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[personal profile] redsage
When you have had repeatedly demonstrated proof that you can't always trust your government, it's very hard to trust your government when they ask you to. You'd think this would be obvious.

This is especially frustrating when the government is one of the only sources of information about a scary topic, and has a vested interest in keeping people calm.

On the one hand, the government does have the best information about what's actually going on in Japan, and they also have climatologists and meteorologists and radiation scientists and geological experts and so on and so forth. I expect that they really do have the best data of anyone in the US on what's actually happening, and whether or not people in California should be concerned about radiation.

On the other hand, if the US government said "everyone on the west coast should take iodine because you are getting increased doses of radiation," can you imagine what would happen? People would panic! People would pack up their stuff and flee, resulting in crazy traffic and looting and people going nuts robbing stores to get supplies to "save their children" and stuff. Businesses would shut down. People who wanted to leave but felt compelled to stay by family or work would be angry and frightened and have accidents and start fights.

So... I'm kind of stuck. Yes, our government and their scientists genuinely do have the best information and scientific perspective on what's happening and whether or not it affects us here. And yet, our government also has a vested interest in keeping people quiet and calm, and has shown in the past a willingness to compromise the health of the populace in the interests of keeping a lid on things and profit.

At the moment, I am so far assuming the risk is minimal because I am willing to trust the sheer volume of scientists and scientific evidence coming from both government and non-governmental sources alike.

Beyond this frightening tragedy, I am left feeling unsettled about the larger issue. When I know my government does not always tell the truth, and does not always act in the best interests of the people even when they are explicitly aware of the consequences (not to mention the times they are simply ill-informed) - how do I know who and what to trust in a situation where the government is the main source of information? I don't want to be either uncritically trusting nor automatically distrusting anything from "the man."

This dilemma comes up to a lesser degree with journalism. Do I trust The New York Times? Do I trust Fox News? Do I trust The Economist or The Christian Science Monitor? The way I generally try to figure out what is trustworthy and authoritative is to try to get a sample from a few sources, and find the median stories. I try to average out the bias.

With government, that's less of an option. It feels like my choices are two extremes. Either I join up with the paranoids and freak out over the fluoride in the water and the cell phone towers and the smart meters, or I trust that our government would never knowingly and purposefully infect people with syphilis and that Saddam really did have those weapons of mass destruction.

How do you handle this? How do you decide when to trust an authority that has proven to be untrustworthy at times in the past?

Date: 2011-03-18 04:27 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Well, it can be hard to tell the wheat from the chaff, but the Internet does allow information to get out. Of course, it helps if you have some knowledge of the subject first. There is a lot of paranoid mis-information going around right now. I know one idiot in a fannish community I belong to was telling everyone yesterday that they needed to go out and find enough potassium iodide tablets to treat their families, and all their animals for at least a month. Pissed me off.

First off, potassium iodide only protects against radioactive iodine. It doesn't do anything about the rest of the radioactive particles that would be present, if radioactive material were to make it over here from Japan. While some material would certainly reach here if there was a meltdown, think of how devastated Moscow was by Chernobyl.

From what I've heard from people who's knowledge on this I trust, while there are weaknesses in the Japanese reactors that were corrected in later designs, they are far better designed for this sort of emergency than the reactors in Chernobyl. They are much more resistant to a melt-down, and they have containment vessels the reactors at Chernobyl lacked. Most importantly, the containment buildings are designed such that if there is a melt-down, there is a containment pad that will catch the molten core, and spread it out enough to make sure it is below critical mass. The biggest problem at Chernobyl was that when the core melted, it pooled in a critical mass, so the reaction continued, and the heat made it impossible to put out the non-nuclear fire above it. Yes, we know one of the upper containment vessels is no longer intact, after two hydrogen gas explosions, but it has not fully failed. We are not likely to see enough material released to have enough radioactive iodine reach us, even in a full melt-down of more than one reactor. Remember, the rest of the stuff will be raising the chances of cancer slightly too.

So, I don't see a case for taking or even stocking up on potassium iodide tablets. I actually see more reasons not to. First off, most people usually have a healthy amount of iodine in their thyroid to begin with. The KI tablets protect the thyroid by loading it up completely with all the iodine it can hold. The cost/benefit curve on taking KI tablets is actually rather steep. Small children,especially those that consume milk, benefit the most from being protected with KI tablets before consuming food that might be contaminated by radioactive iodine. They also have bodies that can best deal with the stresses of loading their thyroid with iodine. That is, of course, if they are not allergic to iodine. That's why older people should not take KI unless they are certain of a heavy exposure; the danger otherwise outweigh the benefits. Honestly, I think if it did become an issue, our government would very calmly get the tablets to small children, and educate people why adults really don't need them.

Of course, the biggest reason not to stock up or take the tablets is that if things do go bad, the people in Japan will need them much more then we will.

