December 08, 2022


The Leak: Politics, Activists, and Loss of Trust at Brookhaven National Laboratory. By Robert P. Crease with Peter D. Bond. MIT Press. $29.95.

     Long before the echo chamber of the Internet began to amplify the most strident voices capable of using it, there were other ways to get the wrong information out and see to it that poor decisions were made as a result. The most surprising thing about The Leak is finding that although the methods of disseminating half-truths and untruths have changed, the inclination to do so – and the ability to do so – have changed very little.

     Scientists learn slowly. There are few “aha!” moments in science, and it does not attract people expecting to be able to shout “eureka!” at every opportunity. It interests those who know that knowledge grows in small increments, that care and attention to detail are needed to ensure accuracy and acceptance of findings, and that one’s work may be abstruse to the general public but is being done, one way or another, for the public’s benefit.

     But the public has a notoriously short attention span, long predating “Internet time,” and careful work with hedged commentary does not stand up well when opposed by assertions of self-importance and self-aggrandizement by those motivated by power (politicians) and pure self-absorption (celebrities and would-be celebrities).

     The confluence of all these matters, and a few more, lies at the center of The Leak. It also lies at the center of a great deal of mistrust and distrust of science and scientists (not to mention politicians) nearly 30 years after the seminal event the book describes. The event itself was not much: there was a small leak of radioactivity-containing water from the spent-fuel pool at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a research facility on Long Island, New York, in 1997. The leak was investigated by local, state and federal environmental agencies and declared essentially harmless and meaningless: it was not near the boundary between the lab and the area around it, not in any water supply, and not from the nuclear reactor itself.

     However: RADIOACTIVITY! NUCLEAR CONTAMINATION! POPULATED AREA NEAR NEW YORK CITY! EXPLOSIONS! CANCER! ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION! Oh yes, it is easy, very easy, to see where this could have gone in the wrong hands. And that is exactly where it went, in exactly those hands.

     Now, it has to be said that the authors of The Leak, Robert P. Crease and Peter D. Bond, were both involved with the lab in different ways and could understandably be thought to have an axe to grind. They say at the start of the book that they know it could seem that way, but explain that the reason they know the story so well is that they were there – and add that they have tried to give a balanced report on what happened.

     They sound like scientists (Bond, a physicist) or academics (Crease – in Philosophy, yet). Wrong, wrong, wrong. Scientists are constitutionally unable to understand why their messages do not get through, or why they get through in ways different from those intended. Thanks to The Leak being published by a respected academic press, it will reach others who think as Bond and Crease do – and will have exactly zero impact on the “influencers” and media hype merchants who, in 2022 as well as 1997, gather legions of supporters and followers and fans to whatever their cause-of-the-moment happens to be. The Leak reads like a vast overblowing of an almost trivial incident by a veritable army of vote-seeking, venal politicians; self-important activist groups looking for plenty of funding and as much notoriety as possible; ambitious, unelected federal administrators with an eye on the bone fides needed for their future success; and, of course, headline-seeking, hype-driven, ALWAYS IN CAPITAL LETTERS media.

     But do you know what? Bond and Crease may be right in their presentation and analysis – but, to repeat, scientists learn slowly. Brookhaven National Laboratory made a mistake: for various reasons, it failed to detect the leak for more than a decade. A scientist would say one reason for that was that the leak was so small and so insignificant to the lab’s operations – and so unrelated to anyone’s health or well-being outside the lab – that nobody ever focused on it. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Those come across as weasel words, and they do not, cannot, compete with RADIOACTIVITY! NUCLEAR CONTAMINATION! POPULATED AREA NEAR NEW YORK CITY! EXPLOSIONS! CANCER! ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION!

     Consider how little scientists have learned about communicating effectively, even if less than 100% accurately, with a public that does not understand what science is or how it works. Think back to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when no one was sure how the virus spread or how to stop or at least mitigate it. Scientists knew that the most-effective way to prevent person-to-person transmission – which at the time was strongly suspected, although not yet proven – was by use of N95 masks. So they made the reasonable case to the public that the masks, which were in short supply, should be reserved for use by the healthcare workers fighting the disease on the front lines.

     NO, THEY DID NOT. They decided that that message was too nuanced, too hard for people to understand, and would only lead to a run on the masks that would result in fewer of them being available for those needing them most. So they waffled, hid behind jargon, and got across the message that masks did not really help – thereby undermining their credibility and poisoning the water (so to speak) for every single other message they put out about the pandemic, and allowing the misinformation and disinformation to, ahem, flow with all the speed and power of an interconnected world.

     The risk of nuanced communication was real and there could well have been a run on N95 masks if the truth had been told. But an emotional appeal to let those on the front lines have the weapons needed to fight for the rest of us is an effective form of communication – except that scientists tend to be uncomfortable with emotional appeals. Still, truth, carefully explained, does have advantages, not the least of which is that it protects the reputation of those uttering it when they have other truths to present in the future. What the Brookhaven National Laboratory scientists never quite figured out – and what Crease and Bond, in their justifiable condemnation of the media/activist/celebrity circus that eventually led to the closure of an important research facility, never quite get over – is that the way something is said matters as much as what is said. A straightforward mea culpa for failure to find the small leak sooner would have made claims that the leak was no big deal much more believable. Even more: a statement that “we know this seems like a big deal and we know why it seems that way” would have gone a long way toward countering pronouncements and perceptions that tone-deaf (and probably evil) scientists were doing secret gobbledygook with nuclear stuff that was going to give everyone cancer after poisoning the entire population. The subtitle of The Leak makes an understandable reference to “loss of trust,” and certainly the book justifies those words. But there is more than enough loss of trust to go around in this story, and a larger amount than the authors acknowledge is loss of trust in the ability of the scientific community to do anything but talk down to non-scientists – thereby opening the door to all the scum, scammers, celebrity airheads, political shysters and media manipulators who make their living through the effective communication of utter garbage.

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