Selfish motives for LNT assumption by geneticists on NAS BEAR I

Dr. Edward Calabrese has published a new paper titled The Genetics Panel of the NAS BEAR I Committee (1956): epistolary evidence suggests self‐interest may have prompted an exaggeration of radiation risks that led to the adoption of the LNT cancer risk assessment model.

Abstract: This paper extends a series of historical papers which demonstrated that the linear-no-threshold (lNT) model for cancer risk assessment was founded on ideological-based scientific deceptions by key radiation genetics leaders. Based on an assessment of recently uncovered personal correspondence, it is shown that some members of the United States (US) National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Biological effects of Atomic Radiation I (BEAR I) Genetics Panel were motivated by self-interest to exaggerate risks to promote their science and personal/professional agenda. Such activities have profound implications for public policy and may have had a significant impact on the adoption of the lNT model for cancer risk assessment.

This new work was inspired when Calabrese found a 2007 history of science dissertation by Michael W. Seltzer titled The technological infrastructure of science. One facet of the paper is to explain how self-interest can create biases that affect scientific conclusions, policy setting and public communications. The same measurements and observations can be used to support dramatically different reports depending on what the scientists are attempting to accomplish.

That is especially true when there is difficulty at the margins of measurement where it is not easy to discern “signal” from “noise.” The risk of agenda-driven conclusions has become greater as the scientific profession has expanded far beyond the sporadically-funded idealists motivated by a pure search for knowledge and into a occupation that provides “good jobs” with career progression, regular travel opportunities, political influence and good salaries.

On the other hand, their efforts on the committee illustrate one component of the technological infrastructure of genetics outside of the laboratory: the increasing significance of large-scale laboratories, federal funding agencies, policy-making committees, and government regulatory bodies as critical components of the technological infrastructure of science. Clearly, how the science of genetics was to advance into the future would have much to do with traditionally non-epistemic factors, in addition to epistemic ones.

Finally, in considering all these themes together, it is difficult to conclude that there is any sharp separation between the practice of science and the practice of politics (in the Foucauldian sense of power/knowledge). Rouse’s view of the intra-twining of epistemology and power, his view of epistemic politics, is pertinent here. The practice of science was at times the playing of politically epistemic games, whether at the level of argumentation in the contestable theoretical disputes of population genetics, at the level of science policy-making, as with the various organizations and committees responding to the scientific and political controversies surrounding the efforts to establish exposure guidelines in the light of concerns over fallout from atomic testing, or with the planning of the future infrastructure of experimentation based on funding opportunities.

(Seltzer 2007, p. 307-308)

Admittedly, the language in the above quote uses jargon from the field of historians, but my translation is that Seltzer found ample evidence to support an assertion that the majority of geneticists on the BEAR I Genetics Panel were more concerned about fitting into a political narrative than they were in answering the questions they were ostensibly assembled to answer. Their tasking was to provide political decision-makers with scientifically supportable answers about the genetic effects of the radiation exposure that might be expected as a result of atomic weapons testing. They decided to complete a different task.

Some members of the committee had an agenda to assert the zero threshold dose response assertion desired by politically active members of the scientific community. They knew that answer — whether or not it was the truth — would assist their scientific colleagues in their efforts to raise concerns about fallout to a fever pitch. Fallout fear was their agreed-upon lever for gaining public support for their efforts to halt nuclear weapons testing.

Other members of the committee were more concerned about obtaining financial support for a long-term research program in general genetics research. That desired research program could only be tangentially related to determining the effect of the tiny, but chronic and largely unavoidable radiation exposures to human populations from highly dispersed atmospheric weapons testing fallout.

(Warning: If you are interested in the history of how the no-threshold dose assumption was imposed and are pressed for time, please do not download Seltzer’s paper and begin reading. It is full of intriguing information, but it’s 450 pages long including footnotes. The section on radiation health effects controversies is 112 pages long. This post should have been completed several hours ago, but I got distracted.)

Here is a quote from Calabrese’s paper that does an excellent job of summarizing the important take-aways from Seltzer’s historical research for people who are mainly interested in encouraging a new look at radiation protection assumptions and regulations.