Date: 2011-03-18 05:44 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
While some material would certainly reach here if there was a meltdown, think of how devastated Moscow was by Chernobyl.

Actually, the Cherynobyl think might not have been too bad. The sum up from the radio article is that yes, the wildlife reads as radioactive, but without a geiger counter you can't distinguish them from an uncontaminated specimen, and of all the affected women who did not voluntarily abort their pregnancies, the birth defect rate was the same as in the unaffected population.

Date: 2011-03-18 06:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Well, that was my point. Moscow wasn't even seriously impacted. Now, keep in mind that the effects of Chernobyl, like the effects of the events in Japan, will mainly show up years down the road in noticeably higher cancer rates in some populations, not in short-term mutations.

Date: 2011-03-18 10:07 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Of course, the biggest reason not to stock up or take the tablets is that if things do go bad, the people in Japan will need them much more then we will.

This is one of the single wisest things I'd heard on this issue. The ocean is exceptionally large and the winds are fairly slow, and so any radiation that makes it to the US will be trivial, even if things get as bad as Chernobyl (which they won't). OTOH, if the wind shifts in Japan and things get any worse, Tokyo could have problems.

Date: 2011-03-18 02:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you. That's the part that pisses me off the most about this issue. Potassium iodide tablets are normally not a big seller, and there's not that big of a supply. There are kids in Japan right now that are likely to be exposed to radioactive iodine if there is any more radioactive material released. We know they need the KI tablets right now. I just can't understand how otherwise progressive people can ignore that when exposed to paranoia.

I look at multiple sources...

Date: 2011-03-18 04:30 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This is where crowd-sourcing comes in really handy - I've seen (and can't re-find) links for where people have done a wiki-style map with geiger-counter readings in various prefectures in Japan; those didn't look horribly scary...

Looking at multiple sources (not CNN, etc who have stakes in sensationalism) that talk about how those reactors are built and the differences between them and Chernobyl is also somewhat reassuring. It gives me some idea of what hot isotopes are most likely (half-life is a known constant for each isotope, as are decay products; I can make educated guesses from there as I work with radioactive stuff on occasion and have access to the brains of the Radiation Safety Office staff)...

I'm somewhat disinclined to panic anyway - we are a *long* way away and anything that might come over would be dispersed and diluted mightily (and I *work with the stuff* - it's a demon I know, not magic-scary to me)....

timely humor from multiple friends...

Date: 2011-03-18 05:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

(follow the linkie)

Date: 2011-03-18 05:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah. Verify, verify, verify. Use what you know to be fact and use logic to extrapolate from there. Always check sources and follow the money.

Also, be careful when reading scientific studies, especially from the medical community.

Date: 2011-03-18 06:49 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm not terribly worried about it right now because, of nuclear incidents, Chernobyl really set the bar; it mildly irradiated Wales, 1500 miles away, because of the way the wind is blowing.

The reactors going bad in Japan aren't capable of that type of meltdown (different reactor type, fewer and less severe flaws) and the distance across the ocean is over 5000 miles. Yes, there will be some radioactive isotopes in the ocean, but it's a big ocean and a relatively small quantity of radioactive stuff. It sounds like the highest dose reported on site was 400 millisieverts per hour - a lot, but to put it in perspective that's about 40 rem. According to wikipedia, then, being onsite in the worst observed zone for one hour would only cause mild immediate health effects, though it'd probably elevate cancer risk later.

To further put it in perspective - the worst areas at Chernobyl were estimated at THREE FUCKING HUNDRED sieverts per hour, or 30,000 rem. That's literally seven hundred fifty times the worst of what the Japanese plant has seen so far; that kind of radiation level can rapidly give the kind of doses where the human body just gives up and dies not long after, deaths like Louis Slotin's at the Manhattan Project.

Being exposed for multiple hours at the worst levels seen so far in the Japanese disaster could hit the LD50, but it would take a while.

But yeah, I do my own math.

Date: 2011-03-18 03:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Honestly, I treat them the same way I treat a "trustworthy" source - as even some person or institution may be honest but have bad information...I keep an open mind and try to stay informed from a variety of sources. I may have a bias towards or away from what I've been told, depending on how much I trust the source, but I never pretend even to myself I know what's going on simply because X told me so.

Date: 2011-03-22 12:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Look to the experts. Look at their histories so I can make some sort of call on how their own bias might influence their view. Generally if you read *primary* sources widely enough, you start to see what things people agree on. For this disaster, I found the MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering faculty a great source of info, uncluttered by ham fisted journalistic license. Good science is not afraid to explain clearly with ordinary language and understandable evidence.

Best thing of all is a retired expert. A fisheries biologist I used to work with holds no allegiances and his steady stream of scathing letters to the Editor are a pleasure to read.
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