Tag Archive: Wall-of-Shame

Feb 08

Post Showcase Discussion

Last night’s rehearsal, our first since the showcase, was disappointing in some ways, and great in others. Disappointing because most of us weren’t there. Great, because Takahiko, Mayu, and I had a really great follow-up conversation about what we discussed with the audience on Saturday after the show.

 

I learned more about Takahiko in that 90 minutes than I had in the last six months of working together. I found out that he’d seen Seven Streams of the River Ota (my favourite show ever) when it was in Japan, and that he also like the same Kurosawa films that I’m in love with (Ikiru and Jigoku to Tengoku in particular).

 

The YT Ensemble performs a musical number being tested for the "Wall of Shame" show.

Mostly, though, as I said, we reviewed the 30-minute discussion we had with the audience after our showcase this past Saturday. During that discussion, I asked  the audience what they thought about two scenes in particular.

 

Both scenes were based on Rosie DiManno’s Toronto Star article entitled No Escape Valve for So Much Grief.

 

The first scene, which we called No Escape Valve, consisted of an underplayed scene playing out the events of the scene described by DiManno prior to her self-insertion into the narrative. A cub reporter for a Japanese radio station, assigned to her first story, speaks self-consciously into her IC recorder, setting up the time and place of the scene: March 19th, 2011, outside a sports stadium in Miyagi-ken. The stadium is serving as a holding facility for recovered bodies. The other characters in the scene include a woman who is looking for a relative, a stadium employee working as a guide to those coming for the first time, and the family described by DiManno’s article.

 

The rest of the scene is played out almost sub-vocally, with overlapping dialogue. We’re very conscious of not wanting to put big speeches in the mouths of victims, so the speech is improvised and not at normal performance level. As the scene begins, a man (that was me) sits at a desk, reading to himself.

 

About halfway through, as the scene in Miyagi continues to play out, the man at the desk tells the audience that he’s reading the article by DiManno and starts to read excerpts aloud to them. Initially, he distances himself from the article, but in the last few lines, he throws on a scarf and becomes the writer herself, gradually moving to a histrionic falsetto that matches the tone and character of the article. His loud voice easily overpowers the scene, and as he reads the last few lines, the other actors become aware of him and turn to look at him, puzzlement playing over their features.

 

The second scene consisted of me dressed in a headscarf and african-style wrap skirt to complete the out-of-touch hippie look, playing guitar and singing a song entitled I Will Make the Japanese Cry while various Japanese stereotypes unenthusiastically performed a broadway-style dance number behind me.

 

What I wanted to know from the audience was what their feelings were about us covering this topic. Not so much the bad journalism aspect (I think we’re all agreed on that), but about actually representing tsunami victims in the scene itself, as we did in the No Escape Valve scene.

 

Interestingly, the opinion was divided, with Japanese members of the audience feeling uncomfortable with the scene, and expats not being put off by it. There was a little more nuance to the conversation than that, but that was the general gist. On the other hand, no one was offended by the musical number (unless they were simply offended by my terrible singing and simply refrained from telling me so).

 

Since we didn’t have anyone in the audience who was actually from the affected areas in Tohoku, we were getting feedback by people who had friends or relatives there. The way people worded their concerns about the scene was interesting and mirrored what I’ve heard from others when I’ve asked them about it and what Mayu said when we first started rehearsing No Escape Valve. To wit: “we’re worried that people from the Tohoku region will be offended by this.”

 

While I sympathize with the feeling, I wonder if it’s worth worrying about. We plan to approach the scenes like this carefully, as we did with this one. The applicable section of No Escape Valve was done in what one audience member called a “documentary” style. If it’s okay to go up to Tohoku and point cameras at things and people, then my feeling is that we’re okay recreating a similar effect on stage. As I wrote earlier, we don’t plan to put any big long speeches into the mouths of tsunami victim characters or try make their lives into entertainment. (That’s not what the Wall of Shame show is about, anyway.) However, to explore the topic seriously and honestly, we certainly can’t shy away from scenes like this.

 

We still have more discussion to do within the whole group itself before we resolve this, but I wanted to post my feelings on this while they’re still fresh.

Sep 27

The River is Wide

So the YTheatre Ensemble has started working on our first project. The first official project will still be Wall of Shame: The Musical, but we’re going to start doing a series of mini-projects to get us in the right headspace.

 

The first project is to expand the world that I and a bunch of high school students created for our 2009 Kanto Plains Drama Festival piece The Tribe of Dirt.

 

At the end of that piece, the tribe is led off by their new shaman to find a new life, and maybe a new element to base their culture on. I’ve given the ensemble the task of expanding on this, so we’ve started exploring the journey of the new shaman as he searches for the tribe’s new home and purpose.

 

Last night, we started working on the element of water, and thus did a lot of rolling around on the floor.

