Monbiot and The Guardian: Hippocrates or hypocrisy?

George Monbiot and The Guardian: Hippocrates or hypocrisy?
(page first posted 27th July 2011)

The Guardian, a London daily newspaper, has taken a high moral tone over phone hacking by News International papers. The Guardian's columnist George Monbiot has gone a little further, proposing a draft Hippocratic oath for journalists. However, his recent utterances on nuclear power and, in particular, his defamation of my colleague Professor Chris Busby show that he has already failed to live up to his own Hippocratic standard. The Guardian is complicit, since they have not responded to my call for space to rebut Monbiot's slander.

Gentleman George in pugilistic mode; image courtesy of Eden Arts Promoted by the Guardian in the language of a boxing impressario, and puffed as "the Guardian's unbeaten intellectual heavyweight champion of free speech, one of the UK's foremost thinkers and environmentalists, and polemicist supreme", Monbiot has been touring the UK "taking on all comers".

A few weeks ago the postman delivered a CD to my home in Llandrindod Wells. It was a sound recording of one of George's Left Hook lectures. This event, recorded by an independent film-maker, took place in Liverpool on May 10th. George spoke about how the Fukushima disaster has converted him to Nuclearism, the dogma that new nuclear power stations can help to deliver us from Global Warming. His arguments can be seen on his blogs; they include the belief that releases of radioactivity, even from disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima, have no observable impact on health.
A member of the audience asked George how radioactive discharges from Sellafield had affected wildlife in the Irish Sea. He answered with a gratuitous and explicit attack on my colleague Professor Chris Busby although Busby's two decades of research into the health effects of radioactive pollution have been exclusively concerned with people, not marine organisms.

journalist Monbiot
George Monbiot
Professor Chris Busby
Professor Busby
After briefly dismissing the idea that Sellafield could have affected sea-life, Monbiot said:
"Now one of my greatest sources of concern and disenchantment I suppose is that one um er er self-styled nuclear researcher in particular, a man called Chris Busby who lives very close to where I do, who has been writing all that stuff about the Irish Sea and about leukaemia clusters and the rest of it for many years um , looking into his work and looking into what scientists say about his work - work which in the past I blithely accepted - I find that it is no better grounded than the work of the climate change deniers such as Lord Monkton and Ian Plimer and Christopher Booker and the rest of it that I have been confronting for all these years. In fact um his statistical mistakes were so profound that in order to demonstrate that there was the leukaemia rate he said there was, which is not backed up by any medical records anywhere, he actually had to create a negative rate for all other cancers in Wales. In other words every year there is minus a certain number of cancers taking place in Wales, which is a rather hard proposition to support scientifically. I am glad you raised it because it's indicative of of of exactly the problems we are up against. and it was a s-s-s-s-source of sadness to me to discover that that was happening."

I guess most in the audience would have been puzzled but the man who sent me the recording realised that George had chosen to try shooting the detective in a long-running investigation into how radioactivity in the Irish Sea migrates onto the land and causes cancer. The quest began in 1994 when the Wales Cancer Registry (WCR) drew attention to high levels of cancer in children. In 1995 and 1996 we obtained two separate copies of all the detailed data held by WCR. In fact, we are now the only people who have it since in 1996 WCR was closed down and its computers were, allegedly, wiped before a new registry took over.
Examining the data we quickly saw that the highest risks were along the shores of the Irish Sea; all age groups were affected.

Official reports had already shown plutonium originating from Sellafield is widespread in marine sediments across the Irish Sea. Resuspended by wave action and carried inland on the prevailing westerly winds, Sellafield's plutonium has been measured in grass and sheep droppings all the way across England to the North Sea. Gwynedd, the Menai and Anglesey: Plutonium in Intertidal sediment
Gwynedd, the Menai and Anglesey: Intertidal sediment (yellow) and Plutonium (Becquerels/Kg)
The highest levels by far are within a kilometer of the Irish Sea. So what we saw in the WCR data supported our hypothesis that low concentrations of some forms of radioactivity are far more dangerous than Government officials and the nuclear industry want you to believe. Inhalation is almost certainly the most hazardous vector. Plutonium in sheep droppings by distance eastward from St. Bees Head Cumbria
Plutonium in sheep droppings (mBq/Kg) by distance eastward (km) from St. Bees Head, Cumbria

We published our findings. There was national (UK) news coverage and BBC Wales made a TV documentary, Sea of Troubles. This was Wales' own rerun of Windscale, The Nuclear Laundry, the Yorkshire TV programme which in 1983 had revealed the existence of a 12-fold excess rate of child leukaemia in Seascale, a village near Sellafield (as the Windscale nuclear site was subsequently relabelled).
The Welsh Assembly and Westminster governments both referred our information to COMARE, the advisory Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment, set up after the Seascale scandal.
The first and only school photograph of Gemma D'Arcy, one of the leukaemia victims in the Cumbrian cluster
The only school photograph of Gemma D'Arcy, one of the leukaemia victims in the Cumbrian cluster. She died before her seventh birthday.

