Listener Feedback: The Environment
Brian responds to listener feedback on past episodes about environmental topics.
by Brian Dunning
March 24, 2015
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Few topics generate as much passionate feedback as those dealing with environmental issues. This may be because so many environmental issues are so politically charged. If I say "solar power is better than coal" I get accolades from the left and vitriol from the right; if I say "nuclear energy is better than coal" I get accolades from the right and vitriol from the left. This is why I long ago gave up trying to please any particular segment of the audience, I just call it as I see it. Sometimes this works out well, and sometimes it doesn't. The feedback I'm going to answer today comes from both camps.
My episode comparing the Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island disasters brought out the expected competing camps, the pro-nukes and the anti-nukes. There was also a considerable amount of good information about radioactivity in the comments, mixed in with a much smaller amount of bad information. Paul from Melbourne had the following to offer, and I hope I didn't misinterpret his comment. He said:
Long-lasting particles of plutonium can cycle through an ecosystem in time by orders of magnitude, re-entering entering plants, taken up by root systems and returning to the earth when the plant dies... Aggregating mutating every single cell of life that particle touches. It only takes one particle of plutonium to mutate, aggregating in the gonads of males.
By "particles of plutonium" I am assuming you meant atoms, and I hope I didn't get that wrong. You also mentioned it has a half life of 80 million years. Well, there are a number of things to correct. First of all, an atom of a radioactive element decays once; it does not constantly decay. When it does, a plutonium atom becomes either uranium, neptunium, or another isotope of plutonium. Some of those may also decay. Most plutonium isotopes decay by emitting alpha particles, which are two protons and two neutrons (basically helium nuclei) bound together, so it mostly becomes uranium. There are fifteen different isotopes of plutonium, and the only one with a really long half-life is 244Pu, which is the naturally occurring version, and that's 80 million years. Others have half-lives as short as 20 minutes. The most common versions we use, 239Pu and 241Pu, have half lives of 24,000 years and 14 years. But we usually run them through a reactor so only rarely do those isotopes end up decaying naturally.
In short, a single atom of plutonium only has the potential to emit one alpha particle, each of which has an extremely remote potential to strike and damage one strand of DNA. When that happens, the possibility that the strand will be viable and reproduce into a similarly mutated cell is also extremely remote. Each atom of plutonium is harmless, until that one instant in its lifespan when it decays.
The episode on wind turbine syndrome also produced polarized feedback, split among those who believe themselves and their families harmed by the sound, and those who understand that no such link is plausible. August from Austria said:
I am living near a wind farm and I am suffering of a lot of WTS. My son started nose blooding without recognizing any visible reason. Nearly every day-very strong. so I wrote the dates of blooding into a calender for one year. Then I could see that there was a connection with the windmills (when all three were working) for 100%. 28 other people of our village suffered of the same symptoms. Migrena,nose blooding, brain bloodings, heart-rhythm-problems and also Schlaganfall (brain strikes).... You cannot hear infrasound- but you will feel it- be sure. You cannot see radioactivity - but you will feel it - be sure. But there would be a solution -take the right dose and the right distance - and ther would not be a problem. But first you have to win against political power, money and energy concerns who try to make true science wrong to gain moro andmore money.
The amount of infrasound (inaudible sound at low frequencies below 20 Hz) produced by windmills is virtually nil, orders of magnitude less than that produced by freeways, trains, industrial machinery, a whole list. Why do we not hear any such complaints from any of the far greater number of people who live near freeways? And why do the vast majority of people who live and work at or near wind farms experience no problems?
August also mentioned radiation, so I'm guessing he's referring to the electromagnetic field created by the generator at the top of the windmill. This makes no sense either. People have worked directly alongside massive generators for more than a century with no ill effects; in fact, just driving in your car, the engine's alternator has a much greater electromagnetic effect on you than could the windmill's generator even if you were standing right next to the tower.
Nosebleeds, strokes, and the other problems August reports have never been found to be associated with either sound or the presence of electrical generators. I suggest that he go to a doctor instead of self-diagnosing windmills as the cause; there may be a serious medical condition being overlooked.
And of course, what environmental feedback episode would be complete without passionate political reactions to the episode on the science and politics of global warming? Writing the episode, I worked hard to be as non-partisan as possible, and to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, since it's such an important subject. I even managed not to make any statements about whether anthropogenic global warming is real or not, but advised people how to steer clear of your political party's opinion and instead learn the scientific consensus for yourself. Nevertheless, here's what I got from Joe Joey Joe Joe from "MERICA":
I find this "skeptical" website to be rather disingenuous. You claim to be providing facts and research, but you only do it for ONE side of any argument. Instead of offering an alternate explanations you come to conclusions that YOU have made. When anyone can simply do the research themselves and simply search "global warming" and come up with other sites that offer valid scientific research that shows the opposite of what you claim is "true". The IPCC is a UN funded organization, meaning it is funded by the very people who want to find that global warming is TRUE. Try the first site that comes up to offer real skepticism about "global warming".
