HBO’s Chernobyl: A Fictionalized Representation of the True Horrors of Sidelining Science

June 10, 2019 | 12:54 pm
Public Domain
Anita Desikan
Senior Analyst

HBO’s new five-episode miniseries “Chernobyl” at the time of this writing is the highest rated TV show on IMDB. I’ll say straight out that the show is a fictionalized account and that I recommend reading Forbes and the New Yorker’s summaries on what the show gets right and wrong. And if you want to know more about the real events of Chernobyl disaster, check out our summary on the topic and our work trying to answer how many cancers resulted from the Chernobyl disaster.

But what got under my skin when I watched the show was how the scientists and politicians interact. Here’s one quote from the show:

“I must tell you– this is why no one likes scientists. When we have a disease to cure, where are they? In a lab. Noses in their books. And so, grandma dies. But when there isn’t a problem? They’re everywhere. Spreading fear.” (episode 2)

And while this scene probably never went down like this in real life (see the New Yorker article), I had to wonder: was there truth ensconced in the fiction? Is it common for scientists to be sidelined by political leaders? While I can’t speak about what exactly happened at Chernobyl, I can certainly speak to the fact that the sidelining of science has occurred for decades in the US, and that it is especially egregious under the current administration.

Why does the TV show feel relevant today?

Incidents like this are not ancient history. Whistleblower protections for scientists are as important today as they were in 1986. And we need to protect our scientists and the science they produce more than ever – science saves lives and political leaders ignore it at their peril. These issues aren’t simply relegated to the Soviet Union, they are happening in the US. Here are some examples of recent attacks on science by the Trump administration, which now number over 100:

  • Ignoring inconvenient scientific truths: The director of US Geological Survey (USGS) ordered scientists to only use climate models that end at 2040, thereby ordering scientists to ignore the worst impacts of climate change.
  • Ignoring scientific evidence of a public health crisis: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has flat-out refused to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a nasty pesticide that decades of science shows can harm the brains of children.
  • Reports buried and ignored by political officials: The White House buried a health study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on a chemical class called PFAS (which is super common, it used to be found in Teflon and Scotchgarde) because it was “a potential public relations nightmare.”

While safeguards were put in place at RMBK power plants after the Chernobyl disaster (though it should be noted that wasn’t a perfect solution), the Trump administration has dismantled safeguards put in place at offshore oil rigs after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth”

Again, it should be noted that HBO’s Chernobyl is not a documentary. But the purpose of good fiction is to make you think. And I was definitely thinking.

I was thinking that it angers me that scientists are still being censored today, and that their evidence-based words on issues like asbestos, pesticides, and toxic chemicals are being suppressed and ignored in favor of a more politically-friendly narrative. The science that can save countless lives should never be hushed up simply because it is politically inconvenient.

And so, like the unseen cloud of radiation that erupted from Chernobyl, the current administration’s actions to dismantle science are seeping into our lives and are messing with our health.