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.
The Sokal affair, also known as the Sokal hoax, 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."
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:
It would reveal that the media doesn't understand what it is reporting.
It would reveal the soundness (or lack thereof) of the scientific mindset in the Internet society.
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.