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Fukushima Conspiracy Theories: Neat, Plausible, and Wrong
posted 2011 by Peter Wastholm
There's always an easy solution to every human problem -- neat, plausible, and wrong. -- Henry Louis Mencken
I have relatives in Fukushima, Japan; their house is only 4 km (2.5 miles) from the now-infamous Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. I have therefore spent considerable time lately following the news via television, newspapers, and web sites, both Japanese and Western. It has occurred to me that people relying entirely on Western media must have gotten a very distorted image of this disaster, and a very skewed sense of its proportions.
There has been a massive focus on the nuclear accident, which, in the grand scheme of things, has had and will have much, much less dire consequences than the unbelievable devastation caused by the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. There has also been a lot of talk of "coverups" on the part of the power plant's owners (Tepco) and even on the part of the Japanese government; sometimes, these speculations have bordered on outright conspiracy theories. (And I'm only talking about big mainstream media here; many outlets on the fringes of the media landscape have of course provided a diet of "journalism" firmly rooted in conspiracy-land.)
Conspiracy theories are appealing because they seem to provide simple explanations for complex problems: if I can't get ahead in my career, it's because I am being actively held back by this or that group of people; if the police haven't solved this or that murder, it's because they are secretly in cahoots with the perpetrator; if Tepco's reports on the power plant are incomplete and sometimes contradictory, it's because the company is engaged in a coverup. Complicating points -- like the immense difficulties involved in collecting data from a highly sophisticated piece of technology in which sensors have been drowned in seawater, blown to smithereens, and/or cut off from electricity -- are conveniently ignored.
When discussing conspiracy theories, it's very easy to get sidetracked into entirely separate subjects, like whether or not human beings are inherently good or evil. This is precarious because "good" and "evil" are very relative and subjective concepts. But, in fact, it's not even necessary to make any assumptions about people's innate goodness or evilness in order to discount most conspiracy theories.
I say conspiracy theories seem to provide simple explanations because the explanations they provide only look simple. The principle known as Occam's Razor states that whichever explanation needs the fewest new assumptions to work is the one that's most likely to be correct. Conspiracy theories tend to make a lot of very important assumptions that are not merely new or unknown but actually inconsistent with real-world observations. For example, they almost invariably require large and heterogeneous groups of people -- like technicians, bureaucrats, managers of private corporations, and elected officials -- to successfully keep big secrets for extended periods of time, without a single one succumbing to the temptation to blow the whistle (either for financial reward, for fifteen minutes of fame, or out of moral conviction). In most cases, this seems very improbable.
Sure, in Japan -- as, arguably, and to varying degrees, in most other countries -- there are unhealthy ties between large corporations and political organizations. But I have yet to see anything that credibly suggests that there is a conspiracy trying to cover up some big and horrible truth about the state of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. How could possibly everyone's cooperation in such a conspiracy be guaranteed?
Someone truly desperate to find a conspiracy here would find one of a much less sexy, much less deliberate, and much more blundering kind: the "conspiracy" of a thousand Western journalists, independently and undeliberatingly distracting readers and viewers with false or irrelevant radiation scares while causing them to lose sight of the hundreds of thousands of people in Japan who have literally had their lives swept away.
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. -- Robert J. Hanlon