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keeping a clear head in the face of nuclear disaster

This year, after much soul-searching, I decided to begin a Bachelor of Science at the University of Adelaide. While the administration’s decision to give all first–year science students an iPad, sans charge, has been better than a kick in the head, I’m not so sure about the other thing they’ve concocted this year: Principles and Practice of Science. Like some kind of 10th-grade ESL class, this compulsory course has left me with many a gripe. However, with one of its aims being to motivate us to think more about what science actually is and how it is communicated, it can’t be said that its heart is in the wrong place. And lo and behold, as of late I have indeed been having some thoughts about the ways in which we are presented with ‘science’.

Recently, while walking along North Tce, I was stopped by a member of an ecological activist group who was trying to encourage passers-by to donate to the cause. Instead of pleading my status as a poor student and continuing on, I paused to talk and to listen to what he had to say. As I had suspected, he was not a proponent of nuclear power. Quite the opposite, in fact. I could see the gleam in his eye when I told him that I was not convinced that nuclear power was ‘all that bad’. He then saw it as his business to convince me. And so he spouted forth with troubling statistics about the recent incident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. This was interspersed with half-jokingly derisive references to me as being ‘pro-nuke’. Of course, we were not going to convince one another, and that is okay. It is this difference of opinion that actually spurs on progress in our world. However, what troubled me was that he seemed to miss my point. Just because I am not anti-nuclear power, does not mean that I believe it is the answer to our present energy woes. I instead believe that it should be considered – with the potential harms and benefits rationally weighed.

The point of this story is not to proffer my stance on nuclear power, but to illustrate how we can all be affected by a lack of deep scientific understanding. Just as my activist friend so passionately pointed out, it is the lack of consideration for the implications of nuclear technology that can be seen in the aftermath of the nuclear tragedy in Japan. Yet by using such scare tactics as mentioning this horrible event, the activist was taking advantage of those in the public who knew nothing about the science behind nuclear power. The potential benefits of nuclear power will necessarily be overlooked when placed alongside the terrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course, this young man cannot completely be blamed. In all likelihood, he knew very little about nuclear theory himself – a basic knowledge of which, and do correct me if this sounds unreasonable, should be a given when considering the technological application of nuclear energy.

Proper understanding of scientific issues has never been so salient. Yet with our current saturation of information (much false), it is made very difficult to gain this understanding and maintain clear-headedness. And until we do, we will be at the mercy of those who seek to push their own agenda through fear mongering or who simply don’t know any better.

…To that end, I urge you all to sign the petition to save the endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus – only your help can ensure the future of this beautiful and gentle creature.

(Image credit: 1.)

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