Friday, August 17, 2012

"Butterfly Mutations Caused by #Fukushima #Radiation" a Redux of the Sokal Affair?

Following the footsteps of "California has banned fishing because of highly radioactive tuna fish from Fukushima!" and "Japanese athletes were excluded from the London Olympics opening ceremony because they were from contaminated Japan and they were wearing badges made of radioactive debris from Fukushima!" (both of which seem to have died a deserved death but not before confusing and distressing many people in Japan and abroad), here comes the latest sensation on Twitter in Japan:

Butterflies mutated because of radiation from Fukushima accident!

This one was doing very well for a few days, being picked up not just by the mainstream media in Japan but also by the august foreign media including BBC, CNN, and Le Monde. Why? Because it was not a lowly blogger or a Russian news who started the "news" but it was the Japanese researchers from University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, by having their paper published in a open-access, peer-reviewed magazine of Nature (the magazine was launched in June 2011).

Here's the abstract of what the University of the Ryukyus researchers (Joji Otaki et al) said in their paper titled "The biological impacts of the Fukushima nuclear accident on the pale grass blue butterfly", published in Scientific Reports on August 9, 2012:

The collapse of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant caused a massive release of radioactive materials to the environment. A prompt and reliable system for evaluating the biological impacts of this accident on animals has not been available. Here we show that the accident caused physiological and genetic damage to the pale grass blue Zizeeria maha, a common lycaenid butterfly in Japan. We collected the first-voltine adults in the Fukushima area in May 2011, some of which showed relatively mild abnormalities. The F1 offspring from the first-voltine females showed more severe abnormalities, which were inherited by the F2 generation. Adult butterflies collected in September 2011 showed more severe abnormalities than those collected in May. Similar abnormalities were experimentally reproduced in individuals from a non-contaminated area by external and internal low-dose exposures. We conclude that artificial radionuclides from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant caused physiological and genetic damage to this species.

It sounds scary, but what the researcher failed to mention but others in Japan who immediately started dissecting the paper have been saying is this:

  • These particular butterflies' original, natural habitat is southern, warmer locales such as Okinawa, and Kyushu, Shikoku.

  • These butterflies have been known to have a lot of mutations as it migrates ever northward, far outside their natural habitat, LONG BEFORE the Fukushima accident, and it has been well studied and the results published

  • Why did these researchers pick this particular species prone to mutations if they really wanted to isolate the effect of radiation?

Here's one good "togetter" (string of tweets) in Japanese by people clearly with solid scientific background analyzing this paper.

Professor Joji Otaki himself has written a paper on the topic of mutation of this particular species, and has attributed the mutation to colder temperatures. But now, scanning through the paper, I see that he and his fellow researchers attribute physiological and genetic mutations of this butterfly species to exposure to artificial radiation from Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, without proving that it is indeed the radiation from Fukushima that have caused genetic mutation. The researchers just say so in the paper, as if that's what everybody knows.

As controls, they used the butterflies in the southern, warmer natural habitat where the butterflies are more genetically stable, and compare them with the butterflies they caught in the northern regions, mostly in Fukushima Prefecture and Ibaraki Prefecture, where wide variations and mutations had already been observed prior to the nuclear accident.

Does that make sense? Particularly when Professor Otaki had already amassed the data of this species in northern regions as far north as Aomori Prefecture? Why didn't they compare the butterflies caught in Fukushima with the butterflies in Aomori, which hardly had radiation contamination from the Fukushima accident?

They talk as if it is a given that radiation from Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant caused the mutations. But did they actually measure radiation in the butterflies? They seem to have tested the leaves that the butterflies eat, but not the butterflies themselves.

In addition, what made me pause was this graph from the paper, showing the percentage of butterflies with abnormality. Look at Motomiya City in Fukushima with 100% abnormality, from one sample. Or 50% abnormality in Iwaki City, from 2 samples.

Hmmm. What's all this? Is it maybe a kind of joke, or experiment? You know, much like the US Department of Homeland Security deliberately bringing in weapons to airport checkpoints to test the competency of the personnel and ability of the equipment to detect the weapons? DHS weapons often get through the security with flying colors.

It turns out that I'm not alone in thinking that way. Someone, who seems like a researcher in cell biology/engineering at Osaka University with a great sense of humor, wrote an article pointing out all the above and much more, and wonders, "Why did the authors write such a paper with so many obvious holes that even a middle school student can see?" His conclusion is, "Maybe this is a great fishing expedition..." This anonymous researcher says:

Maybe this is a redux of the Sokal Affair in 1996.

