top of page
  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

The good liar

Some people will be critical of this post for being impolite about a person. Calling somebody a liar is considered impolite. But I think telling lies is worse than being impolite, so I’m not too concerned. When I first started fact-checking my anti-nuclear views back in 2008, I became really annoyed with myself for being so comprehensively fooled by people who lie. And also for believing others who, like myself, just took so many opinions of these liars for granted without checking. I also became really annoyed at the liars. They trade on people being too polite to call them out in public. Australians will remember Grace Tame’s famous glare at Scott Morrison; she didn’t have to abuse him out loud, the glare was enough! But it produced a flurry of outrage from those who thought Morrison’s sins deserved politeness. Still, there is much to be said for polite exchange, so I’m a little conflicted about writing what follows. But here it is.

Trolley problems for the real world

Philosophers and psychologists are both prone to asking people what they’d do to stop a calamity. Would you shoot a terrorist about to set off a bomb? Would you divert a train about to plough into a bus onto a track where it would only smash into a car? These choices go by the name of trolley problems after a formulation using trolley cars rather than the train that I just used. If you think you can stomach 15 pages discussing such things, then here’s the paper for you.

The original trolley problem is great for making thrilling films where the evil villain sets up the problem for the hero who can choose to save their own child or a bus full of somebody else’s children. Typically, the hero saves everybody, because that’s what heroes do.

In the real world, perhaps with the exception of war zones, trolley problems are rare. I don’t know anybody who’s ever come across a terrorist with a bomb while holding the means to kill him or her.

A more realistic decision that we all face is about when to tell lies; meaning to say things you know to be false in order to sway the opinion of listeners who will probably believe them.

I remember a workshop on strategy for an animal rights group many years ago where the organiser asked just that question. Would you lie to win a campaign? Would you lie to win a debate? More than a few people said “Yes”. I wasn’t one of them. I’m no epistemological saint. I’d highlight one source of information when I knew of another which contradicted it, but I’d never pick a source I knew to be junk. I genuinely try to pick high-quality sources. Mostly, what I’ve learned over the years is that if you disagree with a really high-quality source, you’d best start thinking about changing your mind.

The great Canadian nuclear debate

Decouple podcaster, and ER medico, Dr Chris Keefer had a live debate recently with Dr Gordon Edwards, an anti-nuclear physicist. The debate was called “The great Canadian nuclear debate”. Keefer supports expanding nuclear power for Canada and elsewhere, Edwards wants to shut down nuclear power, including research reactors. He was a little vague about the time scale, not supporting an immediate shutdown, but supporting Germany’s shutdown and wanting to make medical isotopes in cyclotrons rather than reactors.

It took a little while to realise Edwards’ motivation for shutting current reactors and not building any more because he spent plenty of time talking about the climate emergency. His line was simple, we have a climate emergency and nuclear is slower to build than renewables. He added that we don’t really need any expansion of electricity if we use what we have carefully. He quickly moved on to weapons proliferation and the risk of nuclear annihilation; meaning destruction of the planet by nuclear bombs.

Ah, the penny dropped. Edwards clearly thinks nuclear proliferation is the main emergency with climate change a clear second; the biodiversity crises didn’t get a mention.

Most of us would prefer a few degrees of climate change over a nuclear war. Does that make nuclear proliferation more important? Ranking things with multiple attributes usually throws up such conflicts. Most of us haven’t thought quantitatively about such a war. What are we talking about? Wiping out Moscow and Kyiv? Being as how I live in Australia, I might be tempted to prefer that to 6 degrees of global warming. But what if you throw in the destruction of London and Sydney? Ranking two catastrophic problems is almost as hard as it is meaningless. I haven’t thought too much about nuclear war since I was about 15, but I’ve definitely looked fairly hard at things beloved by Hollywood like dirty bombs.

