How to get professionals to agree with your opinion

...or...

How the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives used nurses to lie to the government.

Surveys and questionnaires are a simple and effective way of gauging people's opinions. The result can then in turn be used to influence the opinions other people hold, most often to become opinions you want people to have.  And the more supposedly trustworthy the people you survey are, the greater you can expect the compliance to be.

Let me show you an example of this. This is a TV advert from 1949.

Simple enough isn't it? If many medical doctors like this brand of cigarette, it must be really good, right? Right! Doctors can't be wrong. Moving along...

Surveys and questionnaires that you make yourself have a nice bonus: you can make them any way you want. The advantage of this is that if you phrase the questions just right, you can get any answer you want.

Credits to Pete Abrams of Sluggy Freelance
Credits to Pete Abrams of Sluggy Freelance

But the example above is just a comic, right? It's irony. They wouldn't do like this in real life. Noone would ever dream abusing the confidence and good standing that people such as medical and healthcare professionals enjoy, right?

Right?

Wrong...

[Saskatchewan] nurses oppose reactor for isotope development

Last Updated: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 | 3:40 PM CT

Nurses in Saskatchewan say they appreciate the value of nuclear medicine but do not want the province to build a nuclear reactor so that it can start manufacturing medical isotopes.

The Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN) presented its views Tuesday to Dan Perrins, who is heading the public consultation process on uranium development on behalf of the provincial government.

Rosalee Longmore, the president of SUN, presented Perrins with a study that reviewed the medical literature on nuclear reactors. The union also released the results of an email survey of its members.

According to the union, 822 nurses responded to the two questions posed. Prior to asking the questions, the survey outlined for the nurses four examples of health concerns related to nuclear reactors.

The survey found that 61.8 per cent of nurses who replied did not support the development of a nuclear power facility.

The second question asked whether nurses were concerned about the health implications of a nuclear power plant, and 89.9 per cent of respondents said they were.

(click for the rest of the article)

At first glance there's nothing wrong with this article, nor the survey. They asked a big bunch of nurses of they are worried about nuclear power having adverse effects on people's health and many of them said "yes". Simple enough and nothing suspicious.

That is until you read the survey. Note the highlight above: "Prior to asking the questions, the survey outlined for the nurses four examples of health concerns related to nuclear reactors". What were these supposed "concerns"? I quote from the survey:

The purpose of this survey is to get your professional opinion about the implications of nuclear energy on population health. Please read the following examples of evidence and answer the two questions at the end.

The survey website is 100% confidential- there is no way to track your name or your e-mail address.

1. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation found that the excess relative risk of incidence of total solid cancers after exposure to radiation is 43% for males and 81% for females. The excess relative risk of mortality from total solid cancers after exposure to radiation is 34% for males and 65% for females. Clear evidence of site specific cancers associated with doses of radiation include lung cancer, breast cancer (females), thyroid cancer, salivary gland cancer, rectal cancer (females), bone cancer (males), non melanoma skin cancer, ovarian cancer, urinary bladder cancer, kidney cancer (females) and brain cancer (males).

2. The largest study to review the effects of chronic low-dose exposure of ionizing radiation on health outcomes and mortality included 407,391 nuclear power workers that were followed for an average duration of 12.8 years. All-cause mortality within nuclear industry workers had an excess relative risk of 42% and all cancer mortality had an excess relative risk of 97%. In Canada, the excess relative risk of all cancer mortality for nuclear industry workers was 665%.

3. Many papers have been written about the nuclear power plant explosion at Chernobyl in the Ukraine. The World Health Organization predicts 4000 additional cancer deaths from the most exposed groups (emergency workers and evacuees). Significant increases in thyroid cancer in children were not only found in the Ukraine but also in Belarus, Russia, Czechoslovakia and as far as the United Kingdom (a 584% increase in Belarus). As well, increases in leukemia in children were found in contaminated areas across Europe including the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Turkey, Greece and Germany (a 350% increase in Ukraine).

4. The only known health concern for people that live near nuclear power facilities is leukemia in children. A German study found that children below the age of 5 that live within 5 kilometers of a nuclear facility have a 119% increased risk of leukemia whereas children that live within 10 kilometers have a 33% increased risk.

After getting prepped with these "examples of evidence", the nurses then answered the following two questions:

1) What is your professional opinion regarding the development of a nuclear power facility?

A. I support the development of a nuclear power facility.

B. I have conditional support for the development of a nuclear power facility providing all health concerns to residents, workers and children are addressed.