From Wikipedia:

The Sokal affair, also known as the Sokal hoax,[1] was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal's intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether such a journal would "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions."[2]

Hmmm... I think the anonymous researcher may be right. If this paper is a fishing expedition, it may have been designed to achieve the following, as the researcher explains in his website:

  1. It would reveal that the media doesn't understand what it is reporting.

  2. It would reveal the soundness (or lack thereof) of the scientific mindset in the Internet society.

  3. It would reveal the problem the scientific world faces - a paper gets published without being properly evaluated, and once published it is considered "the truth".

If it is the case, hats off to the researchers. But so far I haven't seen the announcement or press conference by them saying it is indeed the case.

This "news" has all but disappeared, and people who worry about radiation are left stranded, wondering. Many of them seem to believe the lack of news means it is true, it is the inconvenient fact that the government and TEPCO have decided to hide from them.

The government and the government experts have only themselves to blame, of course, for the lack of respect they get from citizens. What worries me though is the lack of scientific judgment on the part of citizens.


Anonymous said...

I honestly don't know what to say. Radiation is not causing any damage to the DNA? I hope you are well paid, because this site is bullshit.

Anonymous said...

Oops, just read through the site. Looks good. Sorry, I rushed to conclusions.

arevamirpal::laprimavera said...

All I'm saying is that these researchers haven't proven radiation is causing damage to the DNA of this particular butterfly in Fukushima area.

arevamirpal::laprimavera said...

As for I'm being well paid, I always welcome donations. I'm very poor because TEPCO hasn't paid me.

Anonymous said...

I briefly read some discussion regarding this over on these forums:

Many of the people there are usually very skeptical about the dangers of radiation. From what they were saying, it sounded like those researchers aren't very reliable. That doesn't mean that the butterflies AREN'T actually receiving radiation damage... it just means their study doesn't seem to be conclusive or reliable. People need to be able to differentiate between these meanings.

I wouldn't be surprised if this study was intentionally published with the knowledge that the researchers are questionable, in order to influence the public into doubting such studies in general and dismissing all of them as "fear-mongering". People need to be able to see past that, too. I mean, would they seriously publish irrefutable proof that nuclear tech is screwing us all over? I seriously doubt that.

And no, I'm not suggesting there's a "conspiracy" afoot, but it's ridiculously naive to assume that any group of people can't possibly have a vested interest in swaying public opinion towards their personal benefits. There are a lot of rich and powerful people out there who don't want to admit that nuclear tech isn't as safe as they portray it to be. Almost everyone has something to lose, and it's natural for people to do whatever it takes to protect themselves. This often means co-operating with others who have similar goals, and deceiving others into supporting them. It's a fact of human society.

I'm suggesting that we need to be wary of these people and their possible hand in these matters. Always good to be aware of possibilities and to see past the surface of everything.

Anonymous said...

Why look at the Sokal affair? Why not look at Japanese archeologists who created false "artifacts" to prove certain points about Japanese pre-history.

Anonymous said...

Anon above 12:40
Excellent deconstruction of the "scientific" paper to discredit real research that might show DNA damage caused by Fukushima radiation. Note also the topic is "butterflies" which trivialize the import to humans.

Johntaro said...

I bought the original story hook, line, and sinker probably because it was published in a peer reviewed scientific journal and reported by some reputable news outlets. Thanks for shedding new light on the story.

Is there any questioning of this study in the English language press or English language scientific publications?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for doing the analysis and debunking. The handling of the Fukushima disaster is appalling enough. It is important that opponents of the nuclear industry get their information right.

Anonymous said...

Many people seem to put much trust into anything labelled as "peer reviewed", but I seem to constantly hear that peer review is full of shit. I don't really know the details, but I'd expect as much from anything that involves social groups.

That's because most (if not all) people don't prioritize truth or facts, all they really care about is themselves, their profits, their prestige, etc. They'll prioritize twisting the facts if it makes them feel better. Nobody likes to feel bad knowing they're wrong, so they automatically twist things in their head and force the reality around them to suit their lies.

People go to great lengths to achieve this, and often don't even realize they are doing it, because they subconsciously lie to themselves. It seems to be a natural human survival mechanism.

I actively try not to do this myself, and I feel terrible when I realize I've made a mistake or turn out to be wrong. Aside from that, I don't mind being corrected by unbiased people who know what they are talking about.

I admit, however, that I don't like being corrected by people who have zero knowledge on the matter, but act as if they are undeniably correct and dismiss everyone who says otherwise by using typical buzz word labels such as "conspiracy theorist". One of the other popular ones I often see nowadays is "fear-mongerer". Can't talk about anything without it being labelled as "fear-mongering"!