Dirty bombs could already have been used. Who’d know? At most, they raise the risk of cancer to a bunch of people by less than a bacon habit. Who’d use a dirty bomb? Terrorists want terror, not a bacon-sized cancer risk.

Edwards made it very clear what his position was in robustly defending Germany’s nuclear phase-out and in his fear-mongering mendacity over nuclear waste. In other words, he gave a very clear answer to my version of the “trolley” problem. He was happy to lie as often as he thought he could get away with to try to score debating points.

His biggest boldest lie was about nuclear waste being something we’d have to worry about for 300,000 generations.

Edwards is a physics guy. He knows better. He graduated in physics about the time Helen Caldicott graduated in medicine. Just a few years after the structure of DNA was described. Perhaps he really doesn’t know much about radiobiology. Perhaps he slept through the discovery of the big carcinogens causing cancer over the past 20 or so years.

Possibly. But Keefer explained it beautifully without needing anything other than a level of physics that Edwards certainly knows. In short, after 600 years, the gamma radiation from the waste has decayed enough to make it harmless. The remaining radiation in the waste isn’t dangerous unless you dig it up, pulverise it and eat it (or perhaps snort it). The earth’s crust is full of things we shouldn’t dig up pulverise and eat. We don’t typically regard this as any kind of problem worth worrying about. Nobody writes reports about how we can prevent digging up arsenic and contaminating the water supply; they don’t form committees to study the potential damage that could come from mines that haven’t been built in areas with toxic geology … which is most areas.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Edwards has been repeating this line for decades and never thought about it. Perhaps, just like everybody else worried about nuclear waste, he simply didn’t bother doing the math. But unlike most people, he actually can do the math. But maybe he hasn’t. So maybe he’s not actually telling lies, just simply lazy and wrong. But my experience of how many people are prepared to lie to win a campaign has left me a little cynical. They defend it as lying to save lives. So I’d be confident that Edwards does know enough about nuclear waste to know that he’s wrong and that he, like many campaigners, is happy to lie for what he thinks is the greater good.

The lie about nuclear waste wasn’t his only lie but definitely his biggest. Marketers will tell you the value of repetition and people have been saying for decades that nuclear waste is dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. Edwards knows all he has to do is repeat it. He doesn’t need to explain why or, more importantly, how nuclear waste can hurt anybody during this time scale, he just has to repeat it.

As I said above, it took me a while to comprehend the why of his waste lie, but when it came to his defence of Germany, everything clicked into place.

Having spent quite some time telling people about how dire the climate emergency was, he defended Germany’s decision to prioritise a phase-out of nuclear and delay its coal phase-out until 2038.

Let’s recall the background here. Back in 2011, Germany was getting 140TWh/yr from nuclear power. In 2020, Germany got 134TWh from coal. It has phased out the carbon-free nuclear electricity and kept the coal. And if anybody says: “But what about the mining!” I think I’ll scream. Here’s the best lifecycle analysis source of different sources of electricity I know, from the UN Economic Commission for Europe, and nuclear is lower carbon than solar, even accounting for all the mining and waste disposal. I once gave a talk about nuclear power in which I went into significant detail about mining and the full lifecycle emissions. But come question time, the first question was a rant about how nuclear wasn’t clean when you considered the mining! Some lies just refuse to die. Just like Edward’s waste lie. He’s been telling it for decades and very few people bother to check.

Germany could have had either no coal or no nuclear. It chose to keep the dirtiest source of electricity, brown coal, and phase out the cleanest form. Edwards defends this, so Edwards doesn’t really believe the climate emergency is much of an emergency. He was just lying because he thought he could win a debating point.

Recall also that Germany has been trying to implement her “Energiewende” since 2010. The term goes back at least 30 years before that to a 1980 symposium held by the German Ministry of the Environment. That will mean they are targeting a 28-year phaseout of coal.

So presumably Edwards is fine with everybody else spending 28 years to phase out coal? France decarbonised its electricity in about 15 years with nuclear, so 28 years should be easy for rich countries.

