to the general population by making it easier to understand. He is also a futurist, which means that he attempts to predict what life in the future will be like. He frequently appears on science and news programs in the west, and has a definite facility for making science sound exciting. He’s a very imaginative man and can paint very compelling images with his words.
 

The problem is that as far as I can tell, Kaku will accept any offer to appear in the media and comment on science stories, even when they are outside his area of expertise. Kaku has said that humans have stopped evolving (“gross” evolution, he called it, using a word he just made up); opposed the Cassini space probe launch because it had plutonium on board; and has stated that UFOs are real and that aliens have visited Earth (and they’re invisible).

 

Regardless of how silly these claims are, I will limit my analysis to his comments on the Fukushima incident and its aftermath. He appeared on many television shows (Late Night with David Letterman, Real Time with Bill Maher, Fox News Insider, CNN, NBC’s Nightline, ABC news, Democracy Now, and more…) in the days, weeks, and months following March 11, saying whatever he could to make the situation sound even more dramatic and dangerous than it was.

 

But isn’t he an expert? He is a physicist, after all. True, but he is a theoretical physicist, not a nuclear physicist. Aren’t they close enough? Not really. An anatomy lecturer and a neurologist are both highly trained people who hold doctorate degrees, but if you had a rare brain disease, you’d want to consult the neurologist, who actually practices medicine, and not the lecturer, who mostly deals with paper and the occasional dissection of a cadaver.

 

As a theoretical physicist, Kaku works on paper with ideas and mathematics. He does not work with things that exist in the actual, physical world, the way an experimental physicist or engineer would.

 

Of course, this isn’t enough to condemn his opinion as uninformed or dishonest on its own. To get a clear picture of Kaku’s style, you need to look at what he’s actually said:

 

 

[Reactor] 3 is so dangerous because it’s the only reactor containing what is called Mixed Oxide Fuel i.e., plutonium. Plutonium is one of the most toxic chemicals known to science. A dust particle that you can’t even see, inhaled into your lungs, could cause lung cancer.

-Michio Kaku, ABC News, March 26, 2011

 

“Plutonium is the most toxic chemical known to science! A speck of plutonium, a millionth of a gram, could cause cancer if it’s ingested.”

-Michio Kaku, ABC News, March 25,2011

 

 

Kaku has a habit of saying things that are inaccurate and therefore misleading. In this case, his words make Mixed Oxide Fuel– the same MOX fuel that the Natural News was hysterical about– sound as if it’s just another word for plutonium. In reality, MOX is generally manufactured with 5% – 7% plutonium, the other 93% – 95% being uranium. 30% of that plutonium is consumed when the fuel is used.

 

He also describes plutonium as “the most toxic chemical known to science”, which begs the question: “Really?” Kaku seems no more informed on this subject than the people he is being interviewed by. Especially since he claims that ingesting a millionth of a gram could cause cancer. He’s right: ingesting one millionth of a gram of plutonium can give you about one chance in a million of getting a radiation-caused cancer. So yes, it could cause cancer. So can a sunburn, but people still go outdoors.

 

 

Plutonium Toxicity

 

Because I am not a physicist or a chemist or a medical doctor, I will keep this as short and as simple as I possibly can.

 

Along with beta and gamma radiation, plutonium emits alpha radiation. The alpha radiation is the biggest danger in terms of toxicity, because most plutonium isotopes release only very low energy beta particles, and very little gamma radiation. Harmless before it enters the body (alpha particles cannot penetrate the outer layer of human skin; even a sheet of paper is enough to block them), once inside the body alpha radiation is the most destructive form of ionizing radiation.

 

However, unlike other radioactive isotopes which make their way into the food chain, Plutonium tends to form itself into large molecules which have difficulty being absorbed by plants or animals, either through roots or digestive tracts. This means that the greatest risk of plutonium toxicity is by inhalation. When inhaled, about 5% of the plutonium gets absorbed into the body and migrates mostly to the bones and to the liver, where it can sit for many decades, irradiating surrounding tissue, possibly causing cancer (usually lung, liver, or bone cancers).

 

Despite how bad this sounds, this information is gleaned in part from laboratory studies of animals given relatively high doses of plutonium. Epidemiological studies of human populations exposed to plutonium dust do not corroborate the observations reported in animals. In other words, the results from high dose experiments are not reflected in studies of low-dose exposures.  Rises in lung cancer throughout the United States, for instance, generally correspond to areas with high air pollution, whereas in communities downwind from the Nevada nuclear bomb-test site where one would expect to see an increase of (plutonium-caused) cancers, there has been no such increase.

