The recognition of childhood thyroid cancer as a consequence of the Chernobyl accident: an allegorical tale of our time?

Keith Baverstock

J R Soc Med. Sep 2007; 100(9): 407–409.
doi:  10.1258/jrsm.100.9.407
Acknowledgments This paper is based on a presentation to the Medact conference marking the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, London, 22 April 2006.


I begin with something said by the physicist Edward Lorenz: ‘let our premise be that we should believe what is true even if it hurts, rather than what is false even if that makes us happy’.1 Lorenz is often called the ‘father of chaos’, since he was the first to note that some complex dynamic systems had an exquisitely sensitive dependence on ‘initial conditions’. This meant that their evolution could not be predicted over long periods of time. The weather is one of those systems. He made the above statement in the context of discussing whether humans truly have free will, but I have found another context in which it is equally applicable: I think it a very relevant observation on how human nature is able to believe something even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

In this paper I illustrate how an important truth emerged from the chaos of the Chernobyl accident over the period 1992-1998, and what factors might have influenced this process; I ask whether there are any lessons to be learnt from this experience; and finally I suggest five truths that I discern from the accident and its consequences.