Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Biased Article Is A Lousy Article

Editor's Note: This is Andy Tisdel, proprietor of Tisdel's Tirades, talking. This post probably has nothing to do with FEMA Corps, and does not reflect the opinions of a majority of FEMA Corps Team Summit 5; it is nothing more or less than an ordinary blog post.
What does it mean to say that something is ‘the best American science writing’?

Should one judge every piece of writing on pure aesthetics and writing skill? On the pure ability of the writer to communicate an unknown topic to a popular audience in a novel, interesting fashion? Or should these two traits be coupled with pure journalistic ability, the presentation of a complex and contentious issue in a way that is fair, not to both sides, but to the issue itself?

If you believe that last element should be a crucial part of any determination of ‘best’, then your name is clearly not Michio Kaku, this year’s editor of The Best American Science Writing 2012. Nor is it Jeff Goodell, author of the blazingly anti-nuclear Rolling Stone article “The Fire Next Time”, which describes the American nuclear industry as a fiscal hole in the ground and a gigantic disaster waiting to happen. Kaku put Goodell’s diatribe into the aforementioned compendium. This does not sit well with me.

My disapproval, of course, is irrelevant to Mr. Kaku. I own the book, so from a publisher’s standpoint, it really doesn’t matter what I think of it. And it’s also true that the Best American practice of getting a new guest editor every year allows for constant and healthy turnover in the articles selected. Kaku’s tastes are not those of the 2011 editor, nor will they mirror those of the 2013 editor, and that’s perfectly fine.

Having said all that, I still take issue with the inclusion of a flagrantly one-sided description of a complicated issue in a collection of the best anything, unless it be polemics. Goodell does a superb job excoriating the industry’s many flaws, of which there are plenty to go around. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is widely perceived as toothless and in the hip pocket of the industry that funds it, and Goodell doesn’t spare the rod in his analysis. But in an article with six interviews, the author also doesn’t spare so much as a sentence for a defender of the industry. No current NRC commissioners, no power company or nuclear plant executives, no nuclear energy lobbyists or members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future are interviewed. There’s not even a halfhearted attempt to be fair to the issue.

Goodell’s writing drips with disdain for any positive information about nuclear power. The NRC’s oversight is “lax”, “haphazard” and “safety-last”, its relationship with the injury “cozy” and “an unholy alliance”, and the reactors themselves are described as “aging” three times and “crumbling” once. But here’s a problem even worse than blatant bias: Goodell’s information is at best incomplete and at worst full of holes. ,For example: when the first generation of nuclear plants was built, no one knew how long they would last. Goodell writes “Nuclear reactors were built to last only forty years,” but that’s simply wrong; the forty-year restriction was for political reasons, not technical ones. As NRC spokesman Scott Burnell told me in 2010, “the 40-year original term of a license was set by Congress more for financial and antitrust considerations then it was for any technical basis.” There’s no technical reason why the NRC shouldn’t have granted the 63 extensions that Goodell decries; reactors are no less safe at 41 than they are at 39. All Goodell had to do to find this out was interview a NRC spokesperson, but apparently he did not.

In addition to occasionally being flat wrong, Goodell's information is also woefully incomplete. To hear him tell it, nuclear reactors are just one quick blackout away from Fukushima II. He tells the presumably horrified reader how 93 U.S. reactors have backup batteries that can last just four hours, while only 11 can last eight hours, and leaves it to our inference that catastrophe will follow. He does not, however, mention that U.S. reactors have emergency backup generators in addition to the batteries! Nor does he mention emergency shutdown systems that allow for near-instantaneous shutdown of the reactor core, or the multiple systems of carrying excess heat away from the plant! “There is no way you’ll have a single failure of any component or system that will jeopardize your ability to cool the plant down. Even cutting off the power”, Tom Kauffman told me in 2010. Kauffman is a spokesman for a pro-industry lobbying group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, so of course he’s biased. But if you’re going to have one side of an issue overwhelmingly represented, the way Goodell did, it’s at least worth considering the counterarguments of the other side. 

Now, it’s perfectly within Goodell’s rights to do shoddy, biased research, and it’s perfectly within the purview of Rolling Stone’s editors to greenlight such an article. It’s not as though they have a reputation for unbiased reporting, nor is such reporting what people expect from that publication. It’s just disappointing to see that Kaku’s definition of the “best American science writing” includes an article that simply isn’t fair to the issue at hand. Instead, he chose an article that overwhelmingly supported his point of view, judging by his introduction to the book.

The kicker is, it’s not as if Goodell isn’t right; the industry has a terrible public image, the NRC is not exactly a harsh regulatory body, and there are plenty of flaws for it to regulate (most of which Goodell details: spent fuel pools in need of better cooling, well-publicized near-accidents at nuclear plants, plants on fault lines, etc). There are plenty of problems with the nuclear industry, but any serious critique of the industry should take its positives into account along with its flaws. Don’t give equal time to each side if the sides don’t merit equal time, but be fair to the issue.  It’s too bad Kaku didn’t put that on his list of values.

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