That’s two big lies. The waste lie and the emergency lie. He clearly regards nuclear power as a bigger threat than the climate. But we can say more than that. The Germans can't close down nuclear plants in Russia, or China, or anywhere else. Closing Germany's plants does absolutely nothing to change the risks of a nuclear war. At most it reduces the risk of an accident and nuclear accidents are, given the evidence, pretty small on the catastrophe scale.

Edwards is starting to look not just like a liar, but a compulsive one. He simply can’t help himself. He spent decades before climate change was the big issue it is today building a career around getting rid of nuclear power and simply can’t accept that there could be any problem more pressing than the one he’s devoted his life to. Now he wants to piggy back on the coattails of the popularity of climate as a cause and pretend his concerns are still relevant.

The final demonstration of Edwards being more marketer and bullshitter than concerned citizen was when he played the “natural” card over radioactive isotopes. Edwards talked about “hundreds of new radioactive materials never found in nature [until reactors made them]”. Gosh. “never found in nature”. Wow, how scary.

The first thing to point out is that technically, Edwards is just plain wrong. And being a physics guy, it’s almost certain that he knows it.

Nuclear fission involves splitting atoms. They don’t all split the same way. It’s a bit like splitting logs with an axe. The “halves” won’t be halves at all, they’ll have a mix of ratios. Similarly, when an atom splits after being hit with a neutron, there are plenty of possibilities for the result.

Fission has happened naturally in the Earth’s history, at least once for an extended period, but probably more often. This was discovered at Oklo in Africa and the fission process ran for about 100 million years; rather a long time! What happened to the waste, why hasn’t it killed us all? You shouldn’t need to ask that question by now.

As reactors go, this natural one was more of a smoulder than a flame, but over that long period, you can bet it generated plenty of different isotopes. Physics people all know about Oklo; it’s pretty bloody famous. So I’m betting Edwards does; he most likely just lied again.

But the technical lie is a small sin. The big sin was pretending that all these “unnatural” isotopes were of any evil significance. People who’ve done even basic physics are typically ROTFL) at this point, and don’t actually understand that most of the world hasn’t done physics so they’ll be taking liars like Edwards seriously. So I’m going to do my best to explain why the “unnaturalness” of some isotopes makes no difference to anything anywhere.

First a simple analogy for people who don’t want the detail.

Is pizza natural? Most people think so, despite it being a relatively new kid on the block as a food. Are pineapples natural? They are certainly natural in South America, but the ones in your local fruit shop probably are rather genetically different. Most of us accept that pineapple and pizza are both natural. But some people rail against the combination as “unnatural”! That pretty much sums up the strength of Edwards' proposition. Radioactivity comes in various forms as do elements. Some combinations of radioactivity and elements are natural and others require either natural reactors like at Oklo or unnatural devices like fission reactors which Edwards hates, or cyclotrons, which he seems to like.

The analogy is pretty good, but if you want a more technical explanation, then here it is.

All elements, the things on the periodic table, come in multiple forms, all of which are chemically indistinguishable. The forms are called isotopes. For any element, there are multiple forms, some radioactive and some not. The number of forms varies with the element. Tin has 10 stable (non-radioactive) forms (isotopes) and 1 radioactive form. Carbon has 2 stable and 1 radioactive form. When you bombard some big atoms with neutrons, as happened naturally at Oklo, you can get many other forms.

But, and here’s the crucial bit, the radiation of all the radioactive forms, whether occurring with fission or without (synthetic or naturally occurring), is “the same”. i.e., knowing whether an isotope is natural or synthetic tells you nothing about the radiation. I put quotes around “the same” because when atoms decay, meaning when they produce radioactivity, the energy in that radioactivity can vary quite a lot. What determines that energy level? You could ask a quantum physicist, but if you need to ask then you won't understand the answer. The relevant point is that being natural or unnatural has nothing to do with the energy level of the radiation.

