Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Not-So-Glowing Report on Ann Coulter's Scientific Ignorance


In a March 16, 2011 column in Townhall, conservative pundit Ann Coulter wrote an article about radiation entitled “A Glowing Report on Radiation,” in which she argues that radiation is not as dangerous as the media makes it out to be, and that low levels of radiation can actually have positive health effects. Even doses of radiation that are above the minimum safety levels, says Coulter, can actually do wonderful things for people, such as decrease cancer rates. Her clear implication is that the only people fear-mongering about radiation are the crazy liberal environmentalists.

Here is the major problem: Ann Coulter has no idea what she is talking about, and she is an idiot to boot. Of course, as those of us in the skeptical community have recognized for a long time, when politicians and political writers start writing about subjects that are not political and wander into subjects like science, they tend to get so far out of their element that they absolutely discredit themselves in the long run, if not right off the bat. Such damaging hits to their credibility come as a result of a combination of being insufficiently literate in science and holding political views that are very definitive (some might say extreme political views, in the case of Coulter). The simple fact that people like Coulter have a strong ideological position staked out to defend means that they are inevitably going to be interested in defending such positions with science, despite being scientifically illiterate.

While what I am describing is a general tendency characteristic of politicians and political writers who wander out of their field, one thing should be made clear: Ann Coulter never had any credibility to begin with, one reason being that a large portion of her 2007 book Godless: The Church of Liberalism (which I have reviewed here) is devoted to attacking the science of evolution as a “myth.” It is not as if Coulter randomly waltzed her way into the scientific field for the first time with this one article. She is in fact constantly exposing her scientific ignorance to the world (and has been for many years now), and the pride with which she does so makes it all the more embarrassing for her. Someone needs to remind Coulter that she is a lawyer; she studied law at the University of Michigan Law School in the 1980s. If she had her own best interests in mind, she would do what she should do and stick to law and only make comments within that field.

Coulter’s Scientific Errors

As an aspiring journalist with an interest in science, I want to do my part to improve the dismal state of science journalism in this country, and this rebuttal is a result of that interest. Upon my own investigation, I found the actual scientific backdrop to Ann Coulter’s fallacious claims very interesting and worth sharing.

The phenomenon of low levels of radiation having positive health effects is generally known as hormesis, where something that is either toxic or harmful can, at lower doses, actually be helpful in some way (but not necessarily in an proportionately inverse way to its harmful effects). Radiation hormesis is the subject at hand in Coulter’s article. The theory underlying hormesis is itself somewhat controversial; interestingly enough, hormesis is a term used by homeopaths as a way of justifying the pseudoscience of homeopathy, especially with regard to the “like cures like” notion. Of course, homeopaths do not treat their patients with small doses at all. They treat people with nonexistent doses, so their usage of the term “hormesis” is inappropriate (the sheer insanity of homeopathy is too wearying to explain here).

Moreover, even if hormesis does exist, it operates according to a very specific mechanism. It is not a generic principle of biology, as Coulter makes it out to be. The hormesis effect would be produced only in certain specific substances. At low doses, substances open to the hormesis process may display more of a positive than a negative effect, but toxicity does at some point kick in nevertheless. This is true of every single drug we have ever used. It is even true of water! While there is a dose range at which drugs have some effect that can be exploited for benefit, the fact remains that virtually everything becomes toxic given a dose that is high enough.

The specific notion of hormesis applies to the way in which toxicity versus dose is extrapolated and graphed. It is very easy to document a large toxic effect in studies of any kind, whether they are animal studies, experimental studies, or observational studies. Thus, our most reliable data concerning the dose response effect of toxins is that the higher the dose, the higher is the toxicity end of the spectrum. By definition, it is difficult to detect tiny amounts of toxicity; by virtue of being smaller, it wreaks less of an effect that is hard to detect against the background of noise. This means that the closer one approaches zero while attempting to extrapolate a graph downward, the less reliable the data becomes. When studying possible hormesis effects, scientists will often take the objective, clearly-measurable and high-toxic effects and then extrapolate downward, watching carefully to take note of the point at which the said toxic effects become essentially zero.

Whence the hormesis controversy? The controversy surrounds how that line should be extrapolated. Should we assume that it is linear all the way down to zero? This particular approach, which is the one favored by most government agencies when calculating safe limits, is called the linear non-threshold approach. Toxicity is extrapolated as a straight line and it is assumed that there is no threshold of toxicity, meaning that below a certain dose, there is zero toxicity. In other words, the toxicity does not kick in until some point. It is not as if anyone thinks that this approach is a universally useful one describes how every toxin works. But the threshold concept does make sense of many things. The majority of physicians and scientists would likely say that most substances probably really do contain a minimum threshold of toxicity. The only issue here is that it is very difficult to prove this empirically via experimentation. Taking the linear non-threshold approach is simply a way of building in a safety buffer; it represents the assumption of a worse-case scenario (or at least close to a worse-case scenario). Safety limits are then developed based on this method, regardless of the fact that the assumptions underlying the approach may not be literally true. They are simply the most cautious assumptions one can make.

