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back to article Is Chernobyl behind academic slump in Sweden?

It is 21 years since the nuclear plant at Chernobyl went bang, and the extent of the damage wrought by the radioactive fallout is still becoming clear. According to a report in Chemistry World, US researchers have discovered that Swedish children who were in the womb at the time of the accident might have been mentally damaged …

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Anonymous Coward

statistics

Everyone knows that statistics can be bent to match your theories... As they say: "Lies, damn lies and statistics".

The story doesn't mention whether any of the subjects were born in the area and then moved elsewhere - ie whether it was prolonged exposure, or the foetal state at the time of exposure.

My theory would be that the teachers in the area were damaged and thus weren't teaching as well as they had previously so the students weren't learning as much... nothing to do with foetal radiation. Again, this could be shown in more detailed statistics where teachers have moved into/out of the affected areas and where children have moved into the affected area from elsewhere.

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Poor parenting?

Maybe there was a particularly poorly motivated group of parents at that time, thus not providing adequate role models. This is Skandinavia, where you get more money on the dole than going out to work. Plus, they drink a lot of moonshine due to their extortionate booze costs. Perhaps methanol consumption is the cause.

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based on ... ??

You question the authors' control of data and on that basis alone propose a rather weirder theory about the effects of radiation on teachers. You deny that radiation affects embryonic development but propose instead that radiation impairs the capacity of adults to teach ... on what basis? I don't understand your leaps of reason.

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Dan

Sounds like a case of...

...seek and ye shall find.

That said, I was under the impression that no such thing as a safe level of radiation exposure.

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Logical fallacy

Post hoc ergo proctor hoc - 'after the fact, therefore because of the fact' - occurs when a temporal relation between two events is assumed to prove that the first one caused the second one.

I could quite as easily say that the rise in the pound against the dollar has been the sustaining cause of terrorism. Rather than a sustained terrorist threat having a detrimental effect on the US economy.

A causal link would require a demonstration of the radiation in living tissue, or some kind of after effect being visible which linked with certainty to radiation.

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Statistics...

I remember a story my statistics teacher told us:

Some years ago a disease plagued a certain type of trees, and it spread nation wide. Farmers tried additives in the fertilizer, but this only helped in some places, while the trees were still dying in others. One particulary paranoid farmer though it might be radio waves killing the trees, so he set up huge iron nets around the trees, and it worked; his trees became healthy and all traces of the disease disappeared. "So I was right all along", thought the farmer.

The actual cause was iron deficiency, so setting up iron nets enriched the soil, and the trees survived. The reason for the additives working in some places, was the fact that they used iron buckets, while others used plastic.

So although the statistics match a certain theory, one shouldn't take that for absolute fact.

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Mechanisms

Only ignorance gives one the right and opportunity to make "Everyone knows.."-statements. It gives a right to believe anything convenient to oneself.

The commentators clearly state that the results are "suggestive", not that there is an immediate causal link. One causal chain, not requiring unknown effects, would be: disaster -> prolonged fear and worries in pregnant mother -> affected baby -> affected teenager.

A friend of mine then was aresearcher in Kiev, and called up to decontaminate trucks. While the state repeated how everything was contained, his wife and child he immediately sent as far as he could (St. Petersburg): it was a very real and very prolonged fear. There is enough evidence of lasting influence on fetuses living through such things.

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Anonymous Coward

Other factors

If I remember correctly, after Chernobyl went bang all sorts of restrictions and recommendations came into effect regarding food. eg. Don't eat Lamb, avoid dairy products etc.

Have the researchers made any attempt to discover if any of these factors had an impact on the results?

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Selective Migration

What's most likely is that intelligent people, including the best teachers, who could get work elsewhere legged it when the rain started glowing in the dark. This selective migration would lower the average intelligence and teacher quality having a compound effect on academic outcomes.

Similar effects are seen in UK where the best teachers choose to work at schools in nice areas and leave rough inner-city establishments lumbered with inexperienced or rubbish staff - with corresponding discrepancies in academic outcomes.

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Sloppy reporting

Paragraph 2 of the article - "US researchers have discovered that Swedish children who were in the womb at the time of the accident have been mentally damaged by their exposure".

Paragraph 7 - "the researchers are clear that they have done no more than demonstrated a statistical link: they have not proven that the fallout from the explosion has directly caused mental impairment".

