A COLD WAR ARGUMENT REVIVED: JUST A SQUABBLE AMONG SCIENTISTS OR A CONFLICT OF INTEREST AT WORK?
The Chronicle of Higher Education for October 5, 2011 has published a reporter’s analysis of a controversy revived by Edward Calabrese of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Calabrese claims that my mentor, H.J. Muller, during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1946 deliberately withheld contradictory information and lied about the effects of low doses of radiation. Muller argued that the work of his laboratory since 1927 and others had shown there was no escape from the conclusion that radiation has no threshold dose and the radiation induced mutations or chromosome breaks are proportional to the dose received. Calabrese claims that just before Muller left he got a working draft of a paper from Curt Stern that showed a dose of 25 Roentgens [25R] did not significantly raise the mutation rate above control levels and this contradicted earlier work of Stern’s that did show such an effect. Muller replied that he could not give attention to the manuscript until he came back. Later he did and Stern published it without claiming a threshold exists or that it contradicted earlier work of his, Muller’s, and others that did show an absence of threshold effects.
According to Calabrese, Muller was motivated by concern of nuclear proliferation and effects of fallout and he convinced his fellow scientists not by science but by ideology to set up radiation protection regulations for the nuclear industry and he scared people into believing low doses of radiation could harm a population. This is false because fallout was first noted in 1952 when our first H bombs were tested in the Pacific. It is false because Muller used many lines of evidence for a cumulative effect of low doses of radiation. S. P. Ray Chaudhury in 1939 showed that a dose of 400 R given in 30 minutes had the same percent of mutations induced as 400 R given over 28 days. Such an attenuated dose is like being exposed to one chest x-ray every 12 minutes for a month. One chest x-ray per 12 minutes is a very low dose [about 0.01R] and yet it accumulates over a month’s exposure.
Calabrese claims low doses are either harmless to an exposed population or that they are beneficial to the individual because he believes low doses of radiation; chemical mutagens, carcinogens, and toxins are actually beneficial. He calls this hormesis but he does not provide a molecular basis for it in contrast to the way geneticists use molecular biology in detail to describe mutagenesis, gene replication, protein synthesis, and the formation of biochemical pathways. He believes low doses of such chemical and physical agents stimulate the immune system and make one resistant. He deplores nuclear regulation and similar regulation on the chemical industry, the food industry, and the pharmaceutical industry. He feels billions of dollars have been wasted for regulations that are not needed. During the Cold War, on different grounds, a generation or two earlier, critics of Muller claimed “a little bit of radiation is good for you” or that without that small dose of radiation how would humans be able to evolve to a higher level of abilities and health? These are fake arguments. Most geneticists would refute them. Calabrese first contacted me in April 2011 and I sent him arguments and references that he ignored for his two articles which appeared in public health journals.
It is also bothersome that a substantial part of Calabrese’s research support comes from chemical companies and the nuclear industry. He lists the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Florida Power and Light Company, and Electric Power Research Institute by name but most of his support he describes as supported by “multiple sponsors.” There are people who claim that the money given them does not influence their views or objectivity. Every congressional representative and Senator who has received lobbying money from those industries will tell you that. But is it true? Why do we demand judges to recuse themselves when they try cases in which they have a relationship, personal or through business?
My worry is that this slander of Muller’s reputation as a liar is appearing when the Tea Party and its industry-friendly Republican or Libertarian allies are making an effort to get rid of regulations that allegedly impede business and cost jobs. It is a self-serving argument that appeals to those with a financial interest in these industries. It also tries to convince workers that this elimination of safety regulations is in their interest. I believe, to the contrary, that workers in these industries and most of the public are being betrayed by these industries for almost all the gains unions won and legislation won since the 1930s. I hope those of you reading this blog will help refute that campaign.