Friday, September 5, 2008

Mob rules

As is my custom of the morning, I take my daily bowl of Go Lean (but not lightly) with a browse of the Tribune; the idle life of the college professor ideally suited to those extended, leisurely morning repasts with opportunity for reflection upon the ways of the world. An article on the proposed irradiation of produce to eliminate bacteria on the front page caught my eye. When I began the educational trail as a fresh-face adjunct (how soon the optimism of youth gives way to the cynicism of old age in the academic setting), food irradiation was a "hot topic" in the food world. It served as an interesting case study in perception versus reality in assessing risk.

Anything containing the word radiation leaps to the top of the charts in perceived risk, regardless of any facts pointing to its absence. One can discover these disconnects all over the place from the mundane to the sophisticated. We think nothing of driving a car to work (pretty high risk of trouble) but sweat feverishly when the airplane takes off (pretty low risk of trouble). How many pages are devoted to shark attacks (almost no fatalities) versus say coal mining (high numbers of injuries).

Radiation though is the number one bad word, perhaps closely followed by chemical. The reasons for that are pretty clear: the awfulness of Hiroshima that ushered in the nuclear age; the hugely published Chernobyl disaster; the ghastliness associated with radiation sickness. Selling radiation presents a major challenge to the nuclear industry, but I don't think that it has really embraced the challenge.

A decade ago food irradiation was established as a perfectly acceptable and safe technique for sanitizing various food groups by several organizations including food organizations that had no ties with the nuclear industry. Yet the public perception could still be swayed by a collection of dedicated anti-nuclear groups that operated a number of anti-irradiation websites. While the mainstream organizations found no evidence of health effects with irradiated food, the anti-nuke activists referenced various "studies" that found sickness in dogs and other troubling things. The innocent investigator would be left wondering what is what when confronted by this apparent conflict in findings. Who has the time to sort out which of the "evidence" presented is bona fide and which is fake? And that is the point of course: the activists recognize that all you have to do to establish doubt is to suggest problems; it isn't necessary to have any real proof of any problems.

Ten years later nothing has really changed regarding irradiation. The problem, the article stated was consumer acceptance. What is wrong with this picture? It is all arse backwards. It is absurd that uneducated consumers should be dictating what is or is not acceptable. If a process has been established as safe by a critical mass of research, then that should be the end of it; the consumer should be satisfied. Unfortunately that is not the case in this country at least. It points to a fundamental lack of respect for science in the general populace and an overwhelming vulnerability to misleading influences from special interest groups.

Maybe I am weird, but for my part I am far more comfortable munching a tomato that has been zapped by gamma rays than one that may be crawling in e-coli.


Snipper "Book Zeller" said...

As a pilot, I am often asked "Arn't you scared to go flying?!" My usual response is that they are 10-20 times more likely to die getting into their car than getting into an airplane. In one of the classes I am taking this semester, in fact, you are more likely to die once crossing the street than getting in an airplane.

Inherent fear tends to proliferate society, as the SSCP accurately posited.

Good luck with the start of the semester!

Aylwin Forbes said...

Nice to hear from you once again Snipper. I imagine you hard at work (?) amongst the corn stalks once more. I now have greater connection with the mighty Champaign Urbana as one of my offspring has entered the esteemed university this fall to study mathematics. I promised him a football game, then to be shocked, staggered and amazed by the ticket prices ($50??) not to mention the raping one suffers when placing the order: ticket fee ($8) and order charge ($10). Is this the NFL?

Whatever, it's a nice campus, even if I did receive a parking ticket my very first visit. Students could get free tuition from the fines levied.

Snipper "Book Zeller" said...

Yes, back to work among the corn fields. Actually, this year the airport seems to be a bit more surrounded by soybean. I am sure the SSCP made a previous comment about our use of food stuffs to make fuel.

I hope the .Jar v2 is enjoying his stay at this institution. Did the idea of community college drive him to social unrest as it did most people who didnt attend COD from my high school?

Indeed, even for students tickets are insanely priced - $24 for hypoxia inducing seating locations and yes - the fees are outrageous. Were you able to attend the previous game against our opponent just 45 minutes south? Incidentally, my female-counterpart attends that university and while she was here to visit me that weekend, she sported her own UofI gear (owning more UofI gear than EIU gear).

As for the fines, one would think tuition (as you are aware, already sky high...I feel your pain as this year's entering class had a 9% increase) could be covered but only 1 year here has showed me the frivolous spending that occurs - the 60+million dollar/15 year dorm renovation process or my particular favorite: the "South Quad Bell Tower" - or as its currently known among students "The Eye of Saurumon." I would ask your offspring about this as it has been the talk around campus for the first week or two of school.