 

Further, according to a fact sheet released by the Argonne National Laboratory in 2005: “…breathing in 5,000 respirable plutonium particles of about 3 microns each is estimated to increase an individual’s risk of incurring a fatal cancer about 1% above the U.S. average.”

 

Plutonium is dangerous, but certainly does not deserve the moniker “most toxic chemical known to mankind” or the like.

 

What about Kaku’s other claim? That a tiny particle of plutonium can give you lung cancer? This is a claim we hear over and over again from the likes of Helen Caldicott and Christopher Busby. It’s mostly based on the “Hot Particle” theory, which has been discredited for years.

 

“Hot Particle” Theory

 

A “hot particle”, has no precise definition, but is essentially a very small (microscopic), highly radioactive particle that due to its electrical charge, will “hop” from one surface to another.

 

The “hot particle” theory posits that the hot particles are more dangerous than previously thought because once ingested or inhaled, their electrical charge will cause them to stick in one place. This has led to claims that the particles give a much higher than average dose to just a few cells, increasing the chance of causing a cancer by 100,000 times more than mainstream science would predict.

 

This theory has not been backed up by actual studies. In fact studies by

 

  • the U.S. National Academy of Sciences
  • the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement (NCRP)
  • the British Medical Research Council
  • the U.K. National Radiological Protection Board
  • the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission
  • the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • the U.K. Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution

 

have investigated and rejected the “hot particle” theory of increased cancer risk.

 

Nor is theory borne out in real-life incidents. According to the theory, the 26 workers who breathed in significant amounts of plutonium dust at Los Alamos during the 1940s should have developed about 200 lung cancers between them. As of 1991, just three of them had developed lung cancer. Those three were also smokers (in the United States, 87% of lung cancer cases are estimated to be caused by smoking).

 

This theory is considered to be discredited by mainstream science.

 

 

The leadership [in Japan] is disconnected from reality. They’re not physicists, they’re not engineers… -Michio Kaku, In the Arena on CNN, March 18, 2011

 

As early as March 18 and well into early April, Kaku was making the rounds on news and entertainment shows, urging the Japanese government to “call in the military” and “bury the sucker!” (meaning the Fukushima reactors). He didn’t seem to realize that the JSDF were already deployed, or that burying the reactors was a bad idea while they were still generating heat. (So apparently, he’s not much of an engineer either…)

 

Why do people believe Kaku, and why do news shows keep asking him to comment? Partly because he is able to talk in very simple, direct, and above all, entertaining language (“…we could lose a good chunk of northern Japan!”) that appeals to newscasters and their viewers, and partly because he obviously makes himself available.  In my opinion, he is a shameless self-promoter who cares more about getting himself public exposure than the truth.

 

On the same episode of “In the Arena” quoted above, Kaku slyly seemed to accept credit for Prime Minister Kan’s statement that burying the reactors was a possibility once they were stabilized:

 

I was on national television, and it got picked up by NHK… and their Prime Minister finally got around to saying ‘And oh gee, maybe we should think about this option.’ So it’s seeping its way now into the highest levels of Japanese government.”

I could probably write a whole chapter just on Michio Kaku alone, but I hope that I’ve given an overview of why what he says should not be taken at face value. My impression is that his comments have not been directly reported much in Japan. The problem is that because he is so widely respected, and appears on television so much, on American networks of all political stripes (from Fox News to Democracy Now), what he has said has shaped the tone of the reporting coming out of the U.S. He was leading the charge of people shouting to bury Fukushima, he was giving the American networks many of the doomsday scenarios that flowed back to us over the Internet, and in general he was feeding the fear machine and enabling other doomsayers with his thoughtless “science”.

 

UPDATE: Have added a quickie bibliography in a follow-up post.

10 comments

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  1. Ray Pitts

    Kaku is among the few outstanding people who actually care about the human race and its future. Certainly, his intelligence is beyond your recognition. You are among the people who give the internet it’s reputation for inaccuracy and untruthfulness. Give yourselves a Bad Journalism Award. Congratulations!

    1. Andrew

      Regardless, he is a scientist and represents the claims he makes as science. I gave several examples of statements he made in the mass media that are clearly incorrect. He represents himself as an expert on topics he is clearly not an expert on. Doing this in a mass media context is irresponsible at best.

      He may very well be more intelligent than me, but that doesn’t make his statements and behaviour immune from criticism.

  2. wyygil

    I completely agree, he’s as bad as any reality show fugitive, willing to say anything to be on TV.

