Wade Allison, 'Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear'

IssueJuly - August 2010
Review by Patrick Nicholson

Wade Allison is an academic physicist who writes about the science and safety of radiation. His main thrust is that radiation safety limits have been set irrationally high due to unrealistic fears and misunderstandings of the dangers of ionising radiation. He claims that recent evidence confirms that the dangers of low level radiation are much less than was thought earlier, and may even be beneficial in some circumstances.

Even if you disagree with where Allison takes his arguments, a large part of the book is a good, accessible review of the science of radiation and its biological effects. This in itself makes it a potentially valuable read for activists interested in nuclear and environmental issues. A useful adjunct to this book might be Chris Busby’s “Wings of Death: Nuclear Pollution and Human Health” (1995), which makes the converse argument that radiation risks have been massively downplayed.

My own sense is that some of Allison’s points are close to the mark, for instance regarding limitations of the Linear No Threshold assumption (that risk extends linearly down to very low radiation doses) and the degree of irrationality in people’s responses to radiation, for example in comparison to other risks. But I remain deeply concerned about the effects of radiation within living things. Allison’s claims that the science is now giving a clear green light do not convince me at all. The ever-emerging complexity of the interaction of radiation and biology, and the history of the nuclear lobby’s self-interested lies and deception demand continuing prudence.

Experts are useful, but also dangerous. Useful because they know a lot more than most of us about the particular things they have studied in depth. Dangerous because with this specialisation come costs, often hidden, including a myopic focus on the topic in hand and an ethical tightrope walk between pure objectivity and career/industry/department/personal realities. I feel able to say such things because I have spent time myself doing research in medical physics. This book felt to me at times like an emotional plea to embrace radiation, something that Wade Allison and many others have invested their lives in. I understand that, but it doesn’t mean we have to agree.

In a book that is generally very cool-headed, there are some cracks in the façade. For instance there is a breathtaking statement describing Chernobyl as “a … failure of public understanding.” Elsewhere there’s a claim that wildlife at Chernobyl is thriving, despite being radioactive, but the only evidence appears to be an anecdote from a 2006 BBC documentary. Another example is the argument for nuclear power as a solution to global warming, a discussion devoid of a host of relevant factors taking in the wider social and political context and the possibility of broader change in society.

Many years ago I was doing my PhD and struggling to understand why science didn’t seem to actually work in the clean, text book, objective way that we’d all been told about. Then I read Paul Feyerabend and got it – scientists are people too, fallible, emotional, vulnerable, and science is as messy as any other human endeavour. Read professor Allison’s book with that proviso in mind and see its value, and its limits.

Topics: Nuclear power
See more of: Review