The sad thing is that most people I've met seem to be like this, and most other people will agree with them because they also want to believe the lies for the sake of their own personal happiness. It's very frustrating to deal with, so I tend to avoid doing so.

I mean, there's no point in trying to talk to people who absolutely refuse to listen. The most I can do is try to present alternative sides to issues and hope that people have the willpower and intelligence to at least consider them.

Nancy said...

The point about their control group being south and the species being known to have mutations related to traveling north is a solid problem. Comparing the same butterfly in Akita if it follows a migration path up both sides of Honshu would be probably the best control group comparison. About the same direction north. The fact that the species is prone to radiation is exactly why you use it. But you do so knowing it is prone to mutation and compare against it in other situations. This doesn't fail the study. It shows a factor they may not have been compensated for that confounds the study.

This is the huge problem with studies. Things that in another area of study would be fine to be vague or have a few unknowns don't get such scrutiny. Studies on Fukushima is like jumping in a shark tank. Everyone will be dissecting the work and these researchers are just not prepared for it. I found many issues with the JAMA letter about Minamisoma exposures. It is full of problems and things not accounted for. Yet the media is heralding it as proof nobody was considerably exposed. It says no such thing. I don't blame the researchers other than their naivety. The letter was to give an initial glimpse into their work. The media is treating it as the final paper and concrete proof. It only looks at one tiny slice of the whole exposure spectrum during one small period of time. It is useful information. It is not conclusive proof of wider issues or the whole story of those people's exposures.

Anonymous said...

the problem is that the MSM presents only the butterfly study in their monthly coverage of Fukushima. 1 would think after a month they would have accumulative data to present etc. so this is a win win for the MSM, if the butterfly story holds, they didn't have to spend any time or resources, if it fails the MSM can justify their not doing their jobs on Fukushima b/c their is no there there etc

Johntaro said...

@Nancy (August 18, 5:53)
Your comment put things into perspective for me - thanks.

Atomfritz said...

I am still not understanding this fully.

The image you show in the post is about the F2 generation, produced by crossing Fukushima etc F1 offspring with (relatively healthy) Tsukuba F1 offspring.

They wrote about unexpected fertility difficulties, either insemination seemed unsuccessful or offspring didn't survive until finishing pupation stage.

Could this be an explanation for the little number of available F2 specimens from hard-hit areas like Iwaki3 and Fukushima2?

And, they also wrote about Okinawan butterflies as test group, which was fed with verified radioactive Fukushima food and developed the same infertility and disabling mutations like the Fukushima specimens (not just the normal variations of wing color patterns, which seem to be the "normal" mutations at this species).

What could/should have possibly caused this, if not the radioactivity?

So I am still not sure what to think about this study and its findings. At least I understand too little yet to readily believe or dismiss the study.

Anonymous said...

@Atomfritz, they zapped the butterflies with radiation in addition to feeding them leaves.

And we're supposed to take their word for it when they say these mutations are different from mutations due to cold temperatures.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, no way to tell WHAT caused the mutations in the butterflys. Migration/temperature? Fukushima Radiation? Migration over areas of Japan with radiation prior to 3/2011? There are also not enough samples; as damaged as the ones presented are. So...time will tell. Harder to hide in larger animals (mammals...). Anyone studying those monkeys? Or dogs/cats or rabbits??

Anonymous said...

Damage done anyway. Now the world believes these butterflies mutated because of radiation from Fukushima nuke plant, and those who dare doubt are labeled government/TEPCO/nuke industry shills, deniers, paid agents, bad people.

Anonymous said...

All the king's horses and all the king's men.

Atomfritz said...

@ anon 1:48 and anon 1:50

Yes, they had two different Okinawa test groups, one for internal (Fukushima food) and one for external (Cs-137 source) irradiation tests. See chapter "Effects of external and internal exposures".

But, as you say, the number of samples seems to be a bit low to make really meaningful conclusions.

At least there should be follow-up studies on a larger, statistically significant scale, maybe also with other species than butterflies only, too.

The Hanford animal radiation testing studies are still classified.
If the results were not worrying, why then should they be classified still?

Anonymous said...

But wait, there's more...

- Namie-machi residents died of acute radiation...oh wait, they starved to death...oh wait, it's both!

- 36% of Fukushima children have thyroid cancer! ... oh wait, they are comparing two different data sets? Who cares! Minor details!

Atomfritz said...

There is even more... *grin*
I look at FD extremely rarely, here its imho best pranks I saw there:

Anonymous said...

These particular butterflies' original, natural habitat is southern, warmer locales such as Okinawa, and Kyushu, Shikoku.

