A difficult balance
I remember recently walking down the street from work and being stopped by two Greenpeace recruiters/fundraisers. They told me all about the horrible things that happen at our (Canada's) nuclear plants. They told me how they were polluting the lakes with radioactive waste, and that the legal limit was set ridiculously and dangerously high.
"Oh? How high?" I asked.
"7000 Bqs per liter of poisonous and radioactive Tritium!!!!!" She responded, filled with outrage.
"And what does Bq stand for?"
"........ Umm, it's a measurement of radiation."
"Sort of," I replied. "It stands for 'Becquerel', now let's do a little math..."
To sum it up, I calculated for them that a person would have to drink about 20000 liters of contaminated lake water to get one percent of a dangerous dose. Assuming you follow the "eight glasses a day" rule, you'd end up consuming about 800 liters a year. (What's the Register Unit for liquid measurement? I couldn't find one. Should I just use volume?)
The problem I have with their arguments and their practices, is that someone who doesn't know any better would have absolutely no defense against these people, and would walk away from the encounter convinced that the world was ending, when in fact they were getting more radiation just from being outside in the sun. Sure, there is no real "safe" level of radiation, but these people are masters of FUD. However, I can't help but wonder how much of the human population *needs* to be scared shitless to do something, because if there is one thing we as humans excel at, it's ignoring a problem until it's too late.
If I may close with a quote...
"On the one hand we a scientists are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect, promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. Which means we must include all the doubts, caveats, if, ands, and buts.
On the other hand we are also human beings as well and as such, would like to see the world a better place. To do that we need to get broadbased support, to capture the public's imagination. To do that entails getting lots of media coverage, so we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we have.
This ethical double-bind we frequently find ourselves in cannot be resolved by any formula. Each of us must determine what the right balance is between being honest and being effective." - Stephen Schneider