So, basically, another carefully worded piece of science spun by the media (in this case, El Reg) into someone much more than it really is. All the report says is that there's a correlation - it explicitly denies that it is making claims about causation.

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What about Finland o_0

"Luckily" I was born year before.

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Nev

Statistical links..

... just like the one where the stork population in Germany (I think) rises and falls in rhythm with the human birthrate.

So that's where babies come from!!!

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Anonymous Coward

Daily Mail effect

Obviosuly had an effect on UK Children too!

I find under 21s to be terribley obnoxious and dispicable!

maybe swedish children, teachers and parents have jsut succumbed to the same malais as the rest of western europe?

Has any studies been done on Finnish or Polish students?

I have unsubstantiated theory that exposure to radiation actually causes people to get up off ther backside and get their life in gear........

as demonstrated by:

(a) The amount of Polish and kinfolk who have come to the UK to do the jobs the British Native are to workshy or lazy to-do....

(b) The amount of hardworking efficieny output by the japanese

(c) The pacific islanders have pretty good rugby teams!

Tommy Atkins

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Anonymous Coward

Maybe 'inherited' stress!

This could be explained by environmental stresses (e.g. the Chernobyl incident) on the pregnant women causing unhelpful Epigenetic changes on the DNA of the developing foetus, so resulting in maladapted children.

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(Written by Reg staff)

@Simon K

That's a fair shout. I'll rephrase para 1.

Cheers,

Lucy

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Great excuse

This is great, now I know exactly which excuse to use when I say something incorrect :]

(Born in Stockholm 1987)

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Danger Still Present

I am not so sure that things like groundwater are not contaminated in that whole region. It has been a while since we have had a lot of volunteers to test for radiagion poisoning.

At any rate, I think this website is worth reading:

http://www.kiddofspeed.com/chernobyl-revisited/

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Poor Parenting

>>This is Skandinavia, where you get more money on the dole than going out to work. Plus, they drink a lot of moonshine due to their extortionate booze costs. Perhaps methanol consumption is the cause.<<

"Post Anonymously" A Good Tool, for a Good Reason.

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@Dan: Radiation exposure

Sure there's a "safe" level of radiation exposure - or to be more accurate there's a "no-worse-than-normal" level. You're being exposed to ionising radiation right now, from cosmic rays, radon gas from granite, carbon-14 and other radioactive isotopes, etc.

As far as the stats go in this case, "8 to 25 weeks" from the start of April makes those kids the youngest in their year group, and that's known to affect academic performance and other factors. The study doesn't say that they've made any attempt to correct for this.

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oxo

... migration

Someone said "What's most likely is that intelligent people, including the best teachers, who could get work elsewhere legged it when the rain started glowing in the dark. This selective migration would lower the average intelligence and teacher quality having a compound effect on academic outcomes."

I think you'll find that teachers moving away has a benificial effect on average intelligence... :P

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I blame the internet.

More specifically, World of Warcraft. It's full of crazy swedes!

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@Graham @Dan...

You said:

"As far as the stats go in this case, "8 to 25 weeks" from the start of April makes those kids the youngest in their year group, and that's known to affect academic performance and other factors. The study doesn't say that they've made any attempt to correct for this."

Our survey said:

"Because there is substantial seasonality in school performance by birth month, we compare those also born August-December 1986 against those born August-December in adjacent years."

-- [http://www.columbia.edu/~le93/Chernobyl.pdf]

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Bronze badge

Re: Danger Still Present

Kiddofspeed.com is a great site (I bought the CD's on Chernobyl she makes), and an interesting insight into what happened at that time - she was lucky that her father had a geiger counter and knew when to bug out of town rather than listen to the politicians prattling on about how safe it was...

The main issue would be how was the radiation transmitted from mother to fetoeus, as this sort of contamination would be from transported and inhaled dust, and not from transdermal gamma irradiation...

It would be interesting to see how this compares with the French Chernobyl contamination, as in 1987, the authorities lied to the population, informing them that the fallout stopped at the border... ergo, anyone outside or on mountains got a healthy and wholesome dose of radioactive dust...

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Anonymous Coward

some good comments here..

As soon as I read this article I thought that there needed to be some thoughts about what was been implied by the results. However I am happy to see that people have had the same thinking. You should not jump to a conclusion based on a study which might have predetermined judgments. In other words just because the researchers have found something that looks like it backs up what they want to say, then that must be so.

