Subjective Value versus Positivism: An Application of Methodological Issues to the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

“It is universally deemed one of the tasks of legislation and government to protect the individual from himself.” –Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism:  The Classical Tradition, p. 30

The nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, has become one news topic that my friends and I follow religiously on Facebook.  One commenter mentioned that I have pursued this topic “relentlessly.”  What got me thinking was a number of comments made on my reposted news articles criticizing my opinion that the situation is not improving but rather escalating in severity.  Specifically, a comment about how “people are just all paranoid” raised my concern.  Is there any validity to this idea that people are irrational and overreacting to the dangers of radiation exposure?

Reuters seems to agree with this thesis.  The basic structure of an article from March 18, 2011, entitled “Special Report:  Radiation fears may be greatly exaggerated,” is as follows.  The article begins with a number of emotionally charged words to describe the public’s hysterical reaction, by describing the public as being in a state of “panic,” having disproportionate “anxiety,” having “exaggerated fear,” and being “spooked” by radiation.  Then, it proceeds to give the reader the comments from some expert scientists.  This includes comparisons with background radiation levels, chest X-rays, and CT Scans.  The logic of the argue seems to be straightforward, namely, first we measure the level in Japan, second we compare it with some benchmark exposure level such as the chest X-ray exposure level, and if step one is below step two we conclude everything is safe.

This way of reasoning is positivistic; real science is measurement in this view.  The measurements collected from the samples say that the radiation levels are safe so therefore they are safe.  Why then are people panicking, fleeing Tokyo, stocking up on bottled water, buying potassium iodide and doing other such things?  They must all be irrational and hysterical people.  Tokyo is full of crazy people apparently.

Moreover, this way of reasoning is collectivistic; it implies that people are incapable of forming decisions without the assistance of the technical experts.  People will make foolish decisions if left to their own devices because they are all emotional; consequently, their individual freedom must be curtailed in order to impose rational decision on them.  As Mises put it so eloquently in Liberalism on page 31, the mindset of the government planner is that “some measure of restriction must be imposed upon the freedom of the individual by the governmental authorities in their capacity as guardians of his welfare.”  Simply, the average adult is functioning at the level of a five year old; he or she is still incapable of running his or her own life.

Furthermore, this measurement approach of comparing observed data to the safe level value and then declaring safe the situation where the observed value is less than the safe level value purports to be objective and hence scientific but really is unrealistic and meaningless for the study of human action.  People do not necessarily form all of their decisions by using this one and only rule.  People can take many pieces of information into consideration when forming decisions.  Or maybe, people consider no information when making their decisions.  A person could disagree with the definition of what constitutes a safe level of radioactive exposure.  The person could view all radiation as dangerous.  Maybe the person will say that his or her definition of safety embraces more concepts than simply physical health; his or her definition also embraces the mental health issue of peace of mind.  This person may view ‘mental safety’ as more important than ‘physical safety.’  Maybe the person knows that the company and the government have a rather shady record when it comes to safety at the plants; consequently, the person not only doubts the accuracy of the observed readings but also dismisses the scientist as naive for trusting these numbers.  The person could infer that the government is downplaying the severity of the situation in order to avoid the necessity of having to evacuate millions of people from Tokyo; therefore, the government has every motive to manipulate the numbers downward or to delay releasing high ones.  Maybe the person is living in an area of Japan with poor communication facilities due to tsunami and earthquake damage; therefore, he or she does not have access to perfect information and has to extrapolate what to do next from the little bits of information available.  In summary, it is naive to think that people form decisions based solely on empirical numbers.

This confusion over how people on the street make decisions and how the scientist in the lab makes decisions partly accounts for the paranoid and irrational remarks mentioned at the start of this article.  The average person does not think, as does a lab scientist.  Moreover, there is no reason to assume that lab scientists all think the same either.  The people on the street are not paranoid; they are simply making decisions about their own lives; respecting this fact is the definition of tolerance.  The fact that people ignore or discount what the scientist says might offend the scientist but it simply means that people have their own unique ranking system for what they value and what they do not value and they have to make decisions based on their own limited access to information.  The scientist has access to none of the information being utilized inside the minds of individuals as they form their decisions.  Since the scientist lacks all of this decentralized information, he or she is forced to suggest the imposition of a ‘one size fits all’ rule.

Ultimately, the definition of what is safe for an individual and what is unsafe for that individual has to be determined by the individual alone.  The individual could certainly use the information provided by the scientist and the information provided by the monitors of radiation levels as inputs.  The individual could certainly trust the power company and the government to be providers of accurate and timely information.  The individual could certainly accept the scientific definition of safe and adopt it for oneself.  The individual from Illinois could certainly heed the advice of the Reuters article and could stop taking potassium iodide.  The individual could even thank the scientist for providing all of this new and helpful information that assists the individual in his or her decision-making process.  In the final analysis, however, there is no iron law that says that the individual has to use any of this information or accept any outside definition of what constitutes safety.  If the individual feels like consulting Justin Bieber for his professional advice then that that decision has to be respected.  To force the individual to use and then to act on any of this scientific information in the way the scientist deems correct is nothing but coercion and compulsion.  As Mises put it in Planned Chaos, “It is insolent to arrogate to oneself the right to overrule the plans of other people and to force them to submit to the plan of the planner.”  Calling people paranoid for forming their own decisions and for acting in the way that they deem best is the highest form of insolence.  “Science is competent to establish what is. It can never dictate what ought to be and what ends people should aim at.”  Consequently, the Reuters article and the “paranoid” comment fall apart because they both confuse what is with what ought to be.

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