 

I find that I’m still having to do a lot of kickstarting of ideas with the group, since they’re used to being “just actors”. I will continue to work to make them part of the creative process. Last night’s stalling over some points of mythology and the archetypal quest have also convinced me that I may have to create a reading list for them.

 

Finally, here are some photos from last Tuesday’s “Opening Ceremony”, as I called it. After rehearsal, we convened at my house to drink some sake. I gave each of the “First Five”, including myself, a little packet of gold leaf that I’d bought last year in Kanazawa, and we sprinkled it into our cups to symbolize our collective wish for good fortune in our Theatrical pursuit.

 

Sep 21

Meditations on the Wall of Shame

More than six months have passed since the great Tohoku earthquake on March 11, 2011. And thus more than six months have passed since I started the Bad Journalism Wall of Shame. Although entries still trickle in (reporting on Fukushima in particular continues to be sensationalistic and unscientific), the Wall’s heyday has passed, so it seems like a good time for me to gather together my thoughts about it.

 

The Wall became more than I had intended it to be. As I’ve written before, I did not expect it to go international, and I did not expect so many people to read it and submit stories. I also did not expect the media attention around the issue (although, interestingly, other than a student paper in New Zealand, the Berliner Zeitung. and the Columbia Review of Journalism, and one or two other small outfits/bloggers, no international media source that ran the story bothered contacting me or anyone involved—many of them just reprinted the dismissive Japan Times story that didn’t even give the link to the site).

 

Having said that, I think that the Wall, ultimately, was a failure. I know that a few people might disagree with me, but I mean a failure in the sense that the Wall’s potential was not achieved and that there are lessons to be learned by acknowledging that failure.

 

But let’s start out with the positive. What did the Wall of Shame accomplish? Some of these items are general, and some of them are personal to me.

 

  • Documented the great anger that prevailed over the media coverage.
  • Provided material for an upcoming Theatre production
  • Introduced me to a bunch of people I never would have met otherwise
  • Did manage to document a number of actual, in-the-flesh, bad pieces of journalism
  • Did generate several offline discussions about the state of journalism

Now for the negatives. What did the wall fail to do?

 

  • Failed to initiate a productive discussion online about the state of journalism
  • Failed to generate or motivate any action on the part of news organizations
  • Failed to compile a high-quality list of bad articles.

 

I’ve done a lot of pondering over the last three months about what I might have done differently, and come to the conclusion that, erm, not much. There are things I would have liked to have done differently in terms of setting up the wall, but to this day I don’t know of a single way to combine the wiki-ness that I wanted (i.e. people could contribute and edit, but be identifiable by user names, discuss entries, edit others’ entries, etc.) and the the ease-of-use that I needed without creating a very custom solution. My use of wikispaces originally caused a lot of problems because a number of contributors couldn’t figure out how to use the tables… and worse than that, the tables couldn’t be easily exported (for, say, alphabetical sorting). The switch to Google Spreadsheets allowed people to submit with no technical knowledge required, but made the submission process irrevocable and anonymous.

 

The fix I (and my five valiant editors) tried to apply by creating an edited version of the wall didn’t really do the trick either.

 

But, I really don’t think, in hindsight, that we could have done much better.

 

However, moving forward, I do have some ideas of what should be done.

 

Since March, I’ve thought up and discarded grandiose ideas for fixes to the problem of sensationalism and the status quo of journalism, including:

 

  1. Treating journalists like we treat other professionals like lawyers, dentists, etc.
    • pay is higher for members of the professional organization
    • licensing is required and can be revoked
    • there are written standards and set consequences for not meeting those standards
  2. All media companies need to be non-profit
    • eliminate the profit motive of news organizations
    • funding is transparent; donors must be listed OR run through a separate agency in such a way that the news organizations have no specific donors

These methods wouldn’t work for a number of reasons. First of all, they all require a massive change to how the economics of news works today. Furthermore, the first solution has the problem that if the professional organization is compromised/corrupted, then all reporting is similarly compromised or corrupted.

 

The second solution has the problem that non-profits are more heavily vulnerable to government regulation, and in some countries (and to some people), this move might be seen as a nationalization of the media (which I think we can all agree is a very bad thing when it actually happens). While, philosophically, I think that all corporations should be non-profits, I realize that this is not currently a viable solution.

 

Both of the proposed solutions also marginalize or exclude the emerging ‘citizen journalist’ movement, which, while frequently frustrating and annoying and low quality, has become an important part of the modern news landscape.

 

The best I’ve been able to come up with, then, for the future, is this:

 

An International Media Watchdog Organization, which will rate all news organizations and sites, is non-profit and has a number of permanent employees. Readers submit articles that they think are incorrect, or factually wrong, and those articles are evaluated by editors. Evaluation is done using a grading system and a short summary.

