A few last words on Coulter's radiation fetish. Two weeks ago, she claimed ionizing radiation could act as a cancer vaccine, and that nobody died of radiation poisoning at Chernobyl. Then she appeared on the The O'Reilly Factor to defend the column. Last week, she devoted a second column to the promulgation of her pro-ionizing-radiation ideology, entitled "Liberals: They Blinded Us With Science."
The Juice has covered Coulter's previous radioactive rants twice already (here and here), so there wouldn't be any reason to talk about her latest if there wasn't something accidentally brilliant about it. In a very clear way, it demonstrates exactly where most people of all political persuasions go wrong in thinking about science, and why we lay folk are so often baffled by science writing.
Coulter begins with a discussion of Ed Schultz, Bill O'Reilly's long-lost liberal twin over at MSNBC:
Ed Schultz devoted an entire segment to denouncing me ... One thing Schultz did not do, however, was cite a single physicist or scientific study.Think about that one. To Coulter, "insufficient data" is obviously a weakling's objection -- a real man, she suggests, would rebuke her argument with certainty and immutable truths. Unfortunately for her, that's not how science works.
I cited three physicists by name and cited four studies supporting hormesis in my column. [NOTE: "Hormesis" is the notion that low levels of ionizing radiation are beneficial to health.] For the benefit of liberals scared of science, I even cited the New York Times.
It tells you something that the most powerful repudiation of hormesis Schultz could produce was the fact that a series of government agencies have concluded -- I quote -- that "insufficient data on hormesis exists."
"Insufficient data" is just right. What Coulter's been arguing against, without quite naming it, is the "linear no-threshold model" of radiation toxicity, which states that lots of ionizing radiation is bad for you, less would be better for you, and none or almost none would be best of all. The first part of that statement is obvious -- because, no matter what Coulter said two weeks ago, folks at Chernobyl did die from radiation poisoning. (And, to pick the grossest case imaginable, so did our very own Louis Slotin, slowly and agonizingly.) The second part -- that moderate doses can be dangerous -- is so well-established that only a creationist could cherry-pick data with sufficient skill to arrive at a different conclusion. (I'm not just referencing about Coulter here; I'm mostly thinking about Tom Bethell, from whom Coulter lifts her talking points.) And the third part is very difficult to test. Nobody knows for certain what low doses of ionizing radiation might do to the human body.
Why don't we know? Because we're exposed to low doses all the time. You can't blast a fellow with, say, 100 millisieverts of radiation and draw any conclusion from what happens to him, because he may soon be exposed to another 100 millisieverts just by going about his business. Or he may be exposed to almost none. This kind of imprecision makes a scientist's job very difficult.
Are there studies showing evidence that low doses of ionizing radiation may be beneficial to health? Yes. Here's one. But science is provisional; the conclusions of scientists tentative. Unlike religion, politics, or law -- the areas in which Ann Coulter has the greatest expertise -- good science rewards humility, and good scientists will not declare a thing unambiguously true until they have accumulated vast amounts of evidence. One study, or three studies, or even a hundred studies aren't sufficient, especially when the evidence is conflicting. When it comes to hormesis, there is some evidence to suggest it's real, but there's a large amount of evidence suggesting it's not. What this means, to a person who appreciates science, is that the question is unsettled. There is "insufficient data."
Two papers illustrate handily why we ought to be careful about reading too much into a small number of studies. In 1974, two scientists named Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ published a paper in Nature documenting what looked, superficially, like excellent evidence for the reality of telepathy and telekinesis. Fourteen years later, a scientist named Jacques Benveniste published another paper in that same outlet demonstrating the efficacy of "homeopathy" -- that is, "medicine" in which all active ingredients have been so diluted in water that not a single molecule of the original, active substance remains. If, as Coulter seems to believe, the citation of science-y sounding papers is sufficient to demonstrate the truth of a claim, then we must concede that we live in a world full of psychic phenomena and water-with-memory. But we don't.
As it turns out, Puthoff and Targ's star subject cheated, sabotaging the experiments to maintain the illusion of his paranormal abilities. Benveniste's experiments were sabotaged by an overzealous lab assistant. Their papers were written by imperfect humans, documenting studies designed by imperfect humans, and they are imperfect -- marred by wish-thinking and faulty experimental design. Subsequent studies corrected for the errors of Puthoff, Targ, and Benveniste, and now we know better.
This happens all the time, especially with difficult-to-observe phenomena like hormesis. Coulter isn't wrong to have an opinion on the matter -- humans are extremely adept opinion-making machines, and most of us can't help ourselves. But Coulter's wrong not to be more skeptical of her opinions -- to believe without evidence that the studies supporting her conclusions are perfect, and that those undermining her conclusions are wrong. Physicists can't know that, and neither can she.
But not-knowing isn't Coulter's style, and she dedicates the rest of her column to proving the left's scientific shadiness by explaining how we "lied about AIDS":
Again, Coulter seems to suggest that we can know a thing before all the evidence is in. Fact is, there were worrisome numbers of cases of heterosexual HIV transmission in the 1980s, and doctors who only a few years before had witnessed isolated cases of AIDS in gay men explode into an epidemic were inclined to err on the side of safety, at least until the numbers were in. Who could blame them? And how is it their fault that the media sensationalized their reports? That's what a certain kind of media figure does, after all -- take tentatively proffered notions from a few doctors or scientists, iron out the ambiguity, and present unverified ideas as facts.
As I described in my book, "Godless," both the government and the entire mainstream media lied about AIDS in the '80s by scaring Americans into believing that heterosexuals were as much at risk of acquiring AIDS as gays and intravenous drug users. The science had to be lied about so no ones' feelings got hurt.
That Coulter would call attention to this tendency is darkly ironic. When the media presented unverified hypotheses about AIDS as fact, they were "lying about science"; when Coulter, who is very much a part of "the media," presented unverified hypotheses about radiation as fact, she was a bold teller of unpopular truths. But both are practicing the same kind of deception. Except the journos who fibbed about AIDS were trying to scare up public attention for a silent massacre of one of the world's most reviled populations. Coulter's just trying to make nice with the nuclear industry.
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