Fukushima Mutant Butterfly Followup

It’s been a few days since I posted about the media coverage of the study on mutation in butterflies around Fukushima. I’ve been following a few stories on it since then and I think the most important take-away from this kind of study is that science is complicated and hard to report on. I realize this is obvious and I thought it was obvious before. I also chose to primarily criticize an article that fits the Robbins’ spoof format pretty well which is perhaps unfair.

But by looking over coverage and discussions on this study, I’ve wavered from “this is crap” to “huh, this part is pretty good and kind of compelling (but of course we need more research” to “huh, that part that good part has some problems (but of course we need more research”). This is shorthand and leaves out a few stages but I think it gives an idea just how hard it is to really understand a new science paper well enough to be fair both to the process of science (I can’t dismiss a paper just because parts of it aren’t very good) and tell a comprehensible story to the public (I didn’t even really try with my previous post). This is of course why so much science reporting is formulaic and perhaps I understand a bit more why it’s so easy to do that.

In any case, I want to call out media that has been a bit more skeptical of the results.

First, there’s the Nuclear Diner post. While I think the original post may have gone a bit far (and missed a few important points), the comment thread has been good. Contrary voices (including mine) have been heard and others have added more to the analysis. One commenter points out that even the feeding trial has issues: what if the leaves were contaminated with other toxins released during the disaster or some had pesticides recently applied? He even recommends a more controlled study that would be very interesting (but presumably still hard to directly apply to the Fukushima disaster).

The Wall Street Journal published on Saturday a long essay making the point that people (especially those outside Japan who aren’t generally affected except indirectly) are panicking about Fukushima. The article mentions the new study in passing (without enough context really). The main thread of the essay is however a comparison about natural radiation exposure from radon in the Denver area with Fukushima area exposures. He then goes on to do various estimates on additional cancers and so on. While the author is quite right that radon exposure in the Denver area greatly exceeds most of the Fukushima area in straight rem doses, it’s not clear to me that exposure to radon is the same as exposure to iodine-131 or caesium-137. However the idea of the essay seems sound. Most estimates of additional harm specifically from radioactive releases from the Fukushima power plants are very low. Harm caused by the earthquake, tsunami and evacuation greatly exceed any harm directly from the damaged power plants themselves. Despite this, most people in the United States seem to worry most about the radiation.

The Metafilter discussion of the story started out fairly poorly, but some skeptical voices chimed in and the discussion got more interesting. Particularly the comment by pseudonick adds some useful context. The most recent parts of the thread are about some interesting alternatives to nuclear power.

But, I find that this is all I have. I’ve done some google searches for more, but nothing that I find worth passing on. If you find anything, I’d love to add it to the list.