Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Radioactive Peaches

In early July Michael Collins of EnviroReporter found peaches that were radioactive: Two peaches sustained 81 CPM and above or over two times background (208% of site background).

UC Berkeley's radiation engineering department sought to debunk Collins' results.

I'm an academic and I know that most academics try and operate objectively. However, in fact, even the most objective among us are influenced by unconscious suppositions and reasoning heuristics.

Science itself is inevitably biased by paradigms of understanding that dictate how scientists "see" problems in the world.

So, good science is not really about establishing universal truths. Rather, good science is about testing ideas to find out which ones are, or are not, supported by evidence and then being open to new paradigms of understanding when the hypotheses are increasingly not supported by empirical data.

I think with the peaches the good faculty at Berkeley may have been too dismissive of the evidence because of their unproven assumption that Fukushima radiation cannot be dense enough here in the U.S. to cause contamination.

I'm not dissing Berkeley. It is a great institution that my grandfather graduated from and both my parents attended for at least a couple of years.

But even the best schools and the best scholars make mistakes and/or are at times blinded by their assumptions and their methodological blinders.

For a good analysis of how/why this might have occurred with the peaches read

UC Berkeley Nuclear: If Its Not Raining Here, Its Not Raining ANYWHERE?

The UC Berkeley Nuclear Engineering BRAWN team seems to have to gone out of their way to rationalize why the detection of radioactive peaches in California is no reason to investigate further. Its the equivalent of telling fire spotters to ignore smoke in the woods during fire season; the public safety implications are obvious. It is easy to conclude that there is bias coming out of the BRAWM team.

It is a troubling bias because these people are responsible for training the next generation of nuclear engineers who will sign off on the safety of nuclear projects. I continue to hope that it is a bias driven out of ignorance / incompetence rather than a desire to keep their entire undergraduate nuclear engineer enrollment from dropping to zero again like it did after Three Mile Island....

The gist of one claim coming out of UC Berkeley is that a Geiger counter with a pancake tube specifically designed to detect contamination is not capable of rapidly detecting the difference between background radiation and 2 times background radiation. They couch that claim by treating that report as if it came out of an instrument that displayed raw data, instead of the 30 second moving average it actually displays. They also ignore that the reported detections were the MINIMUM SUSTAINED READINGS from two different peaches; and that the local background was also read.

That is enough information to make any person who knows the least little bit about Geiger counters to cringe at UC Berkeley's claims. But it gets worse, any good scientist adept at data analysis and collection would cringe when the BRAWN team suggested that a Poisson uncertainty should be applied to data resulting from a moving average. Combine that with their use of such dubious logic as a rationale to avoid further investigation, and you have what I refer to as DOUBLE STUPID....


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