Research, Thoughts

#066

FOOD EDUCATION & RISK COMMUNICATION

Yesterday, I went to a conference on food education, co-organized by my graduate school. I was mainly interested by a professor who came all the way from Hawaii and who wrote one of my seminal books (dealing with scientific knowledge, postfeminism, neoliberalism in the aftermath of 3.11). I was excited to listen to what she had to say about food education in Japan and its implication on gender roles within the family, class, and race. The conference was interesting, even though I thought that it went somehow too smoothly, as very little people addressed frontally the system as it is.

And then, in the afternoon, the horror. A consultant in risk communication started talking about risk/hazard and how people were not able to make the difference. Her job was to explain people that hazard is qualitative, while risk is quantitative: an increasing amount of hazard makes risk. And to go on with the situation in Fukushima. She had been a contamination advisor in Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, explaining the population what radioactivity is, how it interacts with the human body and what are the hazards linked to it. She had this very infuriating way of saying that lay-person knowledge is biased, irrational and non-scientific, while well… science is science.

I am sure she is a very smart lady. But it does not require to be particularly educated in radioactivity related matters to see that NO, science is not neutral. The government and TEPCO did not communicate transparently after the accident, creating a trust crisis and a knowledge void the population had to deal with. Currently, there is no study that says that long-term exposure to low-level radiations causes cancer. But there is no study that proves the contrary: that it does NOT cause cancer. However, the government decided to put the now famous “precaution principle” aside, asking people to live in areas  more than 20 times more contaminated than where they used to live. Children were supposed to go to schools with contamination going up to 20 mSv/year, a threshold that applies to workers of the nuclear industry (mainly men in their 40s, weighting 70kg, not 10 year-old 30kg kids). Psychologists were sent to the region to advise the residents: “Do you know that worrying causes more harm to your body than radioactivity?”

The presenter was talking about risk communication. I went to an event at the UNU in Tokyo in November 2015, focusing on this topic. It was dry, dehumanized, uninteresting. Researchers talk about this top-down relationship between the administration and the population, without understand what communication really means. I guess it comes from this “positivist idea of science” (science as a neutral, universal truth) that science is something that “normal” people cannot understand and that has to be explained to them. Layperson knowledge is discarded, disregarded, looked down upon. But communication means “to put in common” in latin. Communication is not a one-way relationship, it’s about exchange, discussion, debate. Why calling risk communication something that is simply produced and distributed by one side? Why should that type of communication be legitimized, and lay-person knowledge thrown away?

If you go to Fukushima Prefecture, and more generally talk to evacuees from the region, you will be surprised as how much knowledge they have gathered. I am not saying that all people have the same level of knowledge and care the same way. After all, if you cannot evacuate (for 1000 different reasons), you might prefer burying your worries if you want to stay sane… But the people I met through my two fieldworks taught me a lot about radioactivity, its effects, how to measure it and how to counter it. I received pamphlets, was advised to read certain books and newspaper articles, was invited to accompany them to make measurements on the streets and to see how certain NPOs measure contamination in food. It was striking to see how layperson knowledge was developing, spreading, evolving, in parallel to official knowledge. The reality is really far from “objective science & irrational, emotional people”. It takes a few hours to realize that. You just need to push a few doors, walk down a few streets and open your eyes and ears. I am a baby researcher, at the beginning of my study. I only have been on the field for a total of two months. But it was enough to show me that science is not a unified, unbiased entity. It is always situated in political, social, economical and cultural settings, which shape the way it is interpreted, but also done. It would be good if advisors and professionals going to “reassure” people in Fukushima knew about this, instead of shaming people who think differently through the use of words such as fūhyōhigai or shinkeishitsu.

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