There are a number of other possible models. One is a super-linear curve in which toxicity rises at a faster rate at the low-end of dose and then levels off slightly. Another possible model is the sub-linear curve in which toxicity slowly picks up and then grows greater and greater at a faster pace as dose is increased. Another is the hormesis curve, which actually dips below zero, meaning that not only is there no toxicity, but there is actually a benefit for a certain period of time before the toxicity kicks in. Again, none of these models need be universally true for all toxins. Different toxins can have different curves. For example, antibiotics kill off bacteria at low doses but at high doses will kill people, making antibiotics an example of a substance with which a hormesis-like effect can be present.

What about radiation? The available data for radiation hormesis (in which small doses of radiation might yield some health benefits, which is Coulter’s main argument) is very ambiguous and controversial. Ann Coulter’s approach was to cherry-pick and grossly misinterpret the data; she presents a number of cherry-picked studies and then proceeds to misrepresent those studies. She relies upon very outdated information and fails to provide the reader with any updated information.
Examples of the outdated studies Coulter cites include:

    Two studies that were reported on by the New York Times in 2001 (ten years ago). One examined tuberculosis patients in Canada who underwent multiple chest X-rays, and the other noted mortality rates among nuclear workers in the United States.

    A Department of Energy study from 1991 (20 years ago) which examined a decade of epidemiological research on 700,000 shipyard workers who worked near the nuclear reactors of ships.

    A study by physicist Bernard L. Cohen from 1995 (16 years ago) which compared radon exposure with cancer rates in 1,729 counties, covering 90 percent of the U.S. population.

But it is worse than all this, because Coulter staked out her position long beforehand, then subsequently cherry-picked the data to fit that preconceived position. This is a classic, textbook case of pseudoscience in action. When one takes a far more objective look at this than Coulter has done, it is not at all clear that there even exists a hormesis effect for low doses of radiation. It is not impossible; radiation may have certain biological effects that lean ever so slightly on the positive side. But it is well established that ionizing radiation is powerful enough to break chemical bonds, which causes damage in a person’s cells by the breaking of DNA bonds. This causes mutations as well as the release of free radicals, which are well known to cause extensive cell damage. This is the damage caused by radiation, and it only makes sense that this damage can occur at any dose. Even a single cosmic ray, if it just happens to strike a DNA molecule, can cause a mutation which can then become a cancer cell. The takeaway point here is that there does not appear to be even a threshold for radiation. There is certainly a dose response: the more radiation one is exposed to, the more damage is caused. And the more mutations result, the likelihood the mutations will be harmful goes up. The fact that even a single particle of radiation could potentially cause major problems, even if we dismiss such a potentiality as a case of very bad luck, is what indicates a lack of any viable threshold. This is the fact of the matter notwithstanding the possibility that, at low doses, the effect that radiation has on cells can conceivably cause the cell to respond with protective mechanisms that may have more benefits than we would normally expect from the radioactivity that induced them.

In conclusion, radiation hormesis is not necessarily a crazy and outlandish idea (which is more than we can say for most of Ann Coulter’s views). It is just that no evidence for the phenomena currently exists. The “evidence” we have gathered so far is preliminary and ambiguous at best, and we are not at the point where we can positively affirm, as Coulter aggressively does, the radiation hormesis as a real phenomenon. Still, it is a highly interesting scientific concept that scientists should pursue further with careful research. Unfortunately, Coulter completely butchers the concept in the interests of her own ideological agenda.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The West Memphis Three: What We Can Learn From Them


The West Memphis Three have finally been freed.

Eighteen years ago, three young men from West Memphis, Arkansas were convicted of torturing and killing three eight-year-old boys in that city. Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Damien Echols were 16, 17 and 18 years old at the time of their arrests in June of 1993, respectively [1]. Three eight-year-old boys were found dead in a drainage ditch on the afternoon of May 6, stripped naked and hog-tied. There was initial suspicion of rape, but later expert testimony provided strong indications that they had not been raped [2]. At any rate, the case of the West Memphis Three has gone down in recent history as an example of the “satanic panic” that originated in the U.S. in the 1980s and which spread throughout the country rapidly before subsiding in the late 1990s.

I have seen the website devoted to defending the innocence of the West Memphis Three. I am familiar with the details of the case. And in my estimation (and that of most others), the evidence shows quite conclusively that Baldwin, Misskelley and Echols are innocent. But my interest in this case is not limited to protesting the reactionary and grossly misinformed moral panics concerning Satanism and the hasty accusations of Satanic ritual being involved. We should all be concerned with working toward making sure that innocent people are not locked up in prison, let alone put to death by the State. In this particular case, Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life imprisonment, Jessie Misskelley was sentenced to life imprisonment plus two 20-year sentences, and Damien Echols was sentenced to death.

This past week, the three men worked towards getting new trials, given the fact that the overwhelming majority of average people as well as experts now believe the three are innocent. To begin with, there was DNA evidence recovered from the crime scene that, by any reasonable standard, should have exonerated them at the very beginning eighteen years ago. The DNA recovered from the scene did not match any one of them. Instead, the DNA matched Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims, and a friend of his. But instead of being exonerated as they should have, the three men have only last week worked out a plea agreement. They were released on August 19, 2011, after entering Alford pleas which allowed them to plead “no contest” to the charges.

