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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


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 beliefs.

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 nuclear power.

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 direction:

  1. Bias.

    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 me.

  2. Credentials.

    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 interveners.

  3. Accountability.

    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.

  4. 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.

  5. Mandate.

    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.

  6. Integrity.

    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 of accountability.

  7. 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 "environmentalists".

  8. 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.

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.

©1997 Jeremy Whitlock Discussion welcome.
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