Saturday, 19 March 2011

stats, the tsunami and avoiding being an idiot as far as possible

Patrick is a software manager in central Japan. He wrote a great post on how badly the tsunami was reported by the west in the early stages. Read the whole thing. A couple of highlights:
At about 800 miles long, [Honshu, the largest of Japan's four very large islands, and the one which was hit] stretches from roughly Chicago to New Orleans. Quite a lot of the reporting on Japan, including that which is scaring the heck out of my friends and family, is the equivalent of someone ringing up Mayor Daley during Katrina and saying “My God man, that’s terrible — how are you coping?
That this happened was, I say with no hint of exaggeration, one of the triumphs of human civilization. Every engineer in this country should be walking a little taller this week. We can’t say that too loudly, because it would be inappropriate with folks still missing and many families in mourning, but it doesn’t make it any less true.
A few friends of mine have suggested coming to Japan to pitch in with the recovery efforts. I appreciate your willingness to brave the radiological dangers of international travel on our behalf, but that plan has little upside to it: when you get here, you’re going to be a) illiterate b) unable to understand instructions and c) a productivity drag on people who are quite capable of dealing with this but will instead have to play Babysit The Foreigner.
He's decent on the nuclear issues, too, though he was writing before the situation got worse.

On that front, though, you've probably already read the BBC's incredibly sensible piece about nuclear dangers. I mean, since it is clear, concise and should allay the sillier fears, it should be up front and repeated every six minutes. OH, WAIT, you can't even get a link to it from the main BBC site on the tsumani, even from the excitable page about the nuclear reactors.

In a nutshell, people get hysterical about nuclear danger because it seems more weird and freaky than other more real dangers. After Chernobyl, psychological problems were much more prevalent than physical ones. And:
The perception of the extreme risk of radiation exposure is also somewhat contradicted by the experience of 87,000 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who have been followed up for their whole lives.

By 1992, over 40,000 had died, but it has been estimated that only 690 of those deaths were due to the radiation. Again, the psychological effects were major ... a whole-body CT scan as part of a medical check-up ... can deliver you a dose equivalent to being 1.5 miles from the centre of the Hiroshima explosion.
People are nuts re risks involving the words 'nuclear' and 'cancer', basically.

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