Ann Coulter says crazy things. She does it all the time, and most of us are used to it. But there's crazy, see, and then there's Crazy -- the kind of blithely lethal insanity that'd make you scream and run if it weren't proffered by a pretty, grinning, blond lady on The O'Reilly Factor. And Ann's latest deployment of Crazy stunned even Bill into silence. (Watch it here!) Bill O'Reilly, who increasingly finds himself in the unfamiliar position of being the resident sane person/moderate on Fox, couldn't quite contain his skepticism when Ann sashayed onto his set to explain that exposure to ionizing radiation -- à la Hiroshima/Nagasaki/Chernobyl -- is good for you.
I've already written about Ann's pro-radiation column, debunking the strange idea that nobody died from radiation sickness at Chernobyl. But after watching the O'Reilly Factor appearance, I got to thinking: Where does Ann get her ideas? Is there even a shred of truth to them? So I did what writers (including Ann Coulter) ought to do when confronted with a question about radiation and called up a physicist.
Ethan Siegel is a theoretical astrophysicist who teaches at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. (Check out his blog, Starts With a Bang!) He cleared up a couple of my own misconceptions about radiation, in particular the "linear no-threshold model" of radiation exposure, which states that all ionizing radiation is bad for you, and the more you're exposed to, the worse it becomes. I thought this was just a precaution, since it's extremely hard to gauge the effects of exposure to very small amounts of radiation, and so it's better to err on the side of safety. "I don't think so," said Siegel, who's got a nerdy-sexy voice -- kind of how Ira Glass would sound if he were a baritone. "We're talking about ionizing radiation. That is, radiation that's powerful enough, strong enough to knock the electrons off of atoms. All of the ionizing radiation that you get over the course of your life is damaging to you -- and it's worse for young children and fetuses than it is for adults. That's the linear no-threshold model.
"I think Ann Coultler probably got her ideas from a professor named Bernard Cohen," said Siegel. This was a pretty good intuition on Siegal's art, since he hadn't read Coulter's column, which leans heavily on Cohen's work. Cohen is a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, and in 1995, he claimed he'd found a minor inverse correlation between the amounts of radon in the air of a given part of the country and the amount of lung cancer there. (You can read his paperhere
.) Unfortunately for radon lovers, it seems Siegel failed to correct for demographic variances in tobacco consumers across the U.S., as was pointed out in another publication by Jerry Puskin, of the EPA, in 2001. All we know for sure, from Cohen's work, is that low levels of radon areprobably
less carcinogenic than force-feeding tar to your alveoli.
But we needn't worry over Cohen's graphs to arrive at a reasonable lay person's understanding of the dangers of ionizing radiation. As Siegel pointed out above, ionizing radiation affects living systems because it's "strong enough to knock the electrons off of atoms." This is a chaotic process; the quick-moving particles shed by radioactive materials do not care which atoms they hit. These particles could be screwing with atoms you don't like -- such as the ones in a pre-cancerous cell -- or they could be screwing with atoms you like very much, such as those in your white blood cells or those composing the essential bacteria in your intestinal tract. As Siegel pointed out: "We don't use radiation in cancer treatments because it's inherently healthy. We use very focused radiation in those cases because we're hoping the radiation will kill the cancer before it kills you."
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Now -- that's focused, intentional radiation; not the kind of scattershot, full-body blast that Coulter advoates. But consider: There are well over 100,000,000,000,000 cells in the human body, and each one of those cells contains more than 100,000,000,000,000 atoms. The odds of ionizing radiation hitting your body and altering only those atoms you dislike would be the greatest coincidence in the history of the universe.
Pondering these numbers, I'm reminded of an old creationist argument against evolution by natural selection. It's the one that goes: "What're the odds of a hurricane hitting a junkyard and assembling a perfectly-functioning 747?" Such a chance construction is something Coulter, a noted creationist, would ordinarily deride as crazy -- or even Crazy. Yet it's still far likelier than a blast of radiation hitting a body and tweaking its constituent atoms in just such a way as to improve that body's health. Perhaps Coulter should reconsider her stance on Darwin?