Strong opinions, weakly held

More on the unfolding nuclear situation in Japan

Needless to say, the situation with the nuclear plants in Japan seems to be degrading by the day. I was one of the many people who linked to the letter by Dr. Josef Oehmen explaining how the containment systems for the nuclear plants in Japan work and that we needn’t worry about radiation releases from those plants. What we know now is that there is cause to worry. This has prompted Justin Elliott at Salon to publish a piece “debunking” Oehmen’s letter.

I don’t really think that’s fair. Oehman’s piece was published on Monday in the middle of a rapidly changing situation, and it appears as though things were significantly worse on Monday than was reported. Oehmen should perhaps have been more skeptical of the news out of Japan, but his letter provided a very useful framework for understanding subsequent news reports on the severity of the situation. Had I not read it, I’d still be having trouble making sense of the news from Japan.

I would strongly encourage people to follow the All Things Nuclear blog from the Union of Concerned Scientists for up to date news on developments with Japan’s nuclear disaster. MIT has also created MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub to report on developments at the Fukushima plant. If you’re interested in this issue, I’d encourage you to stay up to date. The situation continues to change rapidly and the news keeps getting worse, and news stories and blog posts that are even a day or two old are no longer useful, except as background.


  1. My chief complaint about everyone linking to Oehmert is that he has no domain expertise in the nuclear field. He’s not a physicist or a nuclear engineer or someone in the disaster mitigation field; he’s a mechanical engineer turned business professor. Which is fine — the whole point of blogs is that Some Dude on the Internet is often worth reading. But his cheery bullet-point summary wasn’t getting backed up by, e.g., the Union of Concerned Scientists, which obviously has its own set of prejudices but also has actual domain experts on staff and writing at allthingsnuclear.org.

  2. The errors in that Oehman post weren’t because of the fast moving and rapidly changing situation. They were basic errors about the design and function of the Fukushima reactors. These were things that could have been easily verified by a few minutes of searching.

    The guy was taking out of his ass and got called on it.

  3. WADR the Oehmen post and its widespread dissemination was a classic of confirmation bias, wishful thinking, and that unflattering variety of engineering superiority.

    It was clear at the time that the situation was not under control and therefore the outcome was still uncertain. People who don’t wish to look like fools later should not confidently express absolute opinions on matters of consequence when the facts are still largely unknown. Oehmen declined to do so and now looks like a fool. Life sucks like that sometimes.

    Hopefully we all learned a Valuable Lesson from this.

  4. Definitely the worst thing about his post was the certainty in it. In fact, I had read elsewhere that the nuclear industry in Japan is known for lack of transparency after nuclear incidents. So there really was no way to know what was going on at that time. As a blogger, I have no problem with dilettantes weighing in on a variety of subjects, but generally speaking people should be a bit more humble in their approach.

    And you’re certainly right about the confirmation bias.

  5. And yes, Oehmen’s description of many of the basic technical facts was not bad. Although one could have gotten most of it from the Wikipedia article on Boiling Water Reactors and a little web searching.

    If he’d stuck to that, and expressed his conclusions as likelihoods, and if he (or whoever reposted it) had not represented him as “PhD MIT scientist”, I would have had no problem with it. But then it would have been just like many other technical accounts that were being posted – it was the reassuring “Everything’s going to be fine, people are freaking out for no reason, trust me I’m a Scientist” tone that is why so many people found it appealing.

    I don’t mean to harp on the issue. We’re all subject to confirmation bias and cognitive fallacies. We’re not computers. It’s just a good moment to look at our own methods for assessing information about technological events or scientific accounts or whatever.

    I had one of my own a little while back related to global warming after the release of information from the UEA. I definitely have a bias towards a belief that most catastrophe scenarios are basically crap, and that they tend to be exaggerated because of an inevitable attention-seeking dynamic, and so I was to a degree convinced by arguments that that was what was going on in climate research. I worked through it with a lot of arguing and in the end I found that taking that position was untenable, even a little embarrassing. Sometimes embarrassment is the prod that gets you thinking more clearly though.

  6. And a week later Oehmert sounds like he’s taking victory laps for his inaccurate whistling past the graveyard. Not a good actor.

  7. There’s an interesting article here: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20266-how-josef-oehmens-advice-on-fukushima-went-viral.html I think other than being overly optimistic and certain (which are not unusual characteristics for a private email) there isn’t much to criticize him for.

    Publishing it was a big mistake, allowing him to be represented as “MIT scientist” was a big mistake, and most of all the dissemination of what was not a very reliable account was a mistake.

    In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter. TEPCO and the government of Japan and the NRC and IAEA were the ones making the decisions and announcements and what random people on the Internet think is not a significant factor in their decision-making. I hope.

  8. Jacob, I think it’s valuable to call out people who are wrong so that we can properly adjust the weighing of what they say next time. (Although I can’t imagine anyone will turn to Oehmert next time. And why should they? He’s a business professor.)

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