These butterflies have been known to have a lot of mutations as it migrates ever northward, far outside their natural habitat, LONG BEFORE the Fukushima accident, and it has been well studied and the results published

Why did these researchers pick this particular species prone to mutations if they really wanted to isolate the effect of radiation?

A:We use the pale grass blue butterfly Zizeeria maha (Lepidoptera, Lycaenidae) as an indicator species to evaluate the environmental conditions. A reliable rearing method has been established for this species24. Butterflies are generally considered useful environmental indicators10, 15, 25, 26, and this species is particularly suitable for this purpose because it is widespread in Japan, including the Fukushima area, and because its wing colour patterns are sensitive to environmental changes24, 27. In the past, this species was used to evaluate the ecological risk associated with transgenic maize pollen28, 29.

The Joji Otaki paper you quote in your post is, in fact, cited and used - it's footnote 27 above.

But did they actually measure radiation in the butterflies? They seem to have tested the leaves that the butterflies eat, but not the butterflies themselves.

Because this was a test to track genetic and physical mutations through generations, not radiation levels. The control group was used to compare resulting mutations through their generations vs. that of others collected in the affected area.

The truly newsworthy aspect to this study is just how much damage very low exposures over time can be - 'very low' being fractions of what is generally considered 'safe'. That's going to cause a lot of raised eyebrows.

I really, truly love the blog - and I can't imagine how difficult it's been to keep it going as you have, for so long. Kudos!
And it's incredibly important. Please do take the time to read the study fully, to answer your remaining questions not addressed above. And anyone commenting who has yet to do the same.

Best to all from Dave in Toronto

Anonymous said...

Dave in Tronto, I have read the entire paper.

"Because this was a test to track genetic and physical mutations through generations, not radiation levels."

Then why are the researchers so damn sure it is because of Fukushima radiations?

Anonymous said...

About that Joji M. Otaki (J.M.O.):


A.H., C.N. and J.M.O. conceived the study, A.H., C.N., S.K., and J.M.O. performed field work for collecting butterflies and for recording data, A.H. and C.N. performed breeding experiments and examined morphological structures, C.N., W.T., and A.H. helped planning field work, A.H. and S.G. performed external exposure experiment, C.N. performed internal exposure experiment, C.N. and A.T. quantified contaminant radionuclides in host plants, W.T. performed statistical analysis, A.H. and J.M.O. made figures and tables for the paper, and J.M.O. directed the study and wrote the paper.
Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Corresponding author

Correspondence to:

Joji M. Otaki

If the study still leaves you in doubt, just ask him!

Cheers, Dave

Anonymous said...


Then why are the researchers so damn sure it is because of Fukushima radiations?

In the 'Discussion' section:
"Although epigenetic effects cannot be entirely excluded41, it is most likely that the abnormal phenotypes observed are produced by random mutations caused by the exposure to radiation. This outbreak of abnormal phenotypes in the Fukushima area is very different from the outbreak of wing colour-pattern changes previously observed at the northern range margins of this species, i.e., the Fukaura area27, which is located approximately 400 km northwest of the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP. The Fukaura populations at the time of the outbreak were composed of temperature-shock types that exhibit distinct wing colour-pattern modifications but no other wing modifications or aberrations. Moreover, to the best of our knowledge, no malformations of appendages and other parts have been detected27, 41, 42, 43. In contrast, the outbreak in the Fukushima area includes various unexpected abnormal phenotypes. These abnormalities cannot be expressed within the range of phenotypic plasticity exhibited by normal populations. This information and the experimental data obtained in this study allow us to conclude that the present outbreak of abnormal individuals in the Fukushima area was caused by random genetic mutations in addition to physiological effects due to the artificial radionuclides from the Fukushima Dai-ich NPP."

There's a lost more that preceeds this, so I'd suggest reading the whole Discussion in particular.

Also, one thing that is evident throughout the paper is they're not 'damn sure' of anything - there's lots of additional avenues that have to be thoroughly investigated and many questions still remain. Science is a work in progress, this paper only addresses a very small part of it.

And it raises crucially important new questions too, for which we should all be glad.

Cheers, DiT

Anonymous said...

Well Dave, you're not answering any of the questions anyway. So the author quoted his own study. So what? All he says is the new study is different from the old one he did, without explaining what is different or why is different. But no point in asking you, as you say, when you don't seem to know a thing.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to know what others think about the videos available online where Galen Winsor, a man very familiar with radiation, had a completely different take on the whole scary radiation model. Is it a con to keep power prices high?

Jim said...

