Lies, pseudoscience and “journalism” in Japan’s current nuclear situation

The current situation at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant is a serious matter; and having family in close proximity of it makes it even more serious to me. For this reason, I appreciate the onslaught of emails and phone calls that friends and acquaintances have sent me to express their solidarity. Thank you!

At the same time, I am appalled by the way western media has represented the situation, which has led some people to send me distraught missives about the “imminent” crisis and the lies of the Japanese government. Since I haven’t posted in a while, I seized opportunity to type some words about risk and science communication. Since this is going to be a little bit of a rant, I apologize to my regular readership (that handful of patient people) for having digressed a little, yet again.

Here is my rant:

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Impaired driving: Media is helping!

When reporters explain the causes of a collision and emphasize on drivers’ choices, they are also educating the public on how to prevent crashes, injuries, or fatalities. In fact, experimental studies have demonstrated that this type of journalism produces positive changes in the public’s perception of the problem.

Last week, I was glad to see that an impaired driving conviction was generously covered by the media and even made the front page of local newspapers1. In particular, Matt Kieltyka’s piece exhibited traits of what experts consider good road accident journalism: it contained a detailed description of the event, including its human context, antecedents, the aftermath, and it explained how drinking and driving led to the death of a little girl1.

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Re: Can YOU stop impaired driving?

The “benefits of [a sobriety check] campaign may not depend on drivers’ being personally exposed to a checkpoint, but rather on their knowing that others have.” Thus, local media can aid sobriety check campaigns, by announcing how many have been checked and how many didn’t pass. Media coverage, in turn, will increase the perceived risks of being caught in by the police.

This is a blog response to the post “Can YOU stop impaired driving?” in which Sergeant Tim Burrows calls for ideas on how to tackle this problem. Here, I present my two cents:

First, don’t use threats of physical harm or death in your communications, because this kind of message is not effective with the target groups for which it is intended: male drivers and sensation seekers (this term refers to a personality trait that is associated with risk-taking and impaired driving)1, 2. Moreover, some studies suggest that these messages can be counterproductive, because they induce denial (“this won’t happen to me”) and self-enhancement attitudes (“I am a better driver than the people in the ad”).

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It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it

Why would some people protest against an initiative to do them good? Why some altruistic endeavours get sabotaged by the very beneficiaries of the efforts?

Why would some people protest against an initiative to do them good? Why some altruistic endeavours get sabotaged by the very beneficiaries of said efforts?

Last month, a local Vancouver newspaper reported on a group of residents who oppose an ex-neighbour’s initiative to embellish a nearby city lot. Although this proposal includes investing $7,650 of the city’s money to improve this piece of land, many residents protested against it through anonymous emails, letters to the city and even confrontations on the street! “The neighbours are up in arms”—one resident commented [1].  Meanwhile, some us wonder why these people are protesting against a plan that seems well-intended and beneficial. What is it about the whole situation that makes it deserving of such tremendous furor?

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Compromising sucks!

In a couple of months, Vancouver B.C. will undergo an important social experiment that will test transit users and drivers’ ability to coexist with bicycle riders. The Burrard Bridge, one of the three constructions that connect the west side of the city with the downtown area (see map), will have one of its lanes converted into a bicycle-only path. Approved by the city council in early May, this decision wasn’t free of controversy [1]: while a number of bicycle advocates were disappointed that only one lane will be converted, some drivers and transit users recalled with worry the traffic jams created by a similar experiment carried out a decade ago.

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