C. I do not support the development of a nuclear power facility.

2) Are you concerned about the health implications of a nuclear power plant?

A. Yes

B. No

And as quoted from CBC News above above, the majority to the responding nurses answered negatively about the prospect of a nuclear power facility.

I am not surprised. Had I not known much (or anything) about nuclear power, and someone had stuck that questionnaire under my nose while at the same time saying "Did you know that nuclear power gives children cancer?!", I too would probably have answered in a negative manner. But is the evidence is right? Where did it come from? Is it correct? What did they tell the nurses about the origin of this "evidence"?

According to one of the commenters to the CBC News article, a nurse tried to get an answer to that, but got none:

When my mom received this email from the Union she asked for the references to the medical articles that deal with these issues but the reply did not contain any such articles. They are basically just 4 examples of health concerns that 'everybody talks about' so they must be true.

And when I looked at the statements, at least one old friend popped up: the German study on child cancers around nuclear power plants. You know... the one where the researchers themselves thought the result was odd because it went against what was known from other studies, and that they have no clue why they got their result, only that it was not radiation. We wrote about that before.

It turns out that this entire thing was a commission by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (Saskatchewan office) and the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses. CCPA is not exactly fond of nuclear power, which a quick search on their website reveals. As the CBC News article above mentions, in June 2009 there was a "public consultation process on uranium development on behalf of the provincial government". In short they were asking the public what they feel about uranium development in Saskatchewan.

The CCPA and SUN set out to find a guy to dig up dirt on nuclear power. They picked Mark Lemstra, a fellow with an impressive amount of degrees (susiciously many even), and who makes a living on digging up the information you want. By outsourcing the dirt-digging, they managed to get a report which says...

There are no direct or indirect conflicts of interest to declare. This report is an independent review of the association between exposure to radiation and subsequent health outcomes. At no time was the author asked to lead the discussion of this report in one direction or another.

...and compiled these four bits of "evidence" to tilt the questionnaire. So when they went to the Government of Saskatchewan, they were able to say to them with a fairly straight face that the nurses did not like the idea of a nuclear power plant after having been presented with supposedly impartial evidence that nuclear power is bad and causes cancer.

This was of course complete bullshit because, as you have already guessed, there was nothing impartial about that report, nor the way it was used. Once you start reading through it - Exposure to Radiation and Health Outcomes - you quickly find that it is extremely negatively biased against nuclear power, and does not remain focused on radiation and health. Apart from mentioning the weak German cancer study, it goes on to make lengthy statements about for instance how nuclear power according to some report cannot save the planet from the climate crisis because it cannot be built fast enough (which is not true). Another section delves into the problems of the Olkiluoto 3 project,  which clearly has nothing to do with neither radiation nor health.

The final nail in the coffin that this was a commissioned opinon job and not at all the question of rightfully concerned nurses is perhaps when it turns out that the survey was also conducted by Lemstra. 

Not only did Mark Lenstra write the concerns for the CCPA and SUN, he also hosted the survey.
Not only did Mark Lemstra write the "concerns" for the CCPA and SUN, he also hosted the survey.

Apparently he gave them a package deal here, both the "evidence" to make a tilted survey, plus the survey as well. He was with the CCPA and SUN from start 'til finish and not at all some independent researcher providing impartial evidence. I'd like to see  a bank statement saying just how much Lemstra got for this little spinjob.

My perhaps favorite part of his report is the A section. It deals with how "exposure to radiation" causes death. The fact that some exposure to radiation can cause cancer or even acute radiation sickness has been known for over 60 years now. But a major factor here is the dose and during what time you got this dose. We live in constant bombardment of radiation from space; the sun; the ground; our food and even our own bodies. Small doses of radiation is a part of our lives and has been since the birth of life on this planet. So small doses matter not while big doses does.

I looked very closely at section A to find any mention of doses. There were none. So basically the entire section was as useless as if someone had written "Being exposed to water causes death"... which is true... if exposed to 5 liters of water in your lungs or if a 20 kilogram icicle falls from a roof onto your head! But that doesn't mean I'll quit exposing myself to water in the morning, along with some soap and shampoo.

To conclude: this is yet another one to file under the "Desperate nuclear opponents" section. The Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives and the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses join the World Wildlife Foundation and Greenpeace among those that are getting so utterly desperate in their attempts to oppose nuclear power they'll throw everything including the kitchen sink at it.