Skip to comments.The Truth About Science
Posted on 01/14/2006 10:01:49 PM PST by Coleus
In 63 B.C., King Mithridates VI, the great opponent of the armies of the late Roman republic, faced a terrible reversal of fortune. For years he had fought war after war against the expansionist Roman state, even for a time expanding his own empire in what is now modern-day Turkey. Finally the Romans sent against him the legions of Pompey the Great, and the tides of war changed. As the Romans overwhelmed his forces, Mithridates found his supporters abandoning him. Even his own son took up arms and led a revolt. Discouraged, the King sought to take his own life.
By a peculiar irony, suicide would not come easy to Mithridates. For years the king, afraid of treachery and assassination, had accustomed himself to the effects of poison. Not only had he concocted what he considered to be an antidote, he also imbibed small doses of deadly poisons in the belief that he would gradually become immune to their effects. To his eventual chagrin, his strategy worked all too well. Despairing of treachery and defeat at the end, he sought solace in death through poison. The ancient writer Cassius Dio tells the story: "Mithridates had tried to make away with himself, and after first removing his wives and remaining children by poison, he had swallowed all that was left, yet neither by that means nor by the sword was he able to perish by his own hands. For the poison, although deadly, did not prevail over him, since he had inured his constitution to it."
Apart from being an interesting anecdote from our ancient past, the story of Mithridates casts a bit of illumination on a certain modern prejudice, namely that there is no safe dosage of an otherwise toxic substance. Mithridates was an old man when he died, and prior to death he had been vigorous and active, even noted by some for his great physical strength. This despite the frequent doses of poison he took throughout his life. Was Mithridates just lucky, or was some other phenomenon at play? Readers of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, the new book by author Tom Bethell, will be tempted to conclude that Mithridates, though lucky he may have been, was also the beneficiary of a phenomenon known as "hormesis."
According to Bethell, hormesis is one of the deeply hidden secrets of modern science, but is so widespread "it deserves to be called a law of nature." It occurs when exposure to low doses of otherwise dangerous or toxic compounds or radiation actually causes mild benefits to the exposed. It seems counterintuitive, but hormesis has been documented by a number of researchers. Nevertheless, it runs counter to the prevailing orthodoxy and has, therefore, been either ignored or derided by the mainstream. This is where Bethel comes in. His new book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the way real science news gets pushed to the back burner in favor of the findings and opinions preferred by the left-wing science media and its allies in government.
Radiation Is Good?
Early in the book, Bethell takes a close look at radiation and nuclear power. The author notes that Three Mile Island was the "catastrophe" that ended the expansion of nuclear power in the United States. The perceived wisdom of curtailing investment in nuclear power technology was confirmed for many when an accident at the Soviet nuclear plant at Chernobyl spewed radiation over much of the Ukraine.
The fear of radiation, and of nuclear power in general, still exists, but Bethell notes that it is unfounded. In fact, the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters were not disasters at all. Regarding Three Mile Island, Bethell notes that today "few people seem to realize that disaster was averted and no one in the plant or in the Three Mile Island neighborhood was hurt." At Chernobyl, despite the fact that what happened there was a worst-case scenario facilitated by the lack of a containment building - the venting of the plant's nuclear inventory into the atmosphere - few people died.
Indeed, nuclear power has an incredible record of safety. There are over 100 nuclear plants operating safely each day in the United States, and there are hundreds more worldwide. Yet despite all the hype about the danger of nuclear power, other industries are far more dangerous. In just one accident alone, almost 3,000 people were killed initially and as many as 15,000 died subsequently as a result of the notorious gas leak at the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984.
In any case, a little radiation a day might serve to keep the doctor away. The case in point is radon gas. Radon is a naturally occurring, colorless, odorless gas derived from the radioactive decay of radium. The EPA and the National Academy of Sciences maintain that radon is deadly, causing as many as 15,000 to 22,000 deaths by lung cancer each year. But Bethell points out that data collected by University of Pittsburgh physicist Bernard L. Cohen contradict the official government line on radon. In a study that covered radon measurements for 90 percent of the U.S. population, Cohen found that cancer rates declined with increased exposure to radon, just the opposite of what should have been observed. "The data showed a clear tendency for lung cancer rates, whether corrected for smoking or not, to decrease with increasing radon exposure," Bethell writes in summary of Cohen's findings.
Indeed, Bethell says, these results give further support to the notion of hormesis. In fact, he points out, in some areas of the world people are actually seeking out natural radiation sources for their healthful benefits. In Boulder, Montana, people suffering rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders are descending 85 feet into a former mine to benefit, they say, from acute exposure to radon. "Customers pay $5 an hour and about fifty people a day go there in the summer," writes Bethell. "The radon concentration, 1,700 picoCuries per liter, is over four hundred times the EPA-recommended level."