COMARE took a kangaroo court approach, hearing evidence from the new cancer registry, the Welsh Cancer Intelligence and Surveillance Unit (WCISU), but not from us. WCISU's director, Dr John A Steward, claimed that he had repeated our methods using WCISU data. He found no extra cases on the coast and concluded that the WCR data were corrupt. COMARE member Dr. Gerald Draper, head of the Childhood Cancer Research Group, backed him up although in 1995 WCR had told us Draper himself had validated the Welsh data and that the high risks on the coast were real. But of course we weren't there to tell COMARE this. They and Welsh Assembly officials condemned our findings and demanded we recant.
We didn't. Instead
we showed that Steward's claim to have repeated our analysis was false. He had used population data from a different census, he had diluted the high risks we found in a narrow band next to the sea by using a wider band, and he had taken 182 of the sick children off the WCR database and 50 off his own much more recent data. He still found a higher risk near the sea but it was no longer statistically significant.

In 2002 Linda Parry, a young HTV researcher from north Wales, visited me to ask about the leukaemia controversy. To show her that there was independent confirmation of what we saw in the WCR data I gave her a copy of a letter published in 2001 in the Daily Post (a Liverpool-based paper that covers north Wales). A family had written to praise the staff at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool for their treatment of cancer children. They revealed what they had learned from parental networking in hospital waiting rooms - a very high rate of childhood cancer incidence along the north Wales coast. On a conservative estimate using known populations their figure of 10 new cancer cases a months represented 20 times the national rate. (I have cut the letter to conceal personal information. I happen to know that the little girl, having been apparently cured of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, was later diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia. She died two years after this letter was written.) Child cancer rates in north Wales letter to Daily Post July 2001

Using her knowledge of north Wales, Linda eventually identified 40 children diagnosed with leukaemia and cancer between 2000 and 2003. In the seaside towns of Caernarfon, Bangor and Colwyn Bay, where all the population lives within a mile of the sea, rates of leukaemia in children younger than 4 years were up to 20 times the national average. Rates of other cancers were also elevated. We looked separately at the more extensive rural areas nearby, where the population is not concentrated as close to the sea as in the towns. The rural population showed an 8-fold excess of child leukaemia, confirming the significance of the high urban rates. HTV used this analysis for a Welsh language documentary Cancr i Plant. We reported the findings to the 2004 international conference of the charity Children With Leukaemia in London and reported in Radioactive Times.

This was a problem for Dr. Steward because we had the children's names, ages, and home addresses, so he couldn't remove any more cases from database. It is very unlikely that Linda had located all the possible cases, but Steward had no idea which she had found and which she hadn't. WCISU admitted that the figures were high but they still denied their significance. They used two arguments. They said that if the disease were caused by radioactivity there would be a long-term trend, and they claimed there was no such trend. In fact, validated data from Wales Cancer Registry for 1982 to 1990 show there is a long-term trend. In the 1980s in the three worst affected towns, Caernarfon, Bangor and Colwyn Bay, children younger than 4 had eight times the national average rate of leukaemia.
Second, through using wrong documentation, they overestimated populations in north Wales. They thought the population of Bangor, for example, was more than three times as big as it really is. Accurate numbers for populations are essential, since they give epidemiologists the numbers of cases of a disease can be expected normally. WCISU are professional epidemiologists and their cock-up is barely credible especially since, in 2001, we had already warned Steward he was making exactly the same mistake in a separate study of cancer somewhere else. This has been published in the Journal of Public Health and Steward has offered no defence. The detail is in this report and more discussion is here and in this report from Radioactive Times
Faced with our analysis, COMARE admitted that Steward had made a mistake with the populations. Busby has discussed these matters at length in Wolves of Water. I have posted the relevant part here for you to see online (it's a 2.57 Mb PDF).

So that's the real story. Monbiot could hardly have got it more wrong.
Assuming the role of Busby's second, I emailed George to challenge him to a duel:

Gentleman George, I hear that you have publicly accused Busby of supporting leukaemia findings by creating negative cancer rates, whatever that means. Libel suits are the preserve of those with deep pockets so it would be better to deal with this in a more old-fashioned way. The boxing match analogue you have already adopted seems satisfactory, but shall we make it fair this time? More in the pugilistic tradition? Not one bloke "taking on" an audience whom he puts at a disadvantage by acting as his own referee, but two contestants in the ring with a chairperson. In front of cameras. We can find a venue, ideally in Aberystwyth between 16th and 30th June.
If your seconds would like to call on me they may find me at my usual email address at any reasonable hour.
Richard Bramhall
Here is George's contemptuous reply.
Thank you for your message, and for your kind invitation. Unlike, for example, Christopher Booker, Lord Monckton, Ian Plimer or Helen Caldicott, Chris Busby and his output are not sufficiently well-known to be worth debating. It seems that few people have heard of him and fewer still take him seriously. However, if I am asked questions about his "research" I will continue to cite the critiques of his methodology.
Not really a gentleman then.

