Early Careerists at HSS Boston: Toshihiro Higuchi November 8, 2013Posted by sandyclaus in Early Career, Profile, Uncategorized.
Toshihiro Higuchi “United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation: The Multinational Negotiations of Risk Knowledge, 1954-1958 “ (The Fifty-Year Anniversary of the Limited Test Ban Treaty: Origins and Legacies, November 22, 1:30 to 3:30 pm)
My presentation at the 2013 HSS conference features the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). Founded in 1955 to evaluate fallout hazards worldwide, UNSCEAR was one of the first—and largely forgotten—intergovernmental scientific panels concerning the global environment. This talk is part of my larger book project that examines the global dispersion of radioactive fallout from explosions of nuclear weapons as one of the first truly global environmental crises.
Originally trained as a diplomatic historian, I initially studied the question of nuclear weapons testing in a rather classical way—as an example of nuclear disarmament. My point of view radically changed when John McNeill, one of my advisers at Georgetown, inspired me to take an unconventional look at nuclear affairs from an environmental point of view. But I did not stop there. Instead of taking the contamination as given, I kept asking myself why worldwide contamination by radioactive fallout went unnoticed before it suddenly became an object of global concern. This striking gap between the material presence and social manifestation of contamination led me to explore scientific knowledge—or, to put it better, a multitude of uncertainties in knowledge—as a critical medium that determined the phenomenological status of radioactive fallout. To understand the construction of knowledge in the global fallout debate, I delved into multinational archival research to trace interactions between scientists and policymakers in the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union.
My talk at the HSS conference will discuss how UNSCEAR played a crucial role in reframing worldwide fallout as a truly “global” danger. My analysis builds upon Paul Edwards and Clark Miller, who have underlined the role of infrastructural globalism. Like climate science, where the worldwide effort generated global data and built global models to think “globally,” UNSCEAR promoted a similar globalist vision by shifting a focus from individuals to populations, and also from averages to variations.
For example, UNSCEAR’s effort to coordinate fallout measurements led the Japanese scientists to discover the contamination of brown rice, which challenged the milk-centered model of radiostrontium transfer in the environment. This realization, admitted by UNSCEAR as a “fact,” dispelled the myth of averages and revealed the strikingly uneven distribution of risks. Always feeling as the “innocent victims” of the nuclear arms race, Japan, India and other Asian countries took this finding as the vindication of their uniquely vulnerable status in face of worldwide fallout.
UNSCEAR also scaled up the levels of consciousness by summing up individual effects in the world population based on the linear non-threshold (LNT) hypothesis. While the U.S. and British scientists debated over whether the LNT hypothesis was applicable to low doses, the Soviet delegation to UNSCEAR threw its weight behind this paradigm, and so did other members. As a result, the UNSCEAR report printed the calculation of excess deaths worldwide based on the LNT hypothesis. This hypothetical “body count” shifted a focus to the absolute health impact worldwide.
Toshihiro Higuchi is an ACLS New Faculty Fellow and associate lecturer at the History of Science Department, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Trained at Georgetown as a modern environmental historian with strong interests in diplomatic history and science & technology studies, he completed his dissertation in 2011 on the Cold War politics of global radioactive contamination.