One man, now embroiled in a shocking scandal, may have done the movement incalculable damage.
By George Monbiot. Published on the Guardian’s website, 22nd November 2011
One of the most widespread human weaknesses is our readiness to accept claims that fit our beliefs and reject those that clash with them. We demand impossible standards of proof when confronted with something we don’t want to hear, but will believe any old cobblers if it confirms our prejudices.
You can see it in almost every field, and I am sorry to say that environmentalists are not always immune to it. An example is the long-running failure by people within the green movement to challenge the claims made by a Dr Christopher Busby. Chris Busby is a visiting professor at the University of Ulster. He was formerly the science and technology spokesperson for the Green Party, which still consults him on matters such as low-level radiation and depleted uranium. Following the extraordinary revelations published by the Guardian today, this may now change.
One of Busby’s best-known contentions, widely repeated by anti-nuclear campaigners, is that there is a leukaemia cluster among children living close to the coast of north Wales. This cluster, he maintains, is caused by radionuclides in the sea, from Sellafield and other sources.
His findings were self-published and released by the consultancy he runs, called Green Audit. This means that they were not subjected to the scientific assessment required by peer-reviewed journals. Data and claims have to withstand the peer review process if they’re to be treated by other scientists as worthy of further investigation.
Busby’s claims were later assessed by professional scientists working for the Welsh Cancer Intelligence and Surveillance Unit at the NHS, whose role is to record and analyse the incidence of cancer and monitor any trends in its occurrence.
They published their assessment in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, the Journal of Radiological Protection. Their paper reported a simple and devastating finding: there is no such cluster. Busby’s claims, it says, were the result of some astonishing statistical mistakes:
• He counted the overall leukaemia incidence for Wales twice
• He mixed up the figures from urban areas with those from small rural areas, “trebling the local incidence in north Wales” and creating “spurious clusters in various locations”
• He claimed there were ten cases of leukaemia in young children in Snowdonia. In reality there was just one case
Worst of all, the paper says:
• “We found clear evidence of data dredging which renders all subsequent statistical inference spurious … the dataset has been systematically trawled.”
Busby’s “findings” were repeated uncritically in the Welsh media, spreading fear and distress among local people.
As for his “second event theory”, which maintains that radionuclides are far more dangerous than scientists say they are, the paper asserts that there is no evidence supporting this, and it has “no biological plausibility”.
None of this, however, is as disturbing as the remarkable story published in the Guardian today.
Busby appears in a video broadcast on YouTube. In it he makes a number of wild allegations. Among them is a startling conspiracy theory: that the Japanese government is deliberately spreading radioactive material from Fukushima all over Japan. The reason, he says, is that when clusters of childhood cancer start appearing in Fukushima, the parents of the victims will want to sue the Japanese government.
“But the only way that they can say that they’ve got high levels of cancer is to have a control group in an area that’s not contaminated, for example the south of Japan. So I believe that the project to take this material and burn it all over Japan is to destroy all of Japan, to increase the cancer rate in the whole of Japan, so that there will be no control group to which you can compare these children in the Fukushima area.”
He produces no evidence to support this claim. Given that no radioactive waste has been removed from Fukushima prefecture, and there are no plans to do so, it is hard to see how he could.
He then goes on to promote expensive new pills and tests which, he says, will protect people in Japan from these alleged horrors. Scientists contacted by the Guardian describe these treatments as useless and baseless.
An organisation based in Japan, calling itself the Christopher Busby Foundation for the Children of Fukushima, and linked to Busby’s own enterprise in Wales called Busby Laboratories, solicits donations for its work. But the bank account it asks people to send them to is not in Japan. It is called Green Audit, and the bank is in Busby’s home town of Aberystwyth. Green Audit is an environmental consultancy and research organisation founded by Busby.
When I phoned Busby to ask him some questions about these issues, his responses were less than enlightening. He began as follows: “You can fuck off frankly.”
When I asked him what his involvement was with the Christopher Busby Foundation for the Children of Fukushima, he told me: “I think you can fuck off. I’m not going to answer your questions.” When I asked whether the products being sold in his name are snakeoil, he responded: “Of course it’s not snakeoil you fuckwit”.
Busby answered some of my questions but put the phone down on me before I could ask what I considered to be the key questions. These are:
- Are you receiving money from the sale of these products and services?
- Have the pills being sold in your name been subjected to a randomised controlled trial to test their efficacy?
- Are the tests being sold audited by external assessors?
- Do you draw money out of the Green Audit account for your own use?
When I emailed these questions and others to him he sent me, “as my response to your questions” a summary of the proceedings of a conference that took place in 2009. Given that this was held before the Fukushima disaster, and before he started promoting pills and tests to the people of Japan, it was hard to see the relevance of this answer. No other response from him has been forthcoming.
Those who oppose nuclear power often maintain that they have a moral duty to do so. But it seems to me that moral duties cut both ways.
We have a moral duty not to spread unnecessary and unfounded fears. If we persuade people that they or their children are likely to suffer from horrible and dangerous health problems, and if these fears are baseless, we cause great distress and anxiety, needlessly damaging the quality of people’s lives.
We have a moral duty not to use these unfounded fears as a means of extracting money from frightened and vulnerable people, whatever that money might be used for.
We have a moral duty not to divert good, determined campaigners away from fighting real threats, and into campaigns against imaginary threats. Dedicated and effective activists are a scarce resource. Wasting their lives by encouraging them to chase unicorns is a disservice to them and a disservice to everyone else.
We have a moral duty to assess threats as clearly and rationally as we can, so that we do not lobby to replace a lesser threat with a greater one. If, as is already happening in Germany, shutting down nuclear power results in an increase in the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal, far more people will suffer and die as a result of both climate change and local pollution. If, as now seems likely, we wildly miss our carbon targets and commit the world to runaway warming, partly as a result of the nuclear shutdown, history will judge the people who demanded it harshly.
So this article is a plea for people to try to step back from their entrenched positions and see the bigger picture. It asks you to be as sceptical about the claims you like as you are about the claims you dislike. It asks you to subject everyone who makes claims about important and contentious subjects to the same standards of enquiry and proof.
I know that’s a tough call, but it’s not as tough as wasting our lives inadvertently campaigning, on the basis of misinformation, to make the world a worse place.