Communicating risk – Professor Gerry Thomas

In the last of our interviews, Professor Gerry Thomas tells us about why the earthquake was nothing like Chernobyl, the frustration of misinformation in the media, and how science needs to change.

So going back to the beginning, when you got involved in talking to the media, how did that happen, what was the process?

My head of department was rung up on a Sunday asking for someone to go and talk to Sky. And he passed them onto me because he knew that this was my area. From then on, it just snowballed, the phone did not stop ringing. My poor daughter was fielding calls and everything. One day I did ten interviews by 10.30 am.

Wow. So presumably you think talking to the media is important for a scientist.

I think it’s important to get the right messages across and the media isn’t. It’s better now than (when) it started but it was actually misinforming the public. The work we’ve done on the Chernobyl accident tells us that far worse consequences than anything to do with the radiation is the psychological damage that you do when you tell a population ‘you’ve been irradiated, you’re going to get cancer’. Especially when that turns out not to be true.

So what do you think is the reason the media has been so over the top?

It doesn’t understand anything, it doesn’t understand this. The tragedy in Japan is the 20,000 odd people who have died as a result of the tsunami, many of those children. We’re not concentrating on that at all. The radiation is very much a side issue, but it’s (in the news) because it potentially affects us. And unfortunately, that’s the way the media works. We were probably so interested in the tsunami in Indonesia because so many people were on holiday, I mean let’s be honest about that.. Actually what they should be reporting is (that) the majority of Japanese power stations survived. That’s not being reported. If it wasn’t for nuclear power, Japan would be in a right mess right now because it would have enough power to keep going.

One of the things that John Beddington said was that in the case of the ash cloud last year, expert advice wasn’t brought in early enough. Do you think that has been handled well here?

I think the scientific advice has been out there. The problem is that the media reports in headlines, and headlines are what people remember, not what the scientists say. I had a lot of feedback from people, expats living in japan, and they were getting conflicted things from the Japanese media, who were playing this fairly straight, and the international media which was saying ‘get out now there’s going to be a catastrophe’. That mixed message is the worst thing you can do to a population psychologically. Because then you start to doubt the information that’s there. A group of us have gone round and all said the same thing. Not because we’ve talked to each other beforehand, but because it’s the truth.

Do you worry that when a campaign group, say, are brought in to provide balance, they are set up as being equally supported as the science, when they might be a marginal group.

I’ve been surprised that there haven’t been a lot more from Greenpeace and people like that. Maybe they realised this was an argument you couldn’t win. I was anti-nuclear until I started doing the research in Chernobyl. It’s a case of risk-benefit analysis, and unfortunately people are aware of the risks, but not of the benefits, and in fact they’re not even aware of the risks, they’re aware of what they think are the risks, not the actual risks.

How do you put across that this is completely different to Chernobyl?

But people also don’t understand what happened post-Chernobyl. They think they do, but actually the only thing that happened post Chernobyl was an increase in childhood thyroid cancer. End of story. 136 people were taken to hospital with acute radiation syndrome, of which 28 died. None of them probably, will suffer any of those effects in Japan because the dose was so much lower.

When you compare that to 20,000 dead in the earthquake, do you think the focus media reporting has been off?

Completely off. The real disaster of Japan, far more people died of that than would ever have died from 10 or 20 Chernobyls, and that is what’s been missed in the media is that this is a huge blow for Japan, it’s going to suffer economically for years, which means we’re all going to suffer, you know our car industry is going to suffer.

In the first stages, how difficult was it for you to get information about what was happening?

Actually it wasn’t bad, we were getting quite a good information feed.The trouble with radiation is you can’t hide it. With the US navy off one coast and the Russian navy off the other, there are enough monitoring stations around there to pick anything up. You cannot hide this, so we’ve probably been told as much as they know themselves, and it is difficult to manage.

If the information is wrong, then the scenario (you put across to the public) is going to be wrong. But I think with the best will in the world, we’ve got the best information they could have given us in the circumstances.

Is that frustrating? When you see things in the media that are wrong?

It’s very frustrating, I’ll give you an example, my daughter was doing Geogrphy and Science. Her school textbook said that thousands of people had died as a result of the Chernobyl accident. When she queried it, she was told to sit down and shut up. Now that’s what our schoolchildren are being taught about nuclear radiation, and unfortunately that’s what we’ve allowed to go on for far too long. It is partly because, as scientists, we don’t like being in front of the media.

Most of us hide, which is not something we should be encouraging scientists to do. That is why we have the problem with people not understanding science.

Do you think the culture is changing on that?

I think the culture is starting to change. People like Brian Cox have done a superb job. He’s young, he’s enthusiastic, he’s nice to look at. And still a damn good scientist

You need people who can give you the enthusiasm. We all do science because we love it. We don’t do it for the money, definitely not. There are very few who can put across that absolute joy of understanding science. I don’t understand why you would not do science. That communication of science is so important.

One of the accusations that has been around is that nuclear researchers are likely to be funded by nuclear power companies.

That’s actually not true. I mean I’ve never had any money from the nuclear power industry. But even if you do take money, it doesn’t mean you’re in their pay. I accept money from Imperial, but it doesn’t mean Imperial tells me what to do. If you know somebody is employed by a company, you are going to be more suspicious of what they say. But I think that’s where scientists have to be different.

Unfortunately we’re all bound by money because all of our research grants. That’s why scientists will quite often sit on the fence, because actually by saying, ‘we’ve solved the problem, we know the answer’, you dry up your own funding. And that is one reason why scientists don’t speak out, because you might be shooting yourself in the foot. But I think it’s my duty as a scientist to present the facts.


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