WHEN MEMES COLLIDE by Jeremy Whitlock
The time has come to accept the "radiation perception" debacle for what it is: possibly the greatest experiment in behavioral psychology and cultural evolution of our time. I am quite certain of this, any remaining doubts being put to rest by several events these past few weeks.
Even hardened nuclearphiles had to shake their heads in the aftermath of the September 30 criticality accident at Tokai Mura, Japan. It wasn't so much the accident itself – although that inexcusable consequence of institutionalized stupidity was mind-boggling enough – as the apocalyptic rendering it received in the public mind and the media that feeds it. The phrase "worst nuclear accident in Japan" rolled off the lips of phlegmatic news anchors around the globe, with very few (if any) asking what the second worst accident was. Or, how dangerous is a technology whose worst national accident claims two or three casualties?
The accident called into question everything related to nuclear power. Greenpeace activists, at that moment dogging two MOX-laden freighters off the Japanese coast, did a double take at their unbelievable serendipity. Anti-MOX crusaders here at home hastened to draw parallels where there were none. The BBC broadcast two-year-old file footage of a previously damaged building at the same site, claiming to have evidence of the roof being blown off in the current accident. Few questioned this either - except industry insiders sharing back-of-the-envelope and rudimentary Monte Carlo calculations over the Internet (the BBC has since apologized).
And then a week later some heavy water at a CANDU plant in South Korea leaked into containment. Now, as any parent of diaper-age children knows, leaking into containment is not necessarily a bad thing, but immediately there were comparisons made with Tokai Mura and a national outrage. A band of well-meaning citizens held an overnight vigil outside the plant in protest of the "leak" and the environmental harm they presumed it to cause.
The point is not the overreaction, which is nothing new, but the speed with which overreaction took place. Not an eyelash is batted in the mental link between all things nuclear. The word "radiation" is now a pre-programmed keyword in the public consciousness, with immediate thought associations and even visceral response – much like "atheist", "Hitler", "sex", and "chocolate". The reaction is contagious and deeply rooted.
There is a word for this. In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins coined the word "meme" (pronounced meem) to describe a fundamental idea that replicates itself in other minds, driving cultural evolution in the same manner that genes drive biological evolution. An entire field of "memetics" has since been established, taking the concept far beyond Dr. Dawkins' original vision (one might say that memetics is itself a meme).
Like genes, memes need not be "good" to replicate; they need only survive. If they push the right buttons, make interesting conversation, sell advertising spots, or appeal to fundamental fears and/or attractions, they will spread like wildfire and ultimately effect cultural change. Organized religion is the granddaddy of all memes.
Recognition of radiophobia as a meme actually explains a lot. It explains the subtle arched eyebrow of a friend or relative as I try to explain what I do for a living. It explains why Homer Simpson's day job is a weekly gold mine for satirical Zeitgeist humour. It explains why Three Mile Island (no off-site consequences) is household knowledge while Bhopal, India (4000 immediate deaths, many times more permanent injuries) is not. It explains why otherwise staid journalists sprinkle nuclear stories with offhand phrases like "political explosion" and "public affairs meltdown" - their tongues are not even in their cheeks; such is the power of a meme.
In Ontario, it explains why mayors, native chiefs, and numerous followers will do their best in the near future to prevent the passage of two trucks carrying a pittance of plutonium MOX fuel through their communities. In doing so, they will happily let trucks full of chlorine, propane, gasoline, acid, and other unmentionables pass without question – all shipments with higher risk than the dreaded plutonium. "Plutonium kills", "no solution for nuclear waste", "nuclear cover-up" – these are all sub-memes of radiophobia.
To those weary of the drawn-out MOX battle, and similar battles, in Canada, such distinctions might appear academic. It is important, therefore, to recognize an interesting consequence of this line of thought: memes can be battled just like genes can. One approach is to introduce a "counter-meme" into the host material (the minds of the population), and an example that I find increasingly disturbing is the claim that radiation at low doses has a zero or even beneficial health effect.
Like the meme that it is, this attractive idea has infected hundreds if not thousands of minds, particularly within the global nuclear community. It is a potent meme; it drives some to accuse colleagues of job-protection and grant-hunting, should they stand in opposition (note the parallel with radiophobia). It seduces scientific minds into incomplete examination of the issue; often overlooked is the fact that the Linear No-Threshold (LNT) model was never meant to measure the health detriment of a specific small dose to a large population. It is a single, conservative yardstick for planning purposes, applicable over a range of radiation types, dose levels, and dose rates, and should not be criticized for its misapplication.
The fact that the LNT is not, in fact, "linear" but incorporates a change in slope by a factor of two at low doses (the "Dose and Dose Rate Effectiveness Factor", or DDREF), is very often overlooked as well. Why? Because the meme spreads faster when you speak of straight lines drawn to zero.
Other buttons are pushed: An analogy is often made to Aspirin, where LNT-type thinking is said to equate a hundred people popping one pill each, to one person swallowing a hundred pills. Catchy, but relevant only to the deterministic health effect of radiation, which indeed disappears as individual dose decreases, much like Aspirin.
Stochastic effects are another story, about which comparatively little is known at low levels. In this region the math showed us decades ago (see Goss, Health Physics, Nov. 1975) that it is likely impossible to statistically detect the incremental effects predicted by the LNT. Study after study, of ever-increasing power, seems to prove this out, and yet the lack of a statistical increase is often cited as proof of the LNT's invalidity. Given the original intent of the LNT, the opposite is closer to the truth. (One button often pushed concerns the disproportionate funding devoted to reducing radiation risk, and this is probably valid, but irrelevant to the validity of the LNT.)
Unless you believe that "the end justifies the memes" (sorry), it is better, I think, to look elsewhere in the gene analogy for a game plan. Why not battle radiophobia with meme-mutation: like genes, replication is not necessarily exact, nor should it be since mutation can be beneficial as well as detrimental. Let's put our creative minds to the question of how to use the meme's own replicating characteristics against itself.
One idea is meme-splicing: substituting a positive nuclear thought into an existing meme. This has had some success with climate change, and time will tell if the replication rate of the "meet-Kyoto-with-nuclear" meme is high enough for survival. We can do the same with particulate air pollution, land usage, job creation, food preservation, nuclear isotopes, neutron-based materials testing, and yes, nuclear disarmament. The upcoming MOX test at Chalk River does gain acceptance as people think of it in terms of weapons destruction – a slight (and more truthful) mutation on the ten or twenty negative memes that seem to surround this enterprise. As more people accept "some" nuclear activities, they will start to examine their other grievances more closely – and that is where cultural change begins.
The vehicle for meme-splicing is public communication, and the trick is to go slowly so that natural replication can work at its own pace. This approach definitely requires patience and subtlety. Moreover, it stands a better chance of success, I think, than hitting people over the head with the exciting news that radiation is now good for you, and it has the added attraction of maintaining internal scientific consistency at every step along the way. So have heart; the battle of memetic engineering has just begun.
©2011 Jeremy Whitlock