And so the West Memphis Three are now free, as they should be. The deal made on their plea bargain leaves much to be desired, however. An Alford plea allows a defendant to reserve the right to assert innocence, while at the same time conceding that prosecutors have sufficient evidence to convict. A plea of “no contest” is therefore not much different than a guilty plea.

Damien Echols, who again was 18 years old at the time of his arrest (and has spent the last 18 years, or half his life, in prison) released a quick statement, saying,
To all my friends and family, my attorneys and advocates, and to those of you from every corner of this earth who have stood beside us these long years, please know that I will forever be indebted to all of you for helping me to become a free man. Each and every day I was the beneficiary of acts of kindness and humanity from people of all walks of life, of all ages, nationalities, religions and political persuasions. The enormity of the support Lorri and I received throughout this struggle is humbling.

I have now spent half my life on death row. It is a torturous environment that no human being should have to endure, and it needed to end. I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars. I want to live and to continue to fight for our innocence. Sometimes justice is neither pretty nor is it perfect, but it was important to take this opportunity to be free [3].

Echols is now moving forward with raising awareness about other innocent people on death row. Such awareness is greatly needed, especially in states like Texas, which many strongly suspect has executed an innocent person at least once in recent history. I refer here to the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, an alleged arsonist who was put to death in 2004 on Governor Rick Perry’s watch. From my point of view (and from that of most fire experts) any reasonable examination of the evidence demonstrates that the prosecution conspicuously lacked the information required to convict Willingham, let alone kill him [4].

My position on the death penalty is laid out in my essay, “The Broken Machinery of Death” (a paper that convinced the professor I wrote it for to change her position on capital punishment). More than any other factor that leads me to oppose the death penalty is the issue of practicality. Apart from extreme circumstances, (wherein a confession is made, there are many witnesses, and strong evidence such as video footage makes it clear that the individual is guilty), the risk is simply far too high that we could be wrong. I do not see any reason why we should be content to take that risk, especially considering the leeway that is characteristic of most sentencing procedures. The evidence shows beyond dispute that some groups (particularly blacks) are more likely to be sentenced to death than other groups. We also know that the legal system is plagued by jury coercion, prosecutorial mistakes, and human error on the part of the defence.

In my estimation, it is unfair to even call the death sentence a “penalty.” I advocate calling this what it really is: If the State is going to kill people based on crimes, then it must have the absolute highest standards of evidence in hand, it must secure conviction beyond any possible doubt, and it needs to apply the sentence equally. These three standards are conspicuously absent in the system today. But even if the system realized these circumstances fully, it only makes sense that the death sentence should be used extremely sparingly, if at all. Why? Because it is time we faced up with reality and realize that nothing anyone does is going to make up for what the offender did. Not even killing the offender is going to satisfy the wrong committed.

By and large, it is entirely too dangerous for us to rely on a dozen or less people who are not experts, and these factors should make any reasonable and critical thinker uncomfortable with the death sentence given the current nature of the legal system alone, not to mention the brutalizing effect capital punishment wreaks on society and the demonstrated fact that deterrence does not work.

The more I follow debates concerning capital punishment, the more I discern a fundamental difference of opinion that boils down to the concepts of Type I and Type II errors as used in clinical tests [5]. Type I errors are false positives, Type II errors are false negatives. If a physician commits a Type I error while diagnosing somebody with a disease, this means that the physician decided the patient has the disease when he really does not. Applying this concept to capital punishment, a Type I error would mean that an innocent person is sentenced to death, while a Type II error would mean that a guilty person is allowed to live out the rest of his life in prison when he should have been killed. My argument is that if there are a significant amount of Type I errors, then capital punishment is not worth practicing and should be abolished. On the other hand, people who strongly advocate capital punishment, particularly many lawmakers and the last two governors of the very red and trigger-happy state of Texas, would perhaps argue the converse: that making a number of mistakes is worth it as long as we are not letting any bad guys off the hook.

I personally find the latter argument to be absolutely repugnant. The story of the West Memphis Three provides a powerful and excellent case study for illustrating the problems plaguing the continued practice of capital punishment.


Notes

1. New York Times. “3 Teen-Agers Accused in the Killings of 3 Boys.” New York Times 6 June 1993. Web.

2. “Testimony of Dr. Frank Peretti.” West Memphis Three Case – Document Archive.

3. Max Brantley. “Damien Echols’ Statement on Plea Deal.” Arkansas Blog: Daily News and Comment 19 Aug. 2011. Web.

4. David Grann. “Trial By Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?The New Yorker 7 Sept. 2009. Web. See also Craig L. Beyler, “Analysis of the Fire Investigation Methods and Procedures Used in the Criminal Arson Cases Against Ernest Ray Willis and Cameron Todd Willingham.” Hughes Associates, Inc. 17 Aug. 2009.

5. This analogy was suggested by Russell Glasser of the Atheist Community of Austin.