I can only stress what previous posters have said, covered in Anon and "Other factors" and Kjetil

This article seemed a bit surprising to me because I've seen recent scientific articles from some scientists who think that low levels of radiation may have a J curve instead of the usual safe to high level line. I'm not saying that's right, but just different from what has been said here.

I wish I could find the link, but what I found quite surprising was the cancer rates compared to altitude in the US. You would think that higher areas would have higher cancer rates from having more exposure. However it turns out be be inversed, in all types of locations, urban, open areas, etc. This looks like there is some kind of protective biological response to low levels of radiation. However, like I said you have to be careful, with the interpretation of the data.

I do seem to remember that after Chernobyl there was a scare about breast milk in Sweden, so did breast feeding go down afterwards? That's the kind of Correlation that needs to be examined as well as the type of thing you are looking for too.

Still a quite interesting article.

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I blame MTV...

I bet someone sufficiently motivated could come up with some wonderfully irreverent correlations.

there's got to be a popular band that was out at just that time, or a TV show. Or a product. maybe even a newscaster or reporter. Something that attacks the sacred cows of those who worship Entertainment and Media way too much

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Silver badge

re: Logic fallacy

By Karl's reasoning, it was a bunch of stupid babies in the womb that caused Chernobyl.

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The other way round.

The lower IQ in that area of the world is what lead to the disaster in the first place.

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Logic is -

- an organised way of going wrong with confidence.

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Silver badge

Stress and radiation

I think that radiation is not nearly as harmful as it is made out to be by many people. Another likely cause could be stress and worry about the radiation.

By the way, if anyone wants to see some really interesting pictures from Chernobyl, you should look at the site by Elena Vladimirovna, called "Ghost Town, Land of the Wolves". She rides her motorcycle there and takes pictures. This is really an extraordinary report by someone who actually spends time there.

http://www.angelfire.com/extreme4/kiddofspeed/chapter1.html

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@Charles Manning

Obviously you don't understand what a logical fallacy is, the quote at the beginning of my post is wrt the explanation of the post hoc ergo proctor hoc fallacy, in that the timing of events does not necessarily mean that one thing led to the other.

My following statements demonstrate how this logical fallacy is generally used to further arguments without any causal link.

In fact my reasoning is such that whatever caused chernobyl is irrelevant and the effects of the event may be felt today, however without demonstrating a direct causal link it is scare mongering to point out that there is a link.

Much in the same way as surveying 12 autistic childrens parents to see whether or not they had the MMR vaccine, then declaring because of 12 autistic kids who had it, MMR causes autism. In that example they didn't even use a control set, and didn't look at the overwhelming statistics to the contrary.

And for the record, the fall out cloud from chernobyl followed south, then west, then north IIRC. Missing sweden and pouring rain on poland, france, and yorkshire in Britain.

The radiation released was also less than that of the Hiroshima bomb, and far less than the media has reported since. I understand that the children of chernobyl itself have been harmed however them and their mothers vicinity to the event would suggest that mutation would have happened.

The radiation from the fall out cloud wasn't that great either, some effect was noticed in sheep, but not statistically significant beyond some minor issues.

People seem to forget that chernobyl wasn't anywhere near as big as the events at the bikini atol, or the nevada desert, and also seem to forget that for the last 50 years no detrimental effect has been demonstrated on those within 500 miles of those events. They even grow Marlbro on the site of the trinity test, which was a ground level detonation and even with the fall out from that (which was in the region of half a million tonnes) hasn't caused lasting damage.

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Stats

@Lucy:

I suggest you read Ben Goldacre's articles on www.badscience.net (if you don't already) for examination of statistical claims (among other things).

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Bad science, bad reasoning

The classic observation is that correlation does not imply causality. We've seen that error over and over... and these 'after event' statistical trolling expeditions do occasionally dredge up the results of some unidentified confounding variable,

But perhaps there is a causal link.

If I were speculating, I would guess that it might be caused by biochemical changes in the mother's blood chemistry caused by anxiety and prolonged stress caused by fears of radiation.

After all, there is this HUGE irrational fear of even small levels of ionizing radiation, and only a tiny fraction of the population is even marginally equipped to realistically evaluate the danger. And news media are not known for down-playing anything that can raise the level of interest and involvement with their product.

So, for what it's worth, IF there is a causal link, I'd put two cents on fear mongering as the mediating factor.

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