The New York Times, like so many institutions based in that city, has always been vastly overrated, the Book Review no less than their editorial pages. It has always been a reliable prop of the establishment with the rare and always "responsible" (you can read that "ineffective" with complete assurance of accuracy) opposing points of view included. I wrote an analysis of the review with which they helped sink one of the most important books you've likely not heard of before, sunk at the same time by the British establishment which it critiqued most devastatingly. The choice of a reviewer with obvious conflicts of interest in the topic was just as plain as the choice of Andrew Roberts in the current case. So I'm going to repost that piece. I repost it because the New York Review of Books is part of the cover up of the many murders that came from choices and decisions that "Kissinger: The Idealist" made in his public career. It has long taken upon itself the task of slipping the intellectual equivalent of Rohypnol to the NYT reading class when it was deemed desirable to have them forget stuff like that.
In the days as the Fukushima reactors were melting down, there were a number of blog fights on the topic at Eschaton blog, where I hung out quite a lot. I was involved on the anti-nuclear side. One of the the pro-nuclear antagonists, and in his case that word is a massive understatement, was one, Chris Tucker, a typical example of the frequently encountered angry atheist whose religion is scientism. Some of us brought citations from The Union of Concerned Scientists, George Kistiakowsky, other specialists I don't specifically remember to the argument. Tucker brought an xkcd cartoon asserting that the dilution of nuclear pollution in the general, background radiation, make it innocuous, harmless. As an aside, I wish I had ten bucks for every time some college educated disciple of scientism had turned to the authority of xkcd or the like to, as they believe, clinch an argument.
When I pointed out that the cartoonist included a disclaimer at the bottom that his drawing shouldn't be mistaken as a serious reference, Tucker, who was prone to enraged tantrums, had one. He had a number of them over the coming weeks at a number of us, as our predictions of meltdowns and pollution became lines in news stories, stories that were clearly pushing a nuclear industry line of minimization of the risks of what many scientists, some of them prominent figures in nuclear science, warned of.
Here in Britain we are all criminals: guilty of conniving at a crime against humanity committed by a government that is polluting the Irish Sea, the British Isles, the entire globe with the radioactive discharges from its nuclear plants at Sellafield, a village in northwest England, on the Irish Sea.
Just to start, Perutz clearly lied about what the book said. As I've shown this past week, in one of the most detailed indictments ever given in a book of the type, Marilynne Robinson took enormous care to show that the large majority of Britains were innocent of the pathological indifference and selfishness that allowed the Sellafield plant. Even if the New York Times reviewer and eminent scientist, Max Perutz, had entirely neglected to read the long first section of the book, the second section that deals with Sellafield is largely concerned with showing how it was the British people, themselves, who were the first and most numerous victims of the criminal acts of the British government and the industrial-scientific elite which lied to them and duped them.
Having attempted to achieve the discrediting of the book by absurd exaggeration, Perutz immediately went in for the kill by noting that Robinson was a novelist, as he continues to mischaracterize a very detailed and carefully stated case.
According to Marilynne Robinson, the author of the novel House-keeping and now of the book under review, “The earth has been under nuclear attack [from Sellafield] for almost half a century.” This book is aflame with indignation at the diabolical practices of the British Atomic Energy Authority, at the irresponsibility of our National Radiological Protection Board, at the careless indifference of our venal members of Parliament and of the British public, at the American press for failing to warn unsuspecting tourists of the deadly dangers threatening their health if they set foot on these poisoned isles, and the American government for wasting its armed forces on their protection.
The effrontery of non-scientists in questioning what scientists do is a common and frequent resort in these kinds of confrontations. Especially, but not exclusively, those scientists with a financial and professional interest, what for most of us constitutes a likely impeaching SELF-INTEREST. It is interesting to note that a short review in arts section of The Times, the editor of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Len Ackland noted the same passage to an entirely different tone:
Sellafield, located in Cumbria on the northwest coast of England, is the sprawling industrial complex where Britain produces deadly plutonium for war and for profit. In the process the Irish Sea has been turned into a radioactive cesspool, untold damage has been inflicted on the human and natural environment. ''The earth has been under nuclear attack for almost half a century,'' in Ms. Robinson's words. She seeks to expose why this outrage has been allowed to happen.
I will take a step into the present to point out that even according to the British government, Sellafield today is the ongoing and developing disaster that Mother Country warned of almost a quarter of a century ago. Since it is part of Perutz's discrediting operation to fault the book for concentrating on Sellafield, citing that concentration on that outrage instead of on the American sites that were also releasing nuclear pollution, I will point out, in passing, that in the American context, the cult of national security could stand in place of the British class system in providing cover for the same kind of outrageous, criminal behavior in the United States. History seems to be vindicating the case Marilynne Robinson made in a way that it hasn't Perutz's review, it is also vindicating those who have been making similar arguments about the Hanford and other sites, to a similar reaction presented in the name of science, here.
