The anti-Lynas camp organized a public forum at the Malaysian Parliament some time ago last year. There was a panel of several men and women highlighting the cost of allowing Lynas to operate its rare earth metals refinery plant in Pahang.
An expert took his turn to speak. He patiently explained the inverse-square law in the context of public health. The danger of harmful radioactive substance to a person correlates inversely to the distance between the two.
The shorter the distance, the more detrimental it is to the person’s health. It is not a linear relationship where a unit of distance closer means a unit increase of harm. Rather, the danger increases exponentially with each unit of distance shaved.
He went on to explain that the Lynas plant would be processing fine radioactive substance. If handled carelessly or by some unfortunate accident, the substance would be exposed to the air and permeated to the surrounding areas.
If inhaled, the distance between the radioactive material and human body would effectively be zero. Under the inverse-square law, the danger would be infinite. Radiation poisoning would be inevitable.
The person may be an expert in his field, but he spoke without the eloquence of a seasoned orator. There were short pauses as he thought through his next point slowly. As much as his thoughtfulness demanded respect, those pauses were distracting and even annoying. He lost the audience, if the mostly boring jargon-laced scientific presentation had not yet.
The next two speakers had sharper presentation styles and spoke in plain Malaysian English. The presentation slides were more colorful than the expert’s. One had a video running. They immediately took hold of the crowd, demanding attention with their exuberant confidence.
Yet, their field of expertise was unclear. The only obvious thing was that their speeches were a series of emotional appeals, and a series of exaggerations. One of them asserted that radioactive material from Lynas plant could pollute all palm oil produced in Malaysia, hence making it dangerous for consumption.
He talked as if the whole palm oil industry would be in danger of collapse. Others outside of the hall in the public sphere have equated the risks of running the plant to the meltdowns of Chernobyl and Fukushima.
They exaggerated either willfully or out of ignorance to garner support for their cause. Maybe out of desperation too because they care about the issue and they need support. They are the advocates. They may have succeeded judging by the reaction of the audience but not all were moved by the exaggeration. But most of the audience already had their minds made up before the presentations. The two were preaching to the choir.
For the unmoved minority with their minds yet to be made, the exaggeration discredited the speakers.
To be fair, the debates surrounding Lynas are full of exaggerations. Both the opposition and the proponents have exaggerated the benefits and the cost of the project.
The Lynas debate is obviously not the only one that suffers from exaggeration. The debate on the goods and services tax is another. As the exaggeration goes, inflation would go up through the roof and everybody’s tax bill would balloon.
The fact that the GST would only cause transient inflation was uninteresting to the anti-GST side. The fact that the GST can mimic the existing tax system without increasing a person’s total tax burden was discounted by the anti-GST camp.
On the proponent side, they exaggerated that Malaysia would go the Greek way if the GST was not implemented. The truth is that while it helps, the introduction of the GST is neither the only way nor the crucial piece to balance public finance up.
We know the Greek argument is exaggerated when the sides that use it are undisturbed by handouts given by the government that directly contribute to the current state of government finance. Even they are unworried.
When a side runs out of bullets, exaggeration is the water pistol masquerading as a real gun. An exaggerator armed with a water pistol may fool some people sometimes. But when it is time to pull the trigger, the exaggerator better prepare for a backlash or two.