Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Monbiot and Nuclear: Confusion between the Scholastic and Scientific methods

This is an excerpt from my book, Bills of Health (288pp, Radcliffe Medical Press, ISBN 1 85775 101 9), available from all good libraries, but hurry.  I paste it here in the context of the controversy over the effects of Chernobyl, to show that respected scientists can make fundamental methodological flaws in assessing health effects of environmental pollution.


It is the intrinsic humility or vulnerability before the facts that science differs from systems based on authority.
Mediaeval scholastics depended on received opinion of great thinkers of the past - Aquinas, building on Aristotle, for instance - to the extent that a scholastic refused to look down Galileo's telescope because he feared that what he might perceive there would contradict the beliefs about the moon that he had accepted from his books.  Ironically, there is a tendency for some scientists to think in precisely this scholastic fashion.

Two cardinal cases illustrate this point - Seascale and Camelford.

In the case of Seascale, a working party under the chairmanship of Sir Douglas Black was set up  in 1983 to look into the alleged cluster of cancer cases in Seascale, near to the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing and nuclear weapons materials factory.  He found that there was an "unusual but not unique" incidence of leukaemia in young people in the village.  The report did not say so, but the chance of these cases being produced by coincidence would be about one in a million.

This observation would suggest the hypothesis that "The leukaemias are caused by physical agents in the vicinity".  The second observation in the case is that the children of Seascale had a high level of radionuclides in the environment.  Radionuclides are elements that are rare in nature, which are taken into the body and emit radiation often of the more damaging alpha kind.  This fact suggests the hypothesis that "The leukaemias are caused by the radionuclides."  According to the scientific method, further research should have been put in hand to attempt to disprove this hypothesis.

However, in the Report itself the causation hypothesis was rejected on the grounds that the expected rates of leukaemia, which are theoretical calculations based on assumptions of release rates, estimates of received doses, and assumptions about the relative biological effectiveness (leukaemia causing potential) of alpha radiation, are only one fortieth of the dose needed to produce the observed damage.   In other words, the reasoning was that there were more leukaemias than theory would predict, the theory was right, and therefore the radiation was not the cause.  The corollary to this line of reasoning is that the more leukaemias were found at Seascale, the more innocent the radiation.  This is perverse, since radiation is known to be able to cause leukaemia in humans.  The perversity arises because the method used was not scientific, but scholastic.  It assumed that all we need to know about radiation is in the textbooks, and that new findings are to be compared to the textbooks, rather than the textbooks to be compared to new observations.  The unscientific nature of the logic is clinched by the nuclear scientists' argument that more cases would be required to make a statistically significant cluster.  More cases would on this logic mean that Sellafield was more innocent.  This would mean that the hypothesis that "The Sellafield emissions did not cause the leukaemias" was unfalsifiable, and therefore not scientific.

This line of official reasoning was repeated in the case of the Camelford disaster, known officially as the Lowermoor incident.  On the 6th of July 1988, 20 tonnes of concentrated aluminium sulphate solution were discharged into the treated water reservoir at Lowermoor, Cornwall, which serves the town of Camelford.  Local residents and holidaymakers who drank the water experienced a variety of acute effects, and a lesser number also remained ill for a long time thereafter.  Six months later a committee was set up under Dame Barbara Clayton to provide independent expert advice to the Secretary of State for Health .  The group noted that this incident was unique in the history of pollution; there was no previous experience of humans taking in this particular cocktail of ionic lead, zinc, copper, aluminium, and sulphate. They also noted that the symptoms of the people was also unique.  They had wide ranging problems, with sore/dry mouth, felt unwell and tired, had stomach aches, were very thirsty, had nausea and vomiting, itching, sore eyes, and mouth ulcers.  The persistent effects noted by the group were aches and joint pains, memory loss, poor concentration, speech problems, depression and behavioural problems in children, hypersensitivity, rashes and mouth ulcers, and gastrointestinal disorders.  These symptoms do not fit into any recognised diagnostic category.  So the observation is a unique toxic insult, and a unique resultant syndrome.  Hypothesis: that the toxins caused the illness.  Surprisingly, instead of testing this hypothesis by advising on necessary medical and scientific studies, the group opened their textbooks, and looked up the effects of each of the ions as they are known in isolation.  In each case they found that the ion in those concentrations were incapable of causing those effects.  On this evidence, book-based scholastic theory that did not relate to mixtures of ions, they concluded that the cocktail was incapable of causing the illness.  There was specific scientific evidence of deposition of aluminium in the bones of one affected case.  The group specifically advised against following up this lead.
The group concluded that their book-learning could not account for the illness and that ergo, the symptoms were due to "anxiety".  There was no psychiatrist in the group to advise on this point.  As a result of the public outcry that followed, the Clayton Group was reconvened, and came to the conclusion that they had been quite right in the first place.

Years later, the affected citizens were given out-of-court settlements in compensation for their suffering.
This incident occurred when South West Water was being prepared for privatisation.

It emerges from this that the statements of scientists, especially those working at the behest of Government, are not necessarily "scientific" but statements based on their authority as eminent and respectable scientists.  The confusion comes about not through cynicism or bad faith, but because in the complexity of detail, the simplicities of the method are lost to view.

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