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It is often said that the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident shook people’s trust in science. This suggests that people had, until then, unreasonable or unrealistic expectations about what science can achieve and how “scientific knowledge” functions in society. In fact, in the Minamata Disease Incident, which occurred during the late 1950s, a solution was hampered by people’s incorrect understanding of the realities of science, along with a failure to provide people with a correct understanding. (1) In science, even if certain things are yet not fully understood, it is still possible to state that “We know this much at least.” This point should have been clarified. (2) The nature of scientific explications is such that they are gradually refined and made more accurate using a range of theories. As this process was not highlighted along with the reasons for this need for refinement, it gave the impression that scientists were merely running about in confusion. (3) A vicious cycle resulted, wherein the more scientists endeavored to conduct a thorough scientific inquiry into the causes of Minamata disease, the less action the Japanese government took on the grounds that they had yet to reach a definite conclusion. While science, in general, is the pursuit of truth that transcends temporal restrictions, scientists need to be wary of colluding with policy makers when research results are expected for social policies.
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For example, on November 26, 1956, the Kumamoto Nichinichi Shimbun ran an article with the headline, “Mystery Illness in Minamata not contagious/no virus discovered/focus of investigations on poisoning/Kumamoto University Professors hold Press Conference.”
It is common sense that the factory, considering the abovementioned (1) and (2), thought that some kind of change took place in Minamata Bay between 1953 and 1954, pointing the finger of suspicion at munitions dumped by the Japanese army in Minamata Bay shortly after the Second World War. The Japan Chemical Industry Association supported this munitions theory.
The counterargument (4) by the factory “was not noticed until Moore pointed it out in 1962, and was considered as quite strong counterevidence against the organic mercury theory” (Tomita and Ui 1969). The Kumamoto University researchers also had difficulty explaining (3). Even in “Observations on the cause of Minamata disease viewed mainly from a Pathological Perspective” (July 22, 1959), they are hard-pressed to put forward an explanation. Any doubts were eventually dispelled when direct evidence was obtained that organic mercury was originally present in industrial wastewater (announced in February 1963). A proper explanation was given for (1) and (2) 40 years later (Nishimura and Okamoto 2001). Therefore, as of 1959, the factory’s counterarguments contained content that could not be ignored, which is why in this sense they were “persuasive.”
The course of events during this period is described in detail in a number of books such as Ui ( 1968).
Tsuda ( 2004) has given a detailed account from this perspective.
If the results of the Cat 400 experiment had been publicly announced in 1959, it is highly likely that the course of the Minamata Disease Incident would have taken a different direction, which would have reduced the number of victims. For a more detailed account of the Cat 400 experiment, see Sugiyama ( 2005). This paper uses the results of the Cat 400 experiment as an “example of failure,” in that it did not lead to an early resolution of the Minamata Disease Incident, to show how no matter how scientifically uncertain, it should not be confined to the decision making of professional scientists (some kind of public decision making is required).
The author believes that things not visible from previous perspectives have become visible from new perspectives, and that they contain universal lessons that transcend the individual case of the Minamata Disease Incident.
For example, when the factory’s handling of the situation (counterarguments) were shown to young people today, over half felt that its way of handling the situation and counterarguments were reasonable.
This essay can be summarized as follows ( Asahi Shimbun, August 10, 2002 evening edition). The author finishes eating a bowl of ramen (noodle soup) and notices that pieces of green onion were floating on the soup’s surface. He tries to turn the bowl around to bring them in front of him but without much success. His eldest son tells him the reason for this: “It is because ramen has a lot of oil and broth slides over the bowl’s surface.” He then says that he will try it with soba noodles, which do not have oil. Upon which, his third son replies that, “The same thing would happen even with ice floating in a cup of water: you would turn the cup and it wouldn’t move.” This served to blow away the oil theory. This episode is followed by the sentence, “The scary thing about science is even the most plausible theories can be blown away by a single counterexample.”
Thinking about it, school science education is also based on this kind of idea. Experiments which appear on television programs also serve to prove or disprove a certain theory in a simple manner, thus strengthening such generally accepted notions.
In this sense, the way it is dealt with in regular science education is not complete nonsense.
Tsuda ( 2004) links this with “reductionism to element.” However, for the counteraction to work, it is only necessary to attack the flaws in explanation of a cause at any level and it does not have to be criticism of the type “causes have not been reduced to elements.”
Kumamoto Nichinichi Shimbun editorial from August 7 states the following before citing the aforementioned section. “They cannot take measures, given that they do not know the cause yet. They decided it was mercury and thus made improvements to the management of industrial wastewater, but if Minamata disease did not end up disappearing later, the irresponsibility of doctors and scientists will be the subject of endless criticism.”
