Monday, June 5, 2017

A CASE STUDY IN FAKE NEWS

A friend forwarded to me without comment a 2017 YouTube video concerning the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster that resulted from a tsunami that hit the Japanese coast in March of 2011.  Here is a cite to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1ECWtWk85k.  I would invite you to watch it.  It’s about five minutes long.

The basic premise of the video is that the Fukushima plant continues to discharge large amounts of radioactivity into the Pacific Ocean and that such radioactivity has led to a deepening biological disaster.  Among other claims, the video makes the following:

  • Each day 400 tons of radioactive waste water are leaking from the plant into the Pacific.  The video includes a color graphic showing the spread of this radioactivity across the Pacific that appears to indicate that virtually the entire Pacific Ocean has become highly polluted with radioactivity.
  • As a result of this radioactivity, the survival rate for infant orcas has dropped to zero.  Thus this species is destined for extinction.
  • The radioactivity has resulted in tumors and skin cancers in fish that has rendered them unfit for human consumption.
  • The radioactivity has resulted in mutant hornets several times larger than normal with a sting venom 2,000 times as potent as that of a normal wasp.  According to the video, these hornets have caused the deaths of several persons in Nebraska.  There’s a video clip that appears to show a person dying from such a sting.
  • If no solution is found to this problem, this radioactivity will lead to the extinction of the human race in the near future.
Wow.

My first thought was, Why have I not heard about this from other news sources?  I don’t consider myself a news junkie, but I do spend a fair amount of time reading news reports from mainstream media, regularly watch major network news programing, and watch a fair amount of (probably too much) cable news.  Of course, for a time subsequent to the Fukushima accident, there were numerous news stories concerning the accident and the radioactivity leaking from the plant, but it has now been more than six years since the accident, and for the last few years I have read and heard very little.  

I decided to do a little research regarding the claims made in the video, and here is what I found:

  • It is true that 400 tons of water are flowing through the remains of the Fukushima plant daily, for the most part to cool the reactor that would otherwise overheat because of the radioactive material.  However, contrary to the video claim, almost none of that water is leaking into the Pacific.  Instead, it is being diverted to filters to remove nearly all of the radioactive components.  Because the filters are not completely efficient, the water is then diverted to holding tanks.  Japan has made some progress in cleaning up the site, including working on removing surface soil in the area, disposing of the water and the radioactive material filtered out of the water, and disposing of contaminated equipment and other items, a project that will take many years and cost an estimated 200 billion dollars.  See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/11/world/asia/struggling-with-japans-nuclear-waste-six-years-after-disaster.html?_r=0
  • The graphic in the video claiming to show the spread of radioactivity across the Pacific in fact has nothing to do with radioactivity.  Instead, it is a graphic from a different source showing the estimated height of the 2011 tsunami wave.  See http://www.snopes.com/photos/technology/fukushima.asp.
  • There has been no decline in the survival rate of orcas born after the Fukushima accident.  In general, there is no evidence that radioactivity from the accident has jeopardized the survival of any marine species or rendered it unsuitable for human consumption.   The fish tumors shown in  the video were actually the result of parasite infections, not radiation.  And there is no evidence that skin cancers found in other fish were the result of exposure to radioactivity from the Fukushima accident.  Instead, they are most likely the result of exposure to normal ultraviolet radiation.  See http://www.snopes.com/radioactive-salmon-fukushima/ and http://www.snopes.com/fukushima-radiation-marine-photos/.
  • The photos of giant hornets shown in the video are genuine.  However, these hornets are not mutants.  Instead, they are simply examples of an existing species of giant hornet.  Contrary to the video, there have not been any deaths from such hornets in Nebraska.  This last claim is from a false story put out by National Report, a self-described “satirical” website.  http://www.snopes.com/politics/satire/hornets.asp.

I certainly do not do this sort of fact-checking every time I encounter a claim that appears to defy common sense, but the extreme nature and content of the video piqued my curiosity.  And doing this research has raised questions in my mind:  Why was I so skeptical of the claims made in the video?  Why do I find myself trusting the veracity of mainstream reports and of fact-checking sites such as Snopes rather than videos such as this one?  On the other hand, why are some individuals willing to accept the type of claims made in videos such as this one? 

Regarding the claims made in the video, they are certainly extraordinary, posing as they do the proposition that the Fukushima accident threatens the extinction of the human race in the near future.  That, in and of itself, does not automatically make such claims false, but it does warrant the adage that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.  Here the claims are presented in a one-sided manner with no recognition that they are inconsistent with the mainstream point of view.  Moreover, there is no presentation of contrary arguments.  Perhaps most importantly, the claims are not supported by references to other sources.  Any one of these might have raised my skeptic’s hackles, but what made it worse was that the claims were presented by a narrator whose funereal, lugubrious tone would have made Bela Lugosi proud.  If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to spend the few minutes it takes to watch the video.  In contrast, the articles by fact-checking sites use well-tempered language to explain why the claims under review are wrong or deceptive.  Moreover, such debunking sites reference other sources to substantiate their position.

That may explain why I found myself rejecting the claims and conclusions of the video.  But why would anyone find the claims of the video to be credible?  Here are some thoughts.

Confirmation bias.  People tend to believe statements that are consistent with their existing beliefs.  I’m not necessarily saying that people had existing beliefs about the threats created by the Fukushima disaster, but some people are of the opinion that the world is worse off than commonly believed and the video plays into that mindset.

Conspiracy bias.  Closely related is the worldview that important facts are being withheld from the public, that there is, in effect, a coverup of such information by the government or other agency in power.  A claim contrary to conventional understanding feeds into such a conspiracy theory point of view.  

Acceptance of authority.  Some individuals are more likely to accept a statement simply because it has been presented as fact by someone posing as an authority.  The video presents its claims as if there were no conflicting or contrary evidence.  Using visuals, as in this video, adds to the superficial credibility of such claims.

Rational analysis.  Some individuals simply are not as well trained in analyzing claims using rational analysis.  In effect, this can be a matter of common sense.


© 2017 John M. Phillips

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