  3. D diva

    I listened to dr kaku yesterday at a live talk in Ohio. It was embarrassing. And fundamentally so inane that it was disrespectful to the audience. Never will I waste my time again. It was phoned in, phony, inaccurate goofy and stupid.

  4. Oliver V.

    I agree on what you wrote in your article, he dramatizes the facts in order to be heard and sometimes he goes too far. However, I have to admire his attempt of making science more understandable for the general public. The stereotype of a scientist is a nerd in white coat, sitting in a dark lab, only interested in his experiments that the world will probably never even hear about. Kaku is trying to raise interest among non-specialized people, of course that means that the accuracy has to be lowered.

  5. Jlea61

    So glad to hear someone else sees this. I thought I was the only one. I’d rather hear my science not dumbed down. Don’t mind looking up the facts presented. I always saw him as a shill for everything Green anyway. Hence the tiny particle cancer stuff. Guess I am too old to be awestruck by that anymore.

  6. John Smith

    I saw him on “prophets of science fiction.” That’s when I heard him tell us that humans have stopped evolving. As a student of anthropology, you can imagine the dumbfounded look on my face…. unless I suppose my professors are wrong. I had a feeling he was of the douche bag type.

  7. jon

    Over the last 3 years, TEPCO has continuously lied and covered up many aspects of the disaster at Fukushima. The U.S. government kept 2 separate records of U.S serviceman who were affected by fallout in the 1950’s during nuclear weapons tests in the Southwest. There were the official records that showed everything was fine and the actual records which were kept secret showing the servicemen were affected and were dying. The U.S. government finally admitted this in the 90’s and the servicemen, or their surviving families, as it too late for many, did receive compensation. The CIA knew of the immense1957 nuclear waste explosion in the Ural mountains in Russia that wiped 50 towns off the map but they never released that information, though it would have been a huge propaganda benefit for the U.S. at the height of the cold war, as it would have raised concerns about the budding nuclear industry.in the U.S.
    Given that governments, corporations, intelligence organizations, the military, scientists, doctors and the press have this record of deceit on the subject of nuclear power and weapons it seems that you accept many of their reports and studies which go back all the way to Hiroshima and assume they are accurate and above reproach. You have every right to question Dr. Kaku if you feel he has been incorrect but that should be balanced with the sources of your information and the history of the last 60 years in regards to nuclear power and weapons, otherwise it just seems that you are committing many of the same errors you criticize him for.” Scientific ” studies on these topics have been highly politicized and sometimes were outright lies for ” national security” reasons or to protect corporate interests. Your attack on Dr. Kaku seems to ignore the history involved.

  8. Andrew

    Jon,

    While I would dispute some of the facts you present, the point is more that they’re irrelevant. Kaku has an annoying habit of delivering sound bites that sound like science but aren’t. In this case, he was delivering sound bites that had an adverse effect on a population of a specific area and on the population of Japan. I felt that he needed to be directly debunked. The things you talk about are beyond the scope of my original post.

    If you think that any of the specific sources I’ve used or specific points I’ve made are incorrect (there’s a link to my sources at the bottom of the post), please feel free to discuss that here. Otherwise, tarring well-known and respected scientific institutions and scientists with your conspiracy brush is probably unwarranted and makes me wonder if you know how science is done. (It sounds very much like when climate “skeptics” imply that climate scientists are out to save their jobs by saying that global warming is real.)

  9. JON

    I gave very specific instances where these things happened, They are not conspiracy theories but part of the history of nuclear power, not imagined or made up. Those people and organizations that took part in these instances I point out deserve extra scrutiny. That is my point, If you feel the brush is too wide that is a fair criticism, my point is that there was a wide effort that covered these organizations and people to deceive, though not all and not every time. But let us be serious that this is not in dispute, the secrecy and politics allowed these deceits to happen and one should use a very critical eye when going back. On certain subjects extra scrutiny is warranted. That is all I ask and the reason I bring up what you feel is “irrelevant” history is that many people now are not versed in the history of last 70 years of nuclear power and though you feel this may be out of the “scope” of your post I feel context is required.

    http://www.ratical.org/radiation/KillingOurOwn/KOO3.html

    In above link , scientists, public health organizations and the government knew data about deaths from the fallout but covered it up. The issue of how serious the problems of radiation released onto a population comes from estimates of the amount of radiation released and accurate data of populations affected. When both of these are compromised then the science is compromised also. Do you think there has been accuracy and truthfulness from TEPCO and the Japanese government on these subjects?

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