Time for the Green Party – and the Guardian – to ditch anti-nuclear quackery

Yesterday I was an environmentalist. Today, according to tweets from prominent greens, and an op-ed response piece in the Guardian, I’m a “Chernobyl death denier”. My crime has been to stick to the peer-reviewed consensus scientific reports on the health impacts of the Chernobyl disaster, rather than – as is apparently necessary to remain politically correct as a ‘green’ – cleaving instead to self-published reports from pseudo scientists who have spent a lifetime hyping the purported dangers of radiation.

I have discovered over the past few weeks that the anti-nuclear end of the environmental movement has no regard for proper scientific process when it comes to the issue which defines it. Perhaps this is no surprise, because as George Monbiot and others have shown, the methods used by campaigners on nuclear bear all the hallmarks of the methods used by anti-science climate change ‘deniers’.

Take the UK Green Party. Its ‘national speaker’ (de-facto shadow minister) on science and technology is Dr Chris Busby, the eminence grise of the anti-nuclear movement. Busby runs something called Green Audit, a purportedly scientific research outfit which has spent years ‘discovering’ non-existent leukaemia clusters and around Britain and blaming them on nuclear power stations. Green Audit is intimately tied up with the Green Party, and Busby’s line on nuclear dominates its thinking: scientifically, this is like the UK Independence Party getting its climate science from Lord Monckton, another absurdity which consigns this party too to the lunatic fringe.

[Update: it is unclear whether Dr Busby is still the UK Green Party’s science and technology spokesperson or not. A search of its website reveals lots of nuclear scare stories with quotes from Busby, but no mention of his current role. Readers might like to contact the Greens to seek clarification. ]

Green Audit graduates are careful not to portray themselves as such. Recently on a Channel 4 debate I found myself opposite a Dr Paul Dorfman, whose Guardian bio – that he “is a senior researcher, University of Warwick, and a member of the Nuclear Consultation Group” suggests independent expertise, not partisan ideology. Yet Dorfman is an ex-Green Audit hack. Yesterday’s ‘Chernobyl denial’ piece by Richard Bramhall in the Guardian also suggests academic credentials: his Guardian bio reveals that “Richard Bramhall is secretary of the Low Level Radiation Campaign; he was a member of the government’s advisory Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters from 2001 to 2004”.

But Bramhall is also a Green Audit comrade, not a radiologist, and the committee he refers to was set up by former environment minister Michael Meacher at the behest of none other than Chris Busby. Molly Scott Cato, another leading light in the UK Greens, was a co-founder of Green Audit, and co-authored some of its worst papers. Bramhall himself seems to have worked closely with Busby in the Welsh Green Party, including taking a role as press officer – though none of this background is mentioned in his current biog.

Green Audit’s work has been panned by real scientists on numerous occasions. Most spectacularly, Busby and his colleagues recruited a Welsh TV station as a collaborator on a recent research exercise to ‘prove’ that supposed leaukaemia clusters on the coast of North Wales were attributable to radiation releases into the sea by the nuclear complex a couple of hundred miles up the coast at Sellafield. (See the resulting Green Party press release alleging a “child cancer ‘cover up'” here) The only problems were that the cancer clusters never existed, and that even if they had, there is no plausible biological mechanism by which the infinitesimally small dosages of radiation received by coast-dwellers from Sellafield could have caused them.

None of this daunted Green Audit, which presumably knew its conclusions before it started its ‘science’. Busby’s work succeeded in scaring local people and generating media headlines, which was no doubt the intention. Claiming child leaukaemia rates twenty-eight times the UK average in the local area, Busby (who is portrayed as a “radiation expert”) told the local Daily Post that the “link between Sellafield and excess childhood cancer is indisputable”. As well as frightening people about radiation, this kind of exercise helps undermine public support for nuclear power, which is surely the broader underlying agenda.

But when real experts from the Welsh Cancer Intelligence and Surveillance Unit tried to replicate Green Audit’s work, they found a trail of errors and distortions. (The resulting WCISU paper was then published in a ‘real’ scientific journal, the Journal of Radiological Protection (PDF here), unlike Busby et al, which was self-published.) Here are some choice quotes from the former:

In summary, the overall leukaemia incidence for Wales was counted twice… trebling the local incidence in north Wales. This error produced spurious clusters in various locations in rural Wales, with the notable exception of Powys in mid Wales. For example, Green Audit reported a ‘cluster’ of 10 cases of leukaemia in children aged 0–4 years in Snowdonia, whereas one case actually occurred during that period (1974–1989).

Whoops. And please remember, this work was conducted by the Green Party’s science spokesperson, and presumably adds to the party’s ‘evidence base’ on the strength of which it continues to oppose nuclear power. But there’s more. Much more. What about “Green Audit’s hypothesis that very low levels of human-made radionuclides have an effect on cancer incidence”? According to the Welsh Cancer Intelligence and Surveillance Unit, “the claimed effect has no biological plausibility”. So why were Green Audit’s conclusions accepted so uncritically by the media and the public, if not by scientists? Because, “a high degree of mistrust in conventional agencies can make elaborate conspiracies seem plausible”.