Seltzer provided evidence that members of the Genetics Panel clearly saw their role in the NAS BEAR I committee to be a vehicle to advocate and/or lobby for funding for radiation genetics (p. 285 footnote 208). Moreover, it was hoped that the committee, which would exist continuously over many years, would influence the direction and priorities for future research funding. According to Seltzer (2007), such hoped for funding possibilities for radiation geneticists can be seen in letter correspondence between Beadle, Dobzhansky, Muller and Demerec.

Demerec responded by saying that “I, myself, have a hard time keeping a straight face when there is talk about genetic deaths and the tremendous dangers of irradiation. I know that a number of very prominent geneticists, and people whose opinions you value highly, agree with me” (Demerec to Dobzhansky 1957). Dobzhansky to Demerec (1957b) responded by saying “let us be honest with ourselves—we are both interested in genetics research, and for the sake of it, we are willing to stretch a point when necessary. But let us not stretch it to the breaking point! Overstatements are sometimes dangerous since they result in their opposites when they approach the levels of absurdity.

Aside: Ironically, the Genetics Panel efforts seem to have been far more effective in obtaining long term funding support for statisticians and epidemiologists as part of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation’s Life Span Studies than they were in obtaining radiation health effects-related funding for genetics research. End Aside.

Calabrese goes on to tie this newly uncovered history-of-science work to several other papers that he has recently published regarding his own excavation work digging through the collected papers of major players in the drama associated with using fears of radiation to slow and then stop nuclear weapons testing.

In retrospect, therefore, a historical assessment of the LNT reflects the so-called “perfect toxicological storm”: Muller receiving the Nobel Prize within 1.5 years after the atomic bomb blasts in Japan, the deliberate deceptions of Muller on the LNT during his Nobel Prize lecture (Calabrese 2011a, 2012), the series of stealth-like manuscript manipulations and deceptions by Stern to generate scientific support for the LNT and to prevent Muller’s Nobel lecture deceptions from being discovered (Calabrese 2011b), the series of subsequent false written statements by Muller to support Stern’s papers and to protect his own reputation (Calabrese 2013), the misdirection and manipulation of the NAS Genetics Panel by the actions of Muller and Stern (Calabrese 2013), and now evidence of subversive self-interest within the membership of the Genetics Panel to exaggerate risk for personal gain. This series of Muller/ Stern-directed actions inflamed societal fear of ionizing radiation following the bombings of Japan and during the extreme tensions of the cold war with its concomitant environmental contamination with radionuclides from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and led to the acceptance of the LNT model for cancer risk assessment by a human population that had become extremely fearful of radiation, even at very low doses.

(Calabrese 2014 p. 3)

Aside: If I had written the final part of the last sentence, I would phrase it differently. “…led the human population to accept their inaccurate LNT model for cancer risk assessment with its associated objective of limiting radiation doses to vanishingly low levels. End Aside.

As the scientist-led antinuclear weapons movement achieved its primary purpose of limiting atmospheric weapons testing and its uncontrolled releases, the public passions that their movement had purposely created were gradually appropriated by people with less admirable motives. Many of them had solid financial reasons to encourage people to fear all sources of ionizing radiation, especially the low doses that members of the public could possibly receive from nuclear energy production – even under accident conditions.

After all, every quad (quadrillion BTU) demanded by customers and NOT generated with nuclear fission is likely to be generated by hydrocarbon combustion. More fission means lower sales volume and probably a lower unit price for all competitive fuels.


Note: Copies of Calabrese’s paper are available upon request. Please contact me via email or using the contact link at the bottom of the page.

PS: People who read Dr. Calabrese’s paper might seize on information provided in the acknowledgements to challenge my narrative that efforts to slow nuclear energy development are often supported by the hydrocarbon economy establishment. His work has received long term support from the US Air Force and the ExxonMobil Foundation. “Sponsors had no involvement in study design, collection, analysis, interpretation, writing and decision to submit.”

I never said that antinuclear funding sources were monolithic or always worked in concert.

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