 

All media organizations start out with the highest rating possible (let’s call it 10 stars), and ratings will be lowered by a set amount based on submitted stories. Organizations can get their rating raised again by prominently issuing retractions/corrections. Media ratings are displayed on the watchdog website, and can be searched using several criteria. Individual journalists and pieces can be searched as well. (It’s possible that individual journalists could have a rating as well, but that might be problematic for several reasons, not the least of which being that two or more people could have the same name.)

 

There’s a little more to it than this, but those are the essentials. The advantage of this system is that it does not require the participation or cooperation of the Media corporations themselves. It simply gives readers the ability to research a particular news story (a la Snopes.com), or, if a story is not yet in the database, to check out the trustworthiness (by rating) of the publisher of that story.  The other advantage is that it doesn’t stop anyone from publishing anything. Mr. 9/11 Truther McGillicutty can still run his blog about how 9/11 was caused by the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa; the watchdog NPO might give it a bad review/rating, but that’s not the same as preventing him from publishing (and true believers won’t care anyway).

 

If this caught on, and people learned to check stories on the watchdog site, then the media corporations (and individual bloggers too, I suppose), would actually have a economic incentive to keep a high rating.

 

I think it could work. I really do.

 

And that’s the main lesson I learned from making the Wall of Shame site.

Sep 11

YT Ensemble, Assemble!

The Ytheatre ensemble after our first rehearsal.

Left to right:
Hiraku Kawakami, Mari Kawamura, Mayu Cho, Takahiko Arai, Andrew Woolner (holding the camera)

The Yokohama Theatre Ensemble met for the first time as a unit this past Friday at the Kanagawa Earth Plaza (or Global Citizens Plaza, or whatever it’s called).

 

In addition to myself, the ensemble includes four brave souls: Hiraku Kawakami, Mari Kawamura, Mayu Cho, and Takahiko Arai. I say brave because we’re doing something different than every single one of us is used to while working on Theatre.

 

Normally when a group of strangers comes together in the name of Theatre here in Japan, we know a few things going in:

  • what show we are going to do
  • what the show will be like (style, content, etc.)
  • what the rehearsal process will be
  • when the show will be going up
  • what part(s) each person is going to play

The YT Ensemble knows none of these things. Well, we do know that our first show will be called Wall of Shame: The Musical, and that we hope to perform it for the first time sometime near the end of this calendar year. I’ve set that as the first show, because, firstly, I believe that it’s an important show to do, and secondly, I think that it’s important to have a first project in the pipe in order to prime our creative processes. In the future, we will be developing the shows together, as a group.

 

But other than the name of the show and the vague theme of journalism and the 3/11 earthquake, we know nothing. Not what the form of the show will be, not what the content will be, not even a running time. And that’s kind of the point.

 

So, that’s kind of scary. We’re creating Theatre without so many of the safety nets that we’re all used to. The worst safety net to work without (at least for me) is that of enforced relationships. With a scripted show, or a devised piece developed with a proper ‘director’, there are excuses to break social taboos. For instance, the script or the director will frequently dictate to you your in-show relationship with another character. If that relationship is intimate or hurtful, certain behaviours on your part are appropriate within the context of the rehearsal room. With people who have worked together for a long time, this becomes less of an issue, of course, but the five ensemble members have never worked with each other before. Moreover, we didn’t even know each other before forming the ensemble. I predict that we’re going to spend a lot of time, if I may switch metaphors, just breaking the walls we’ve all put up around ourselves. More time than usual for a cast.

 

I will post further as things develop, but I think the intimacy of the ensemble will be a recurring theme for the first little while as we try to figure out ways to break down the social walls between us. That in itself might make a good show someday…

Jul 30

One More for the Road

Once last Kaku post. Here is the video in which he says that we’ve stopped evolving and below that a link to a blog that explains very clearly why he’s wrong.

 

 

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/02/why_do_physicists_think_they_a.php

 

Should we be taking any advice from this guy? He obviously doesn’t have any power of self-editing, and thinks he’s an expert on everything. It’s never clear when his expertise ends and his wonky opinions begin.

Jul 25

Arnie Gundersen – The Facade of Believability

Arnold “Arnie” Gundersen is in some ways the opposite of Michio Kaku. He’s not flashy, he avoids sounding over-the-top, even when he talks about grim scenarios, and he doesn’t wave his arms around like a mad scientist.

 

Gundersen talks a hot load of crap.

 

The first time I saw Gundersen, I thought he looked like the kind of man I could trust. He looks like somebody’s kindly grandpa. He was doing a demonstration in his back yard with a blow torch about the effect of heat on the cladding of a nuclear reactor fuel rod. It was informative and educational, and not at all dishonest, as far as I could tell.

 

I realized quickly that Gundersen was anti-nuclear power, but in the early videos that I saw, he was very cautious and said very few things that made me think he wasn’t being honest. It seemed to me that he was just interpreting the information coming out from Japan. I didn’t find his commentary particularly interesting, so I didn’t pay much more attention to him. I also missed his statement early on on “Russia Today” that the Fukushima incident was “Chernobyl on steroids”.