Thinking "Outside the Box"
Bethell's contrarian thinking is persuasive and extends to many topics in addition to hormesis and radiation. He includes, for instance, a tremendously valuable chapter on the scandal of the current malaria plague that is ravishing the world. Unbeknownst to most in the United States, hundreds of millions of people are infected with malaria each year, causing almost two million deaths annually. This is a plague of epic proportions. But unlike high-profile, media-friendly plagues like AIDS and the over-hyped bird flu, malaria is a real killer epidemic. In fact, the current malaria plague is quite probably worse than even the worst-case doom and gloom scenario painted by fear-merchants regarding bird flu.
Because of bad science, however, DDT, a compound that could safely destroy many mosquitoes that spread malaria, is not used. Bethel covers the whole sorry saga of the DDT ban, from the now discredited claims promulgated by environmentalist Rachel Carson in her notorious book Silent Spring to the flawed science that was used to claim that DDT softened the eggshells of birds. He also discusses the genesis of the EPA ban on DDT, a ban that was put in place despite the fact that EPA examiner Edmund Sweeney concluded: "DDT is not a carcinogenic, mutagenic, or teratogenic hazard to man. The uses under regulations involved here do not have a deleterious effect on freshwater fish, estuarine organisms, wild birds, or other wildlife.... The evidence in this proceeding supports the conclusion that there is a present need for essential uses of DDT." The compound was banned anyway, making it difficult or even impossible for it to be used elsewhere in the world. The ban has been a death sentence for untold millions.
The book is replete with similar examinations of the trends in science that make up today's headlines. In some of the best sections of the book, Bethell takes a close look at the empty promises of bioengineering, from stem cells to cloning. The latter, he points out, was a scientific bust of colossal proportions and, despite the hype, he notes that embryonic stem-cell research does not support the contention, popular in the mainstream press, that stem cells will be a silver bullet for the treatment of disease. The author also scrutinizes hot-button issues like cancer, global warming, intelligent design, and the spurious notion that religion and science are implacable enemies doomed to constant warfare.
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science is a wide-ranging compendium of the errors and omissions, fallacies and flaws, that today get reported seriously by the media and, all too often, end up being used by politicians to support bad policies. But despite its weighty subject matter, Bethell's clear prose makes the book an easy read for even those with little or no science background. The book is essential reading, especially today when the increasing specialization and intricacy of the sciences is making it ever easier and more tempting for demagogues to use pseudo-scientific posturing to pursue damaging legislative programs.
It occurs when exposure to low doses of otherwise dangerous or toxic compounds or radiation actually causes mild benefits to the exposed.
Ah, it's good to know my daily cigar and bourbon nightcap are leading me to a healthier, longer life.
junk science ping
You're off the list of potential clients for the "Chernobyl Acres" real estate development project.
A few of examples relating to background radiation exposures:
1. Kerala Province of India. The background radiation level in Kerala is about 1.5 REM/Yr (0.015 Sievert/Yr), about 4 times the average for other areas of India. Kerala Province has a significantly lower incidence of cancer than the rest of India.
2. Guaparaj, Brazil. The background radiation level is approximately 1.5 REM/Yr (0.015 Sievert/Yr). Yet, there is no excess incidence of cancer in Guaparaj.
3. The Rocky Mountain States in the United States. Because of elevation and geology, the background radiation level is significantly higher in these states. However, there is no excess incidence of cancer.
4. Ramsar, Iran. The background level is about 10 REM/Yr (0.1 Sievert/Yr). Yet, again, there is no excess incidence of cancer.
This is the essence of homeopathy. But this phenomenon is highly over-simplified here, and works in a limited manner only.
Look what it did for George Burns.
I believe the Russians are or have already turned Novaya Zemlya into a national park, so with Bikini Atoll, there are at least three nuclear nature preserves in the world.
But that misses the point, which is Mr. Bethell's asinine assertion that Chernobyl wasn't a disaster simply because few died as a direct result.
I depends on what is meant by "disaster". Ask any good union man what loosing his union wages would be. "It would be a Disaster, OMG!"
As far as radiologically active materials escaping confinement is concerned there will come the time when Chernobyl is considered trivial.
If you're going to rank disasters by order of magnitude, then pretty much any disaster, save the biggest, could be considered trivial, though it would be best if you weren't relying upon the possibility of some future event to make your comparison.
At any rate, I think it's safe to say that any event which results in the imposition of a 30 km radius "exclusion zone" qualifies as a disaster.