Oceanographer considers implications of conspiracy theory on science

Madison Weaver, Staff Writer

Jay T. Cullen, a professor of chemical oceanography at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, spoke on radioactivity, the Integrated Fukushima Ocean Radionuclide Monitoring (InFORM) Network, conspiracy theory, and public communication on Feb 18. His presentation was titled, “The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: Learning about Science and Risk Communication.” 

“No matter what topic you’re working on, communicating with the public is fundamentally important … our duty as scientists is to communicate the results of research in a way that is useful and improves understanding,” Cullen said.

He began his remarks with the basics of radioactivity and the effects of nuclear weapons testing, detailing the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the recent 2011 Fukushima disaster. 

“Thus far, we don’t see a clear indication of Fukushima impact on the … fish that we harvest from the Pacific … the dose that a consumer receives from consuming that fish is still actually dominated by the naturally occurring isotopes that have always been in the fish,” Cullen said.

The InFORM Network is a network of academics who collaborate to test water and its effect on fish, which are an integral part of the Canadian diet.

“We don’t expect that these levels are going to reach levels where we expect to see negative health impacts, either in the marine ecosystem or in human beings. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop measuring and stop monitoring,” Cullen said.

The project also focuses on making information easily available to the public,.

“The measurements that [the Canadian government] were taking and the monitoring they were doing was very good, but the outreach and communication were very poor,” Cullen said. 

He also addressed the problems created by conspiracy theorists, as well as how and why these theories begin. Cullen shared his own experience with accusations of conspiracy, detailing the claims charged against his work and the threats and lawsuits that followed.

“The ocean has many pressures upon it that we really need to act in a coordinated way to deal with, and distractions by perceived risks that are, perhaps, not real, distracts from that coordinated effort,” Cullen said. 

From both observing and interacting with conspiracy theorists, Cullen came to understand that they are composed of people who often reject scientific data, have poor scientific literacy, and have great distrust for science and government. He also addressed the problems that the creation of these theories poses to the public.

“Many people don’t understand what radioactivity is … or how it happens … they don’t understand what academics do, how we’re compensated, how we spend our time,” Cullen said.

Ryan House ’19 expressed his interest in the close-mindedness of conspiracy theorists.

“Normally we think of people not believing in things like climate change because they’d rather not deal with such a huge problem. But there is indeed a huge problem, even though Dr. Cullen’s evidence says that the problem is not substantial at all. It’s funny how tides can turn,” House said.

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