The quotes from the paper provided by Dave above seem to comprehensively address the criticisms pulled by EX-SKF from twitter - are there other more compelling critiques in the twitter timeline worth translating?

Are these same twitter critiques also leveled at the other papers cited in the new paper as having demonstrated similar effects in other species?

36. Teruya, T., Zukeyama, H. & Itoˆ, Y. Sterilization of the melon fly, Dacus cucurbitae
Coquillett with gamma radiation: effect on rate of emergence, longevity and
fertility. Appl. Entomol. Zool. 10, 298–301 (1975).

37. Takada, N. et al. A novel indicator for radiation sensitivity using the wing size
reduction of Bombyx mori pupae caused by c-ray irradiation. J. Insect Biotechnol.
Sericol. 75, 161–165 (2006).

38. Vinson, S. B., Londono, R. L. & Bartlett, A. C. Effect of gamma radiation on tissues
of the tobacco budworm, Heliothis virescens. Ann. Entomol. Soc. Am. 62,
1340–1347 (1969).

39. Hayashi, K. & Koyama, J. Effects of gamma irradiation on external and internal
morphological characters of the adult melon fly, Dacus cucurbitae Coquillett
(Diptera: Tephritidae). Jpn. J. Appl. Entomol. Zool. 25, 141–149 (1981).

40. El-Akhdar, E. A. H. & Afia, Y. E. Functional ultrastructure of antenna, wings and
their associated sensory receptors of peach fruit fly, Bactrocera zonata (Saunders)
as influenced by the sterilizing dose of gamma irradiation. J. Rad. Res. Appl. Sci. 2,
797–817 (2009).

Call me old fashioned but are we really going to start tearing up all these peer reviewed papers based on twitter?

Anonymous said...

Jim and Dave, good job at cheap shots and generalization. I trust tweets by people who actually know something than your peer reviewed magazines.

Anonymous said...

Dave, so they are not sure about anything, but have no problem declaring these particular mutations are caused by radiation? Doesn't make sense.

Anonymous said...

That particular magazine is not known for rigorous peer review process. Rather, they strive to get it out the door quickly, and then have open discussions.

Anonymous said...

Scientific Reports - speed seems to be the key. "peer reviewed by at least one member of the academic community"

Jim said...

arevamirpal::laprimavera, I read the twitter thread you posted.

As you point out in the post, their main argument is that the butterfly has more mutations the further north the population stretches. They specifically mention graph 5.d, which seems to show a clear increase in mutations around Fukushima. They speculate that this might be due to the location effect rather than the radiation, and they claim to have spotted a mis-labeled plot (Shiroshi / Ube) which they say is indicative of 'rushed' work.

However if you read the paper properly, graph 5.d actually shows mutations in captive OKINAWAN butterflies which were fed contaminated food collected in different parts of Fukushima when compared to a control group fed on leaves collected in Ube city, Yamaguchi. This is clearly stated in the caption, did the twitterers get that totally wrong?

They also raise inbreeding and temperature fluctuations during the rearing process as possible confounding factors, which might be valid questions, but hopefully they'll address that in a proper letter to Nature where they can outline their case in a way that is open to a proper response from the authors.

Anonymous said...

About the method they used to produce the second and third generation, in which they detected an increasing rate of abnormalities, it would seem they chose a few specimens (male and female) and put them in isolation tanks until they mated, but I don't know if the abnormal specimens would have mated in natural conditions.

In general, I think the problem is not with the paper itself, but with the researchers presented the results to the media. In the paper they just mention possibilities (we can't discard other factors, etc.) but talking with the journalists they seemed pretty sure of having proved the effects of radiation.

Anonymous said...

Radiation Danger Covered Up Ever Since Nuclear Weapons Invented
Posted on August 17, 2012 by WashingtonsBlog
Government Has Been Covering up Radiation Danger for 67 Years
Hiroshima Cover-up: Stripping the War Department’s Timesman of His Pulitzer

Anonymous said...

In the end, a lot of academic research can be attacked or questionned ("eating dark chocolate reduces cancer risk" etc.).

There won't be an absolute truth. Live with it.

Anonymous said...

Well, ICRP recommends general population not to be exposed to more than 1mSv/yr on top of the natural background and medical exposure. ICRP is a private organization funded by the nuclear industry, they are not scientists nor physicians; they just recommend policies. Their standing is the same as Greenpeace.
Forget the butterflies: if you are exposed to more than what ICRP recommends consider moving somewhere else. 5 mSv/yr? 20 mSv/yr?? Have kids??? If you just can move somewhere else, do it.

Anonymous said...

thanks for posting..

Anonymous said...

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