So this is what Green Audit and other anti-nuclear campaign groups thrive on: distrust of both the nuclear industry and official health protection and regulatory agencies, allowing them to invoke shadowy conspiracies by men in white lab coats who presumably enjoy foisting dangerous radioactive materials on an unwilling public, all no doubt controlled by a sinister mastermind bearing a striking resemblance to Mr Burns off the Simpsons, the evil boss of Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.

The similarities with climate science ‘deniers’ is overwhelming. Take the selective use of data. Climate sceptics make much of the supposed lack of global warming over the last ten years – they do this by starting their data series in 1998, which was a very hot year, making it appear as if cooling took place thereafter. Similarly, Busby et al exclude Welsh leaukaemia data between 1974-81 (when there was only one incidence on the North Wales coastal strip, despite a much more lax safety regime in Sellafield during that period and consequently far greater releases of radiation into the sea), and use instead the period 1982-90, when there were nine. Had Green Audit used the longer data series, their conclusions would not have been statistically significant, which was presumably why the earlier data was excluded.

According to WCISU’s review of Green Audit’s statistical methodology, “we found clear evidence of data-dredging which renders all subsequent statistical inference spurious”. Instead of proper scientific objectivity being applied to the figures, there was evidence “that the dataset has been systematically trawled”. In other cases, Green Audit seems to have worked with media reporters to simply go around knocking on doors, as if the anecdotes they dug up would trump the quantitative data produced by official agencies (who might be in on the pro-nuke conspiracy). As the WCISU paper reports:

Welsh reporters have collaborated with Green Audit to carry out intrusive and inaccurate surveys rather than accept registry figures. Television documentaries, based on erroneous results, have spawned misleading articles in the national press and across the internet. In a process driven by these Green Audit reports, levels of public anxiety have been raised and trust in cancer registries eroded.

All this demonstrates at best a cavalier attitude to the scientific process. According to radiation epidemiologist Richard Wakeford, Busby even helped set up his own journal for a while because he was unable to get his sub-standard work published in the genuine expert literature. This European Biology and Bioelectromagnetics journal, was, according to Wakeford, “a curious entity that was launched in 2005 and claims to publish peer-reviewed papers, but which, after five issues of Volume 1, appears to have run out of steam after Issue 1 of Volume 2 in 2006.” (The link Wakeford gives, www.ebab.eu.com, now appears to be defunct, and links through to dating and adult websites.) He points out: “I shall let you be the judge of just what might be going on here by pointing out that Busby, a member of the Editorial Board, is an author of no fewer than eight papers in the currently existing (as of February 2008) six issues of the journal!”

Indeed. This reminds me more than anything of the snafu at Energy and Environment journal, which published a variety of flawed scientific papers a few years ago appearing to undermine the mainstream consensus view on global warming. This was decried by environmentalists at the time as being an egregious distortion of the proper scientific process. As US green writer Chris Mooney wrote about the above saga in 2004:

This is how it begins: Proponents of a fringe or non-mainstream scientific viewpoint seek added credibility. They’re sick of being taunted for having few (if any) peer reviewed publications in their favor. Fed up, they decide to do something about it.

They get their paper through the peer review process and into print. They publicize the hell out of it. Activists get excited by the study, which has considerable political implications.

Before long, mainstream scientists catch on to what’s happening. They shake their heads. Some slam the article and the journal that published it, questioning the review process and the editor’s ideological leanings. In published critiques, they tear the paper to scientific shreds.

But it’s too late for that. The press has gotten involved, and though the work in question has been discredited in the world of science, partisans who favor its conclusions for ideological reasons will champion it for years to come.The scientific waters are muddied. The damage is done.

Quite. Lastly, climate change deniers have made copious use of front groups, often sponsored by industry. Greens have worked tirelessly to expose links between commercial interests like Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries and the anti-environmental movement, particularly in the United States. But anti-nuclear greens like front groups too. Busby got himself on various scientific committees, and – when he didn’t like the consensus of his expert colleagues – self-published a ‘minority report’ to try to discredit the real thing.

In his Guardian piece Green Audit’s Richard Brahmall highlights the innocuous-sounding European Committee on Radiation Risk as having conducted real research on the dangers of ‘internal emitters’ in causing cancer (this is the latest wheeze to try to undermine the consensus findings on Chernobyl). He fails to mention that the ECRR was set up by European Green parties, and that its ‘scientific secretary’ is… (scroll down on this page) none other than Chris Busby.

Today the danger is that, in the light of Fukushima, the flames of public anxiety about nuclear power and radiation are fanned anew by anti-nuclear activists who have scant regard for science and still less for the impact of their assertions on the general public they are so intent on scaring. Unfortunately the Guardian seems all too happy to publish many of their ‘reports’, with very little corrective information from the real experts. Just as the Telegraph is the in-house UK journal for climate science deniers, so the Guardian seems to have been captured by the radiation science deniers on the anti-nuclear branch of the green movement. That has got to change, or trust in this newspaper too will eventually be eroded.

And as for the UK Green Party, I suggest that potential voters make it clear to their aspiring representatives (of which Chris Busby is one) that they would prefer to vote for a political party which takes science seriously, and which is therefore able to shoulder the responsibilities of government in a rational and evidence-based way. Otherwise, if they ever get more than one MP, the UK greens could end up following the lead of their German comrades by switching off nuclear plants and turning their country back to coal.

© Mark Lynas
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