(He then gave a link to an article on Breitbart, a conservative political publication, instead of a link to an article from a scientific publication.)
But I guess the IPCC scientists are just better at their craft. Right?
In short, yes; climate scientists are better at the craft of climate science than are political pundits. The article he linked to was about the global warming denial report published by the NIPCC, the "Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change", a group founded not to do any science, but simply to compile and promote the tiny 3% minority of published science that contradicts the overwhelming 97% consensus. It was created by the Heartland Institute, an extremely conservative political think tank. I'm not saying conservative or liberal is good or bad; I'm saying this particular source is purely a political one, not a scientific one.
The whole point of my episode was to encourage people to ignore their political party's position on science issues, since science is not politicians' core competence. Instead, you should go to science sources, which are readily available to anyone interested in actually finding them. Joe Joey Joe Joe did exactly the opposite of what I recommended, and ignored the science sources, and went hook, line, and sinker for his preferred political party's propaganda. This is not the way to learn science.
A number of people had questions after my episode on fracking. Steven from Chicago asked:
What about the Earthquakes? You briefly mentioned them, but never confirmed or denied if fracking has any effect.
And Owen from Phoenix, AZ asked:
Now with my limited understanding of physics, it sounds like a proppant (the sand mixed in with the water) would help prevent this now-watery layer from causing a collapse of the upper layers, leading to earthquakes. Finally, are sinkholes attributed to fracking? It sounds like something it might possibly cause.
People either forget, or are unaware, that in fracking, the water is only in the ground for around 40 minutes. The process may be repeated a number of times until sufficient proppant is deposited into the fractures, but the water doesn't remain there. It therefore can't cause a sinkhole or lubricate for an earthquake, because it's no longer there.
Of greater concern is the existing practice for dealing with the used water, which is to dispose of it permanently into superdeep injection wells. These are much deeper than fracking, and there has been some evidence that these injection wells can trigger minor earthquakes, assuming there's already a fault there with some stress on it. Recycling of the waste water is a growing practice. The water is expensive for the energy companies to buy and transport, so costs are driving them to find better ways to clean it sufficiently for reuse.
My episode on peak oil talked about what's going to happen when the world runs out of oil. It is really going to be a sudden disaster, or will the world adapt to new energy sources as supplies run out? Peter from Los Angeles said:
I appreciate what you are trying to do — smash the ridiculous idea of world disaster from declining oil reserves; however, instead of actually addressing the concerns you seem to set up a straw man and then wave the magic "free market" flag.
The main point of the episode was to debunk the overblown claims that suddenly one day people are going to be rioting and eating their neighbor's dog. This is not a straw man that I created; it's the scenario posed by the most extreme peak oil guys, as cited in the episode's references. Regarding the "free market flag" you say I waved, I'm going to put that down to poor listening comprehension, because I never mentioned the phrase "free market" in the episode at all. Indeed, I believe the opposite is a better solution: to encourage earlier adoption of alternative energy sources through incentives and penalties. The biggest problem I'd expect to see is getting such incentives and penalties to be guided by well-informed science and economics, rather than political interests. But the fact of the matter is that throughout history, every time a resource has become scarce and prohibitively expensive, society has been forced to shift to alternatives. That's not a political perspective, it's just the nature of supply and demand. We have every reason to expect the same to happen with energy production.
So listeners, keep that feedback coming. Your engagement is what keeps this show alive. We do our best here at Skeptoid, but it's always far from perfect, so please don't hesitate if you have anything to add to the conversation.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback: The Environment." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
24 Mar 2015. Web.
23 Mar 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4459>
References & Further Reading
Leventhal, G. "Infrasound from Wind Turbines: Fact, Fiction or Deception." Canadian Acoustics. 1 Apr. 2006, Volume 24, Number 2: 29-36.
NRC. "Backgrounder on Plutonium." NRC Library. United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 27 Jun. 2014. Web. 20 Aug. 2014. <http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/plutonium.html>
Nuccitelli, D. "DenialGate Highlights Heartland's Selective NIPCC Science." Skeptical Science. Skeptical Science, 18 Feb. 2012. Web. 20 Aug. 2014. <http://www.skepticalscience.com/denialgate-highlights-heartlands-selective-nipcc-science.html>
Puko, T. "Fracking ruled out as contributor to East Coast quake." Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. 6 Sep. 2011, Newspaper.
Tinker, Scott. "Of peaks and valleys: Doomsday energy scenarios burn away under scrutiny." News Releases and Features. Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas, 25 Jun. 2005. Web. 16 Dec. 2009. <http://www.jsg.utexas.edu/news/rels/062505a.html>
WHO. Health risk assessment from the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2013.
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