 

Then, on March 31, Gundersen posted a video claiming that the spent fuel pool in Reactor 4 was dry and that the spent fuel rods were exposed to the air. He based this not on information released, but on his analysis of a low-quality video of the reactor building that he found on Ustream. This video started spreading on Facebook, and so Arnie Gundersen once again wandered into my field of view.

 

Something felt wrong. He was more slippery than Michio Kaku– he wasn’t saying anything that I as a non-scientist could pinpoint as factually incorrect. As far as I could tell, he was just extrapolating a little more than I felt comfortable with.

 

Over the days and weeks that followed, I found his videos being posted on Facebook and Twitter more and more, saying more and more scary things that just didn’t sound right. It was around this time that he started being interviewed as an expert by the mainstream media. So I did a little digging to see if this grandfatherly man who seemed so trustworthy was really what he appeared to be.

 

What I discovered was that Gundersen’s company, Fairewinds Associates, is a for-profit company that hires him out to provide expert testimony and write research papers for anti-nuclear groups. He has a lot to gain then by making sure his appearances in the media make nuclear power sound dangerous.

Gundersen is the “Chief Engineer” of Fairewinds Associates, and is often introduced as such on news programs. That title is meaningless since Gundersen is the only engineer at Fairewinds: the company consists of just him and his wife.

 

On RT (“Russia Today”) in a clip that has been translated into Japanese and posted on YouTube, the host talks about Gundersen being “part of the nuclear industry” in what seems to be an effort to make Gundersen look more credible. “Oh!” thinks the viewer, “He works for the nuclear industry and he’s saying all these terrible things about Fukushima and nuclear power. He’s speaking against his own interests, since he won’t have a job if nuclear power is abolished, so he must be telling the truth!”

 

The truth is, as I’ve shown already, that Gundersen is a for-hire anti-nuclear consultant, and although he claims “39 years of nuclear power engineering experience” on his website, that is not the case. Since Gundersen has been an expert witness in several cases, his accurate resume is available online in the public record for anyone to see. According a version of his resume from 2006, Gundersen’s career did start 39-40 years ago in 1971, but he only worked in the industry until 1990.

 

In 1990 he was dismissed from his job in the industry. He claims that he was a whistleblower, his company claimed defamation, and they settled out-of-court. From that time until at least 2006 he seems to have worked full-time as a teacher at various private schools in Vermont, doing “expert” consulting in order to supplement his income. I don’t think either teaching or being paid as an “expert” witness count as “nuclear power engineering experience”.

 

Gundersen also claims that he was a licensed reactor operator (he calls himself a “critical facility reactor operator, instructor” on that portion of his resume), but some investigation reveals that the reactor in question was a 100 Watt “critical assembly” at a school. That reactor generated no power and cannot be said to have provided Gundersen with any experience in operating or maintaining an actual nuclear power plant.

 

A browse through the Fairewinds Associates website is also telling. There is no video content on the site that predates Gundersen’s March 15, 2011 appearance on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. His first self-produced video appears on March 17. It appears very slick from the get-go, with good production values, and makes me wonder if Fairewinds, smelling money in the air, hadn’t suddenly hired a PR firm right after the Fukushima crisis began. I don’t have any information to prove this, but the timing is a bit suspicious.

 

So why am I picking on poor Grandpa Gundersen? Because as he got more media exposure, his international profile grew, and his statements were being accepted without question by the English-language media and then being spread around in Japan. And as time went on and less new and exciting information emerged from Fukushima, his exaggerations and distortions became easier to spot, even by a guy with a Fine Arts degree.

 

For instance, you’ll remember that Gundersen claimed the spent fuel pool in Reactor 4 had gone dry. According to a June 15 story in the Associated Press, a new video emerged proving that the Japanese officials were right and the spent fuel pool had not gone dry, as the U.S. officials (and Gundersen) had insisted. Gundersen has not removed the video about the spent fuel pool going dry from his website, which is to be commended, but neither has he issued an apology or retraction now that evidence has emerged that contradicts his analysis.

 

On June 12 Gundersen released a video on the Fairewinds Associates site that I think is very illustrative of the kind of nonsense Gundersen is spreading into the media. He records about one “update” on Fukushima every week, but I thought this one is the most illustrative of how he is becoming bolder in his claims as time goes on.

 

Gundersen claimed:

 

  • The stricken reactors had released more “hot particles” than TEPCO had originally thought and that people in Tokyo were breathing in 10 of these every day in April
  • These “hot particles” are undetectable with a regular Geiger counter
  • These “hot particles” were detected by “independent scientists” in Tokyo using air filters
  • These “hot particles” are undetectable inside the body
  • These “hot particles” latch onto tissue and irradiate a small area (he expanded on this in a June 14th interview on CNN) (this is “hot particle” theory)
  • “People” in Japan are reporting a metallic taste in their mouths
  • People also reported metallic tastes in their mouth near Three Mile Island, when undergoing medical imaging, after Chernobyl, etc.