Some may be of the opinion that how people understand science is a factor that cannot be ignored when compared with the “power” of the national government, prefectures, or corporations. However, no matter how tyrannical the power, they use people’s “understanding/persuasion” effectively. Moreover, to obtain understanding/persuasion, they appeal to their commonly accepted ideas. In the case of the Minamata disease, they could “persuade” people by saying something along the lines of, “We are sorry about what is happening to these patients, but it is difficult to do anything until the cause has been completely worked out scientifically.” Recent research on the public understanding of science from the perspective of rhetoric (Gross 1994, etc.) has provided many insights on these points.
The articles of the researchers published in, for example, the Journal of the Kumamoto Medical Society contain their own individual reasons. However, the general public never read these, and they were printed and published much later.
Including people involved in administration.
Four personnel from the factory attended the Food Sanitation Investigation Council Special Committee on Minamata Food Poisoning on September 8, 1959, implying the fact of conflicting opinions within Kumamoto University was leaked to the factory.
The situation described here is similar to that described in Nakanishi ( 2004): “The dilemma is that without the notion of risk acceptance, only those risk assessments which depend of risk management are possible and can be published.”
Even today, the same kind of situation seems to be occurring in regard to iPS cell research. iPS cell researchers talk about a range of different things that will be possible with advances in research. However, they fail to mention how many years down the line these things will become possible. Moreover, by excluding time factors and talking about theoretical possibilities, they have generated a “dream for the near future” in society.
Some may think that for scientists, this is as good as acknowledging the defeat of science. However, if the situation is likened to the differences in how clinicians and basic medical researchers deal with diseases, we see that it by no means acknowledges the defeat of science.
Gross, G. (1994). The roles of rhetoric in the public understanding of science. Public Understanding of Science, 3, 3–23. CrossRef
Hosokawa, H. (1959). Hosokawa Hajime nohto (Hajime Hosokawa’s notes). In Minamata-byo kenkyu-kai (Ed.), Minamata byo jiken schiryosyu:ge (Collected materials on the Minamata disease incident), (1996, p. 1579) Fukuoka: Ashi shobo.
Ishiguro, T. (1905). Rikugun eiseibu kyuhji-dan (Memories on the army health division), cited in Itakura, K. Mohou no jidai: jyou (The age of imitation: vol. 1). Tokyo: Kasetsusha, 1988, p. 372.
Kousei Kagaku Kenkyu Han (1957, March 30). Kumamoto ken Minamata chihou ni hassei shita kibyou ni tsuite (Regarding the mysterious illness which broke out in Minamata region, Kumamoto prefecture). Comprehensive research report funded through a Health Science Research Grant, Ministry of Health and Welfare. Also available in Minamata-byo kenkyu-kai (Ed.), Minamata-byo jiken shiryo-syu (Collected materials on the Minamata disease incident), (1996, pp. 833–845). Fukuoka: Ashi shobo.
Minamata-byo Kenkyu-kai (Minamata Disease Research Committee) (Ed.) (1996). Minamata-byo jiken shiryo-syu: jou-kan (Collected materials on the Minamata disease incident: vol. 1). Fukuoka: Ashi shobo.
Minamata Factory (1959). Yuhki Suigin Setsu no nattoku shienai ten: youyaku (Reasons why we are not convinced by the Organic Mercury Theory: summary). In Minamata-byo Kenkyu-kai (Ed.), Minamata-byo jiken shiryo-syu (Collected materials on the Minamata disease incident), (1996). Fukuoka: Ashi shobo.
Nakanishi, J. (2004). Risuku hyouka to risuku manejimento no arikata: BSE no jirei kenkyu (The nature of risk assessments and risk management: the case of BSE). Shiso, 963 (July) 16–35.
NHK Special & NHK news crew (1995). Chisso Minamata koujou gijutsu-sha-tachi no kokuhaku (Confessions of engineers from the NJNFC Minamata factory). In NHK Special/NHK news crew (Ed.), Sengo 50 nen, sono toki Nihon wa: dai 3 kan (Japan 50 years after the war: vol. 3). Tokyo: NHK Publishing.
Nishimura, H., & Okamoto, T. (2001). Minamata-byo no kagaku (The science of Minamata disease). Tokyo: Nihon Hyoronsha.
Sugiyama, S. (2005). Kagaku komyunikehshon (Science communication). In T. Nitta, et al. (Eds.), Kagaku gijutsu rinri wo manabu hito no tameni (A handbook for those who learn ethics in science and technology). Kyoto: Sekai shisou sha.
Tomita, H., & Ui, J. (1969). Minamata-byo: Minamata-byo kenkyu-kai siryo ( Materials of the Minamata disease research committee, Minamata-byo wo kokuhatsu suru kai (not for sale).
Tsuda, T. (2004). Igaku-sha wa kougai jiken de nani wo shitekitanoka? (What have medical scientists been doing in pollution incidents?). Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.
Ui, J. (1968). Kougai no seiji-gaku: Minamata-byo wo otte (The politics of pollution: following traces of Minamata disease). Tokyo: Sanseido (Sanseido Shinsho).
- Minamata Disease: Interaction Between Government, Scientists, and Media
- Chapter 6