George's proposed Hippocratic oath asks other journalists (and George himself) to promise not to "curry favour with politicians, businesses or other dominant groups by withholding scrutiny of their affairs, or twisting a story to suit their interests". He writes that We journalists will "challenge ourselves and our perception of the world as much as we challenge other people. When we turn out to be wrong, we will say so."
What I have to say to him is

"You are propagating a lie about leukaemia and cancer in Wales and you have sneered at our offer to put you straight. You are repeating lies about the health impact of Chernobyl; you are repeating underestimates of how radioactivity from Fukushima will affect people in Japan. You seem to have no idea of the parlous state of the scientific rationale behind those lies and underestimates; or maybe you think it doesn't matter that the industry you have climbed into bed with is bent on spreading its genotoxic byproducts all over the planet. Childhood leukaemia is still a rare disease, fortunately, but it is a miners' canary indicating that radioactive releases are driving the global cancer epidemic.
Wake up and smell the charity shops! If you are not a hypocrite you will challenge yourself and your perceptions, and the best person to help you to do that is the man you slandered in Liverpool - the man whose expert testimony in law courts (which, unlike you, cannot ignore evidence) has won military service pensions and compensation settlements worth millions for people damaged by radioactivity. "

I have a nice day out

Richard Bramhall's friends tell a Hay Festival audience There's No Debate You're Chicken George As George said in Liverpool, he lives not far from Busby. Well, I too live in mid-Wales so on 30th May it was a short trip to Hay on Wye where George was appearing at the Hay Festival. I printed up a leaflet telling the bare outline of how he had defamed a conscientious scientist and how he was afraid to have a public debate. I pointed out that less than two years earlier, when climate-change sceptic Ian Plimer was reluctant to take part in a debate, George had labelled him a grandstander with a broad yellow stripe. That's why the poster has a broad yellow stripe.
(The slogan There's No Debate You're Chicken George was first deployed against George H W Bush through part of the 1992 US Presidential election campaign, when Bush was refusing to meet Bill Clinton in front of the cameras.)
Richard Bramhall leaflets a Hay Festival audience explaining that Monbiot is too cowardly to meet Professor Busby in debate We leafletted a queue of people waiting to hear George Monbiot (this is me doing my share).
Two men angrily thrust the leaflets back at me. They claimed that Busby had slandered their friend Dr. John Steward - the Director of the Welsh Cancer Intelligence and Surveillance Unit. What a surprise.
One of these men is in the next two frames - the photographer didn't catch the other one but we have video of the encounter.
Richard Bramhall leaflets the Hay Festival audience; a Welsh Assembly official is about to get unwelcome news They said they knew Steward because they worked for the Welsh Assembly. I explained that Steward had made a mistake with the leukaemia data, inflating the populations of the study areas by 300%, thus underestimating the risk by 300%. I pointed out that this had been published in the scientific literature and that Steward hadn't answered. That seemed to slow them down a bit but one still said he preferred to believe in his friend, while the other (pictured) said there was no mechanism for the low levels of radioactivity on the coast to cause leukaemia.
Welsh Assembly official who didn't like his friend Dr. Steward being criticised. Is he Dr. Havard Prosser? I said "If that's what you think, you're relying on a concept of dose that is known to be meaningless, let's have the debate - my contact details are on the leaflet" but they haven't been in touch.
I have a feeling that this man is Dr. Havard Prosser, who was Chief Environmental Scientific Adviser to the Welsh Assembly Government until he retired last year (2010). We crossed swords with him over the Welsh government wasting 100,000 on a study of plutonium in north Wales. It's scary to think someone so biased and credulous could steer government policy but, unfortunately, that's the way it is almost everywhere.

Busby's own response to George was to ask If he's so green, what does he think all the electricity is for?
Wade Allison's book Radiation and Reason Why is George so sure he's right? Well, he's read a blog by his friends Chris Goodall and Mark Lynas (here he calls them two environmentalists who have kept their heads in this crisis). And Goodall and Lynas have read Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear, by a professor of physics, Wade Allison. I have reviewed it on Amazon showing that Allison has torpedoed his own project by altogether ignoring microdosimetry. See this short piece which explains the vital importance of microdosimetry - it means Allison has made a massive averaging error, which is like believing it makes no difference whether you sit by the fire to warm yourself or eat a burning coal.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, George.
And finally, here is Malcolm Grimston who graduated from Cambridge University in 1979 having read natural sciences, specialising in psychology. In 1987 Grimston took up employment at the UK Atomic Energy Agency and is well known as a ruthless nuclear propagandist. LLRC has met him many times and he has appeared frequently on TV since Fukushima, playing down the gravity of the disaster.
What's he doing here? Well, in between leaving university and going to UKAEA he taught chemistry at Stowe school and little George Monbiot was one of his pupils. It's a funny world. See them doing a double act here.
Malcolm Grimston pictured on www.world-nuclear.org

Richard Bramhall: 27th July 2011


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