 

These claims, particularly those of “hot particles” were repeated in interviews on CNN, Fox News, and other TV networks, as well as in many online articles.

 

As we’ve already discussed, “hot particle” theory is pretty solidly debunked, but more worrying in this case is that Gundersen has started being cagey about where his information is coming from. For instance, the “independent scientists” in Tokyo who were allegedly sending him data on “hot particles”. Who are they? There doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to hide their identities… unless they don’t exist.

 

Also, assuming for just a moment that any of what Gundersen said was true (I cannot find anyone other than him originating information on radioactive particles in air filters; all links about it lead back to him), my question would be: how many “hot particles” per day were we breathing in before this? Radioactive particles were already in the air, long before Fukushima Daiichi got hit by a tsunami: particles that were put there by other industry, from bomb testing during the cold war, etc. So the missing piece of information is what’s the difference now? But even at 10 particles per day– if we’re talking about particles with radiation levels so low that they cannot be detected, it seems odd to hit the panic button.

 

The whole story about people reporting metallic tastes in their mouths is also a bit of a shocker, coming from a scientist. There are many things that can cause a metallic taste in a person’s mouth. Here is a partial list:

 

antibiotics and medications used for treatment of

  • kidney stones
  • antidepressants
  • prenatal vitamins
  • anaesthetic ~ lidocaine
  • heart failure ~ captopril
  • giardiasis ~ metronidazole
  • trichomoniasis ~ tinidazole
  • CT scan ~ contrast medium
  • chronic alcoholism ~ disulfiram
  • rheumatoid arthritis ~ auranofin
  • high blood pressure ~ captopril
  • low calcium treatment ~ calcitriol
  • weight loss, diabetes ~ metformin

dental problems

  • gingivitis
  • periodontitis
  • tooth infections

other

  • cancer
  • food allergy
  • peptic ulcer
  • lichen planus
  • marine toxins
  • too much iron
  • hypercalcemia
  • lead poisoning
  • bleeding gums
  • kidney disease
  • eating pine nuts
  • copper overdose
  • selenium toxicity
  • iodine intoxication
  • mercury poisoning
  • cadmium poisoning
  • acute kidney failure
  • burning mouth syndrome

 

Tokyo is a city of over ten million people. Given all the possible causes, surely every day a number of people experience a metallic taste in their mouths. Reporting on anecdotal evidence like this is not only unscientific, but unethical given the anxiety that it causes.

 

Gundersen has got a lot of play in the international media, and his videos have spread virally via bilingual Japanese people who have translated and posted them on the Internet. I hope that I’ve shown that Gundersen is not a trustworthy source of information about Fukushima for the following reasons:

 

  • He has been dishonest about his qualifications and work experience
  • He misrepresents himself (or at least allows others to misrepresent him) as part of the nuclear industry
  • He has an undeclared direct financial interest in increasing his profile as an anti-nuclear power consultant in order to attract new clients
  • He subscribes to a theory of low-level radiation damage that has been discredited
  • He has made claims that have been proven to be false
  • He has made claims that don’t stand up to investigation, are anecdotal, and are unfalsifiable
  • As time goes on and Fukushima produces less dramatic news, Gundersen’s reports become more dramatic.

I hope this has been helpful. I wish that the media would be a little less credulous when dealing with experts, and challenge statements that sound wrong, but failing that, it’s our job to not take whatever an “expert” says at face value and to ask questions.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The information about Gundersen’s company, Fairewinds Associates is mostly available on the company’s own website at fairewinds.com.

Gundersen’s 2006 resume is available online here: http://www.necnp.org/files/docs/NEC_March_8_2006_Appeal_re_Docket_6812_filings_3_8_06.pdf pages 26 – 29.

The information about his claims about running a reactor were first reported here: http://atomicinsights.com/2011/02/arnie-gundersen-has-inflated-his-resume-yet-frequently-claims-that-entergy-cannot-be-trusted.html

The information about the spent fuel pool not being dry originally came from a June 15/16 Associated Press article (date depends on your time zone). That article has now been taken down, but the text is still floating around on various news sites:
http://articles.boston.com/2011-06-16/news/29666500_1_fuel-pool-nrc-fuel-rods

The list of conditions that can cause a metallic taste in a person’s mouth were lifted directly from an article at Healthblurbs.com: http://www.healthblurbs.com/many-causes-of-metallic-taste-metal-taste-in-mouth-and-taste-of-metal-in-your-mouth-symptoms/

 

Other references are the same as the ones for Kaku.

Jul 24

Michio Kaku Rant – Bibliography

Just a quickie bibliography for my recent post about bullshit artist Michio Kaku.

 

On Plutonium toxicity:

Most of my points about plutonium can be found in the plutonium article on Wikipedia.