For example. Potassium-40 is a naturally occurring radioactive form of potassium; it’s in all potassium-containing food. That’s where some of your body’s natural radioactivity, mentioned by Dr Keefer in the debate, comes from. Potassium-40 emits beta particles; that’s its way of being radioactive. The beta particles it emits have an energy of 1.3 Mev … don’t worry what a Mev is, it’s just a really really really really small amount of energy. Iodine-131 is a synthetic radioactive form of iodine (made in a reactor). It’s also a beta emitter, but it’s beta particles have a much lower energy level of 0.333 Mev. Some beta particles have enough energy to pass through your skin and into body tissues and some don’t. In this case, the naturally occurring Potassium-40 beta particle will penetrate more deeply than the synthetic one, because it has more energy. I could have produced an example where the natural beta particle had more than the unnatural one. The critical point is that beta particles from every isotope which emits beta particles are exactly the same; some just have more or less energy and being natural is irrelevant to how much energy. Similarly with alpha radiation, another of the three forms of radiation that simplified explanations usually discuss.

The alpha radiation from any element is just a particle, and its energy will depend on the element that emitted it. In the case of alpha particles, they are too big to penetrate your skin so the energy is irrelevant unless you swallow the source of the radiation.

Gammas are the bad guys. These typically go right through you. But water slows them down; a lot. And so does air.

The difference in energy between radiation from an isotope has nothing to do with whether it is natural or synthetic.

Why does Edwards bother with such a lie? The word “natural” is every marketer’s dream word. Stick it on all manner of products and they fly off the shelves.

Edwards plays this card, tells this lie, because he knows it works, particularly among what are probably his biggest audience; those with less than zero scientific knowledge; meaning those who believe all kinds of things that were proven false decades or even centuries ago.

During question time, a woman from the Green Party of Canada pushed the natural/artificial distinction asserting that natural radiation from the sun “doesn’t hurt us”, so any comparison between natural and artificial was comparing apples and oranges. This doesn’t say much for the Canadian education system that anybody should be so confused about the electromagnetic spectrum that they’d confuse solar radiation with radioactive decay. But I’d be betting a large proportion of Australians would be just as confused; despite our prodigious skin cancer rates.

Still, it is incomprehensible that anybody on the planet hasn’t heard of skin cancer and its cause: sunshine, aka solar radiation. The word “radiation” is used for many things that are really very different, despite having some similarities. So I get why people are confused. But the solution to confusion is an explanation. Exploiting confusion and playing the “natural” card is beneath contempt.

Sunshine, for what it’s worth is definitely natural and definitely bad for us, as well as being really good for us. Sometimes the truth is like that; complex and depending crucially on numbers; namely how much sunshine we get.

Globally, sunshine kills about 60,000 people a year and makes millions really sore with sunburn. The Greens woman described herself as the “nuclear critic from the shadow cabinet”. How was this cabinet picked? Perhaps, the same way many national Governments pick Ministers, find someone who knows nothing about a portfolio and put them in charge. This of course prevents those terrible biases that experts bring to decision making. Unlike Edwards, this woman was undoubtedly sincere in her beliefs, just ill-informed; by decades of listening to the likes of Edwards and Helen Caldicott.


3 comentários

Jaro Franta
Jaro Franta
17 de mai. de 2023

One has to wonder, what Edwards' math classes would have been like, if the students behaved like some of his groupies....

PS. Edwards is a retired math teacher, not physicist. He lives in Montreal, where I also live.


James Thomson
James Thomson
16 de mai. de 2023

Back in the day my Political Philosophy professor gave us Plato's The Sophist to read : the art of persuasion and the skill of lying in language. Good post.


Bruno Thomas
Bruno Thomas
15 de mai. de 2023

It sounds very much like what one hears and read about the malevolence of hydraulic fracturing and all the “evil chemicals“ involved.

bottom of page