The Credibility Issue
An Opinion Piece by Jeremy Whitlock
Your comments are welcome.
It is fine to hate nuclear power. I hate pickles. I have my reasons, and
I'll share them with anyone interested. It's another thing, however, to
hate nuclear power and try to change public policy based upon your beliefs.
Then you'd better have done your homework and be prepared to back up your
Human nature being what it is, the first criterion – adequate
knowledge of the issues – rules out many anti-nuclear activists. The
world is full of sincere and concerned people who do not fully understand
the technologies that they either oppose (nuclear power), or support
(usually some form of solar power, combined with conservation). When
these people become "activists", they usually become a detriment to the
cause on both sides of the issue.
On the other hand, many opposed to nuclear power do understand their
subject in great detail. These tend to be higher-profile individuals,
often sought out by less-knowledgeable activists for the light they shed
on a very complex issue. Some are mathematicians, some are physicists,
and some are arts majors who have just read every article ever written on
This knowledge is a good thing. Scientists and engineers, by nature,
encourage "intelligent dissension". It promotes self-consistency,
interest, and if sufficiently challenging, it advances the field.
This knowledge is also a bad thing. It can be used to confuse the issue
if desired, or to win over a non-technical audience that cannot
distinguish between exposition and editorial.
In the public debate on nuclear power, there are many polarized arguments.
One side says one thing (e.g. we know how to deal with spent fuel),
and other side is in complete opposition (we don't, and we can't
possibly ever, know how to deal with spent fuel). The direction of
public support usually depends upon preconceptions harboured long before
the argument is encountered. On a completely level playing field,
however, the best one can hope for is an even matching of two technical
arguments, seemingly equal but opposite in the public mind.
Who should be believed in this case? Even if we filter out polarizations
rooted in differing ideology (e.g. we should promote "soft" energy
paths that promote community involvement, vs., we should promote
centralized, high-efficiency sources that minimize cost and environmental
impact), there will always remain a number of technical arguments that
are, quite simply, contradictory.
It is at this point that we must examine credibility, for nothing else
remains (short of researching the topic oneself) but to ask "who is
telling me this stuff anyway?". As an aid for this process, I propose the
following eight "litmus tests" of credibility. None has a guarantee of
accuracy, but taken in whole, these tests should point in the right
Unfortunately, the average lifestyle is not conducive to the use of such
credibility tests. We live in the Information Age, where streams of data
are digested by the public in unprecedented amounts – in smaller
parcels, but higher volume. It is a sobering fact that the future of our
environment and our country depends upon public decisions made
today, based upon such information. Practitioners of misinformation
flourish; good technologies wither or leave the country. Today more than
ever, as decisions get bigger and the world smaller, we must take the time
to sort the wheat from the chaff. The future is in our hands.
None of us is immune to it. We are doomed to perceive the world through
filters constructed from years of experiences and relationships. I work
for the nuclear industry. Some of my more vocal opponents work for the
anti-nuclear industry (yes, industry – any sector that puts
out a product and makes millions in annual revenue is an industry). If I
am biased by my employment, then so are the professionals who challenge
If participants in a debate are equal in their bias, question next their
credentials. What is their background? How much experience do they have?
Sometimes expertise gained outside of education or industry can equal that
gained within. Sometimes not. If the speaker has a degree or diploma,
what was the major area of study? There is no copyright on job title --
is someone a "nuclear researcher" by virtue of training, or
self-proclamation? This is not meant to imply that average citizens should
avoid questioning authority; this must be encouraged in a healthy
democracy. Rather, it is when attempts to sway public and (directly or
indirectly) government opinion are made – that is the time to
question an individual's likelihood of knowing what they're talking about.
If a legitimate concern exists, there will be no problem finding qualified
This is extremely important, because talk is cheap. On the internet, talk
is even cheaper. As a scientist, I am bound, both philosophically and
procedurally (as an analyst within a QA environment), by rules of
accountability. My work is peer-reviewed before release. My public
comments on nuclear energy must be responsibly thought out and written,
since I represent – officially or not – my employer and the
industry at large. I must be able to reference every technical fact I
report, and back up conclusions drawn from them. In general, those who
are the most vociferous in the anti-nuclear campaign are not held to such
accountability. This crucial difference is seldom appreciated.
- Source of Information.
If a speaker is held accountable, he or she must reveal his sources of
information. Are these sources held accountable as well (see discussion
of accountability above)? What were their sources? What were
their credentials? And so it goes. Nothing should be taken at
face value, regardless of how glossy, well-packaged, titillating, or even
correct, it may appear. When credible sources are quoted, watch for
statements that might have been taken out of context.
This item is related to both accountability and bias, but with a focus on
goals. If two arguments present themselves, one from a group dedicated to
the promotion of nuclear power, and the other from a group dedicated to
the study of all energy forms, one might lean towards the latter group
with the more rounded mandate. Equally, any group dedicated to the
destruction of the nuclear industry will have a one-track mandate
colouring most of its viewpoints. Assess the level of critical
thinking likely to have preceded a given statement from a given
source. The mandate of every scientist is to question beliefs, even going
against one's personal biases if necessary. The level of science
represented by a given source of information will reflect, to a certain
degree, the level of objectivity found in the information itself.
Sometimes a mandate isn't obvious. For example, a well-known,
Toronto-based energy "watchdog" group is quite obviously (based upon their
words and deeds) in the business of destroying the nuclear industry.
Their priorities place a heavy emphasis on nuclear issues, as do their
articles, reports, and media appearances. However, nowhere in their
official "Goals and Objectives" does the word nuclear appear.
Instead, the focus is on promotion of "democracy", "global harmony",
"energy information", "self-sufficiency", and "renewable energy". There
is a reason for this; namely, that groups with a narrow mandate tend to be
taken less seriously by government review panels, and participation in
intervener hearings has been a major source of revenue for such groups.
Nevertheless, this is an example of obfuscation, clearly related to a lack
- Narrowness of Scope.
This is a good way to detect levels of integrity. If someone claims to
examine the "whole" energy issue, and yet concludes by calling for the
destruction of one supply option, and the wholesale support of another (or
another set), their objectivity is suspect. Nobody in the nuclear
business, to my knowledge, has ever touted nuclear power as a supply option
to replace all others. A healthy mix of renewable sources, conservation,
clean fossil, and nuclear is usually offered. The only people that I've
heard putting all our eggs in one basket are those calling themselves
- Qualified Recognition.
Are the people offering information simply in the business of offering
information, or do they actually perform recognized analysis in their
field? Check the record of past publications and look for tell-tale signs
like a string of media appearances, or for articles simply written under
the umbrella of the writer's organization. Does their work appear in
peer-reviewed, world-recognized publications? If analysis is valid, it
will pass peer review and be independently published.
©1997 Jeremy Whitlock