 

The quotation about 5000 respirable particles was sourced from a plutonium human health fact sheet published by the Argonne National Laboratory.

 

More info about plutonium toxicity, and the list of organizations who have dismissed “Hot Particle” theory was sourced from Bernard L. Cohen’s book The Nuclear Energy Option, chapter 13 (see the section on plutonium toxicity) and his paper The Myth of Plutonium Toxicity. The latter is also the source of my statement that a microgram of ingested plutonium will give you one chance in a million of getting cancer.

 

Bernard L. Cohen is a controversial figure in the Nuclear debate, but he uses the most conservative model of low-level radiation danger (the Linear No-Threshold Model) to come up with his figures.

 

Information about MOX fuel comes again from Wikipedia’s page on the subject.

 

When using Wikipedia, I have clicked through to the references and read the source material whenever possible.

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.
 
***
 
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.

Apr 09

TV Interviews and Other Creatures

On Tuesday, Yuko Aotani from NHK World Newsline, her producer, and crew met with myself and the other Journalism Wall of Shame editors at OUR SPACE in Hatagaya.  Jack and Shinji, the men behind OUR SPACE, were very accommodating, as always, and made sure that all the technical needs were met.

 

Some volunteer editors have now joined the Wall of Shame project, and are helping me create an edited version of the wall. Rather than edit the submissions page, which I am now calling the Raw Feed, we’ve decided to leave that as it is, with minimal editorial oversight, and create an edited page, which will be easier to read and have a more standardized format.

NHK World filmed us as I walked through a how-to-edit tutorial for the others, and then they filmed while Aotani-san had a conversation with us.  (In English: for those of you who aren’t aware, NHK is the the national broadcaster, but NHK World is the English-language cable news channel.)

 

Then, on Thursday, I let the same crew into my house to film me working on the wall and to interview me. I spent Wednesday day and Thursday morning cleaning the house.  Aotani-san and the crew arrived at about ten after one, and decided to shoot me working on the wall in my downstairs home office, and then shoot the interview upstairs in the tatami room.

 

It took almost four hours to do, including filming me greeting Aotani-san at the door (which we filmed at the end, and had one apparently hilarious outtake in which I bowed in a strange way). All this for a three-minute piece!

 

They did mention that a lot of the interview wouldn’t be aired (of course—even at my most succinct, the answer to one question might take me several minutes), and that it was mostly for research purposed for them so they could understand what exactly we were doing with the wall and what our longer-term goals are.

 

I, of course, had to confess that the wall team and myself didn’t have any at the moment, and were mostly playing it by ear.

 

The most frustrating part of the otherwise pleasant interview was when they asked for an example of a hard news story from a major news source with a very glaring factual error. I found a couple, but they were from non-English language media, and I couldn’t locate an English one. I know they are on the wall, but the problem is that there are so many entries, covering so many different types of news sources (there are a lot of tabloids and ‘alternative’ news sources, and columnists make up a good chunk of the major media outlets’ entries on the Wall), it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

 

But other than that, it was a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, and if the price ends up being that they make me look like an idiot on international television (which I don’t think they will), well, then I guess that’s the price I pay for enjoying their company.

 

I was busy doing wall stuff, so I took no photos while NHK World was at the house, so instead, I offer you a photo from my hanami excursion along the Oooka river last night.

 

 

IMG_5037

Apr 02

A Response

I’ve got a little bit of flak for starting the Journalism Wall of Shame, not surprisingly, though not as much as I actually expected.

 

One person tweeted that he hated “fucking crusader bloggers” who had “never set foot in a newsroom in their lives”. Given that this was tweeted immediately after he’d tweeted about finding  the Wall of Shame, I can only assume that he was talking about me. (Note: although I use quotation marks, I might have got some of the words not exactly right; this was tweeted a few days ago and is apparently lost in the ether.)

 

I don’t expect everyone to like what I’m doing, and as we’ve seen with that Japan Times article, press people begin circling their wagons when they hear about us. However, I would like to address the point that not having ever been in a newsroom disqualifies me from criticising bad journalism.

 

To wit: do sports writers have to be or have been professional athletes? Do music reviewers need to be professional musicians? Do Theatre reviewers need to be professional actors, directors, etc.? Do they have to have ever been backstage during a show? Does a journalist who criticises a speech given or an action taken by, say, Barak Obama, need to have been president?

 

No, of course they don’t.

 

I could go on, but I think that sums up my point very nicely.

 

I leave you with this photo of the TERRIBLE COKE ZERO SHORTAGE that is hitting many convenience stores, drugstores, and supermarkets in Yokohama.  Noooooooooooo!

 

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Yes, with all the blackouts this week having been cancelled, this is the extent of my discomfort.  Why not DONATE and help those suffering actual hardship?

Mar 22

Wall of Shame Needs Your Help

The next step for the bad journalism wall-of-shame is in progress.

