The late news shows a reporter in front of two freight wagons containing ethanol with flames bursting from them. I quote: ‘Ethanol seems to be a kind of alcohol that is used in the chemical industry. It is quite poisonous…’. At that point I almost choked on my whiskey, containing 30 something per cent of that poisonous substance. It is indeed quite a dangerous substance, especially when you are coughing and laughing at the same time.
As a science writer you often come across this kind of blatant ignorance among colleagues who have dropped their science subjects in secondary at the first available opportunity. A few weeks before this news item, there was a big fire in a warehouse containing all kinds of different chemicals. The government decided to take samples of air, water and soil to look for traces of nasty stuff like dioxins.
The laboratory did not find elevated levels of dioxins in a very large area downwind of the fire. Except for one spot; a soil sample containing ten times the background concentration. Still not very much, but as soon as it became known, reporters were pointing out the poisonous and carcinogenic effects of dioxins. Without as much as mentioning the concept of dose (never heard of good old Paracelsus probably) and that of exposure. In the end it turned out to be what had crossed every chemist mind, an anomaly, probably caused in the lab.
As science writers we can laugh about these errors. Or slap the Dutch national press agency on the wrist when publishing an item on a Columbian researcher who had developed a vaccine against 500 infectious diseases; without any fact checking. I am afraid, however, that the situation is a bit more serious. Scientific and technical illiteracy is not only rife among reporters who don’t have a clue about the nature of ethanol, but also among the general public. For one thing that leads to unnecessary panic.
A recent example is the worldwide panic about the possible effects of low dose radiation in Japan. In China it led for instance to massive sales of table salt containing iodine. A reporter from Dutch television did not dare to go out on the street to interview people – not even to buy food as a matter of fact – because she was panic-stricken by the possibility of exposure to radiation. She did not have a clue about dose-effect relations; she was just very afraid and showed it.
The bad thing about this kind of panic-TV is that it makes matters worse for the victims. One of the lessons of nuclear accident in Chernobyl is, that it has been mainly a psychological disaster for the people that were exposed to elevated radiation levels. About a hundred people lost their life due to very high levels of exposure. There was, and is, a measurable increase in the amount thyroid cancer (5000 cases to date), that could have been prevented by distributing iodine tablets by the way. A few thousand people have a slightly increased risk of developing other cancers.
The main effect of the disaster (and it was a disaster, no discussion about that) was that tens of thousands of people were stigmatized as Chernobyl victims. This meant they could not get work anymore; could not find a partner and were in many ways socially excluded. As a consequence many thousands of them became ‘victims’, people that lost direction in their own life. Consequently many thousands became alcoholics and at least a few hundred of them committed suicide.
In my view this is not so funny anymore. I think that when you are reporting on a science- or technology-related subject you should at least know a little bit of what you are talking about. I mean, who in his right mind would send a reporter to a parliamentary debate who does not have a clue who the prime minister is or what the respective roles of Cabinet and Parliament are. He or she doesn’t have to have a science degree but a little bit of knowledge – just to know when to keep your mouth shut – would be helpful.