Perutz's hatchet job on Mother Country, appearing in the extremely influential New York Times Review of Books, probably had a similar effect on its suppression that the lawsuit did in Britain. Being the land of the First Amendment, the means of suppression here take a peculiarly American form and a bad review in the NYTRoB probably is more effective than the suppressive British libel law* in achieving that end.
I will grant to the Review of Books that they published a response by Marilynne Robinson, with a reply by Perutz, and further exchanges with other letter writers. Oneby David J. Brenner, Ph. D.
Assistant Professor Center for Radiological Research Department of Radiation Oncology
Columbia University, New York City was a succinct refutation of Perutz's major scientific assertions in the review, claims related to the xkcd cartoon mentioned above. Since, as published, his letter ends in ellipsis, it makes you wonder what else he had to say which the NYTRB didn't think was fit to print. A further letter from Jay M. Gould, Director, Radiation and Public Health
Project, United Church of Christ, pointed out further problems with the pro-nuclear case Perutz made. All of those and Perutz's responses are still worth reading.
The point that anyone can know enough about plutonium so as to know better than to pour it into the ocean is sufficient to support the case against doing that. The fact is that even scientists have to rely on nontechnical literature to inform them of things their professional competence doesn't prepare them to understand. The decisions of voters depend on that kind of information. That plutonium is, in fact, being pumped into the environment isn't denied by Perutz and other nuclear industry apologists, they have to rely on denying the science that indicates it is dangerous. As Robinson pointed out in her reply to his review:
Mr. Perutz’s argument, an argument which this eminent man clearly intends as a daunting and chastening demonstration of the scientific mind in action, suggests that scientific discourse is not what it claims to be, or what we must all wish it were. His essential tactic is to dissociate radiation from cancer and environmental damage, and to imply that an unsavory mix of hysteria and ignorance is the whole cause of my indignation.
And look at what Mr. Perutz concedes: Britain reprocesses wastes from its own and foreign civil reactors, and, in the course of producing plutonium, flushes plutonium into the sea, where a quarter ton of it has now accumulated. Plutonium and caesium 137, the only materials Mr. Perutz chooses to talk about in any detail, “were expected” to have no harmful effect because one is insoluble and the other highly soluble in water. After thirty long years these expectations were at last found to have been disappointed—there is plutonium in the surf and the wind, plutonium is highly concentrated in fish and shellfish, which people are allowed to eat. Children in the region of the plant develop leukemia at a rate ten times the national average. A government committee has considered that exposure to plutonium is a “conceivable explanation.” The government concealed information about the Windscale fire in 1957. The factories at Sellafield have produced misleading information about their discharges. When radioactive effluent is found on the coast, the government must be told to warn the public and to clean it up. The plant is shoddily built and technically primitive, characterized by “scandalous malpractices” which have shaken public confidence. The functioning of the plant through its whole history has been based on naive assumptions about the “harmful biological effects of radiation and the possible buildup of radionuclides in living creatures.”
As can be said of religion, there really is not a single thing that is "science" about which you can make accurate, unconditional universal statements. Science discovers good and useful things that enhance and extend life, it informs us of how we could try to save environments and species and, in fact, our own species. It produces a lot of information which is mainly valuable because it is fun instead of useful for anything. It also produces weapons, biological, chemical, bullets and bombs of increased killing power, it produces oil wells, pumping secret poisons to frack for gas and environmental toxins that probably will be bemoaned in the same media that is promoting them. What science has given to us with one hand it has taken, and more so, with the other. When any criticism is made of science, as in all professions, there is a circling of the wagons and they blast away at their critics with everything they've got. Much of that effect is enhanced by massive funding of public relations by the industries and the governments that the malignant science is produced for.
In order to kill a book dealing with a technical, scientific or scholarly topic, one of the most effective things is to give it a general air of unreliability with the casual, slightly informed reader who would likely pick it up or buy it. The kind of person who reads The New York Review. A bad review of the kind noted above can kill a book in that way. I think reviewers know that they have that power. They may not with movies or sensational garbage that can flourish on bad reviews, but for a serious book on a serious topic, which would never be likely to make any best sellers list, that power is a serious impediment to our intellectual life. In the case of this book, it was a danger to the ability of an informed people to make political decisions and the lives of many millions of people.
* As unsuccessfully resorted to most infamously and, luckily, ineffectively, by David Irving.
Update: After trying to justify those broken lines in the text a number of times, trying to tease out the HTML to fix them, I'm giving up. Please excuse the spaces.