 

Remember, as important as we think this is wall-of-shame project is, right now human lives are more important.  If you do nothing else today (and haven’t already), please DONATE! (<—that link will take you to a page that lists reputable groups you can donate to, based on your geographical location)

 

Having said that, there is work to do on the wall.  What we’re missing are articles from the first few days following the quake; if you can go looking for those and submit them, that would be great.  We’re looking for the worst offenders, particularly those from major news sources who made big factual errors (on purpose or by negligence) on things that could easily have been checked.  We missed a lot of articles because I didn’t get the idea until almost a week after the quake hit.  Remember, the point isn’t to get worked up over little mistakes, but to find generally trusted news sources who have misrepresented the facts in order make a sensational story.

 

We’ve got a huge information dump on the site right now, but no real editorial oversight to start filtering the worst offenders and presenting them in an easy-to-read way for the general public.  I was using a wiki originally, because I was hoping the site would evolve on its own.  Since I’ve had to lock the pages due to problems with wikispace’s seeming inability to merge multiple edits in a table, that is no longer going to be possible.

 

The first step is to figure out presentation and data management.  I’m working on that myself, but I would LOVE if a web developer could lend a hand.

 

NEEDED – WEB DEVELOPER

  • To advise and implement our new front end.
  • Will need coding skills

Contact me (@stagerabbit on twitter or through this blog) for further discussion.

 

 

While that is happening, some of us need to get editing.  I have a couple of volunteers, but I need two or three more to make up the team.  You will be moving data from the current wall into the new one and/or editing entries to clean them up and make sure they are all clear and readable.

 

NEEDED – COPY EDITORS

  • Good command of the English language (for now, anyway; versions in other languages are a possibility in the future)
  • Need to have reasonable availability online (e.g. Skype)
  • Comfortable with a collaborative process

Contact me (@stagerabbit on twitter or through this blog) if you’re interested in helping.

 

Okay, that’s it for now.  I need to get to sleep.  I will leave you with this:

 

 

IMG_4788

 

Not the best photo I’ve ever taken.  But this was Sunday lunch on our balcony, and I just wanted to point out that the only significant radiation around was that coming from the big thermonuclear ball in the sky—the sun.

 

Not even a banana.

Mar 20

WTF Toronto Star

Here is an article filed by Rosie DiManno of the Toronto Star:

 

http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/955721–dimanno-no-rest-for-japan-quake-victims

 

The article was brought to my attention by a contributor to the Bad Journalism Wall of Shame that I started Friday night.  I clicked through to read it and was absolutely flabbergasted at it.  I had expected a somewhat ill-informed, badly fact-checked piece like the one I submitted myself to the Wall of Shame as its first entry.  At that time, I thought that Ms. DiManno was just misinformed and not careful enough checking her sources, and the score I gave her reflected that.  However,  this second piece was so awful, and to my mind represented such a brutal distortion of fact (in service of a fairly obvious anti-nuclear agenda*), that I was instantly moved to respond directly by reporting it using the Report an Error button at the bottom of the webpage.  I could have let it go, I suppose, like so many others, but that it was printed by one of my hometown papers.  Given that the Toronto Star editorial staff are unlikely to read, let alone respond to it, I thought I would repost it here.

 

I don’t know where to begin.  I don’t know what alternate reality Ms. DiManno lives in, but it’s certainly not the Tokyo, Yokohama, and their environs that my friends, family, and I live in.

 

There are so many factual errors (including an unsupported assertion that a meltdown could inject "thousands of tonnes" of radioactive dust into the air"; and suggesting snarkily that nuclear winter is a possibility–something that is a theoretical result of a full-scale nuclear war, not a plant meltdown), that to list them all would require an article of my own.

 

The worst is perhaps the off-handed way she insults the workers who are risking their lives to keep the plant cooled, calling them "a selfless skeletal work crew doing whatever it is they do at the Fukushima plant…" which makes it very apparent she can’t be bothered to check facts and find out what it is they actually do.

 

In terms of officials (and scientists) telling us we are safe, Ms DiManno opines that "No one in Japan believes any of this babble." and that everyone able is moving as far away as possible.  This may be true of paranoid foreigners like herself, but I can assure you that myself and all my neighbours here in Yokohama are staying put, despite it being pretty much as easy as it ever was to head for western Japan.  I find her tone and her assertions offensive.

 

Finally, the entire tone of this article adds to the panic of the families of foreigners still living in Canada, some of whom are sick with worry… unnecessary worry caused by such irresponsible reporting.

 

Please recall Ms. DiManno from Japan immediately (if indeed she is actually here).  It is clear that she doesn’t want to be here, and we don’t want her here.

 

Shame on you, Toronto Star.  Shame on you, Rosie DiManno.

 

*I will make no secret that I am pro-nuclear power, but there are plenty of strong anti-nuclear power arguments to be made without resorting to untruths.

 

And now, I will try to calm down by posting a photo I took this afternoon at Kamiooka station as part of my series (really? I don’t know…) Life Goes on in Yokohama.

 

Life Goes on in Yokohama

Mar 17

Why Bad Journalism Has Driven Me To Desperate Ends

In retrospect, I should have had this idea before, but I guess today I just hit critical mass (not sure if it’s appropriate to use a nuclear energy turn of phrase here): one too many pieces of bad journalism.

 

So I decided to start a wiki Bad Journalism Wall of Shame and invite some of the other people who were frustrated with some of the shoddy, alarmist, and shockingly wrong journalism we’ve seen since last Friday’s Tohoku quake.

 

I take everything I read with a grain of salt these days, and have for many years.  When I read an article or see a television report that makes sensational claims, I try to fact check on my own, because I no longer trust most journalists to have done it for me.  There are several major areas that journalists particularly suck at:

 

  • Science reporting.  I have a degree in fine arts, and I could write better science articles than most science writers could.  Any journalist who suggested that Fukushima could be “another Chernobyl” should be made to retake his 9th grade science class and then have his journalist license revoked.   Oh wait…
  • Reporting on Japan.  JAPAN IS SOOO WEIRD!  JAPANESE PEOPLE HAVE NO EMOTION!  If everything you think you know about Japan was learned from the movies Gung Ho and Mr. Baseball, then maybe you’re not qualified to write an article about Japan.  Also, spending a few days, hell, even a month in Japan (probably in a hotel or furnished apartment, or otherwise isolated location) does not make you an expert on the place.  Nor does interviewing someone who has lived here for a few months (or even year, if living in one of the many gaijin bubbles).
  • Disaster reporting.  Two and a half words: Exaggeration and fear-mongering.

 

This is not new information.  Not to me, and probably not to you.  However, in the aftermath of the quake, all three of these elements joined together to create (to use a term journalists are so fond of using themselves) the “perfect storm”.  News piece after news piece full of inaccuracies, misinterpretations, and just plain lies.  (My favourites are the photos, shown out-of-context.  For instance, showing a photo of a girl in a surgical-style mask and implying that she was wearing it due to radiation, while the reality is that we’re in allergy season here and many people wear masks to keep pollen at bay.)

 

The worst offenders are the 24-hour news networks.  A few hours into the quake, I stopped looking at them.  The problem there (as we learned during the 9/11 coverage) is that the anchors feel like they have to keep talking to fill dead air, which means that they inevitably end up saying dumbass things.

 

But no news source gets off scot free.  Some seem to make stuff up, others seem to repeat rumours floating around in the electronic ether, while others interview obvious idiots or crazies and take what they say as gospel truth.  Some, I think, pick information up from another news source, and never bother to check it for accuracy.

 

Journalists are important.  If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be writing this, because I wouldn’t care.  They are as important as doctors, or soldiers, or firemen.  And they often get paid significantly less than all three.  If I was prone to hyperbole, I would say something like “journalists are the shoulders upon which freedom stands”, but I’m not, so I’ll just say good journalists are heroes.

 

Bad journalists, then, like bad doctors (think Doctor Moreau), bad soldiers, and bad firemen (I guess arsonists, then) make the world a worse place to live in.

 

Okay, like what?

 

In the case of this disaster, here is my list:

 

  • Incited a level of panic among people worldwide about Nuclear energy (pro or anti, I don’t care, but let’s talk facts, not histrionics)
  • Incited a level of panic among people worldwide regarding OH MY GOD NU-CLEE-AR WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!
  • Incited panic among foreign residents in Japan
  • Caused significant worry to the families, friends, and loved ones of those of us foreigners living in Japan.  Several people I know have left Japan, not because they were concerned about danger, but because their families were so stricken about the perceived danger they felt they had leave in order to comfort them
  • Probably (hard to measure) have caused economic damage to Japan due to foreign companies pulling out their people and, in some cases, talking about shutting down their Tokyo offices “due to radiation.”
  • Once again mischaracterized the Japanese people to fit their lazy stereotypes

 

 

Okay, so what’s the point of making a Wall of Shame for bad journalism?  Someone on Twitter implied that I was starting a witch-hunt and that we should be contacting journalists and publications directly and pointing out their errors.  Firstly, that is impractical.  There are too many.  Secondly, a witch-hunt implies that I will ruthlessly prosecute people I perceive to be guilty but who are actually innocent.  All the items posted are available for anyone to read and check against the facts.

 

The point of this exercise is simply to provide negative feedback to journalists who are, as we perceive it, not doing their jobs.  (And positive feedback: I’ve also started a Good Journalism wiki page for pieces that really shine.)  This may only end up being of interest to those of us who live here, but I think it’s important.

 

And crap it’s getting really late.  There is so much more I could write, but I really need to sleep.

 

I leave you with this: life goes on as usual in Yokohama.

 

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