Scientific Pessimism May Be Out

By Alston Chase

Like many people, I am addicted to worry. Indeed, perhaps most Homo sapiens have inherited this predilection from prehistoric ancestors, who had good reasons to fear tyrannosaurs and saber-toothed tigers. But since life today isn’t as dangerous, we moderns are forced to find substitute sources of fright.

That’s why money — or rather, an insufficiency of it — is so useful. So long as we spend more than we earn (which, for me, is most of the time), we’ve got lots to fret about. Yet like all addictions, worry requires ever-bigger fixes. You start with small stuff — like wondering if you can make the next car payment on time — but ultimately find yourself mainlining truly cataclysmic concerns, such as dread of cancer or global warming.

This escalation is a special problem for the very rich, which, lacking pecuniary problems, often have no alternative but to invoke personal and environmental health risks to satisfy their craving for doom. But while for a time it seemed these issues offered limitless excuses to lie awake at night, this is no longer the case. For science, which once gave us wonderful things to fear, now wears a happy face.

Thus, it has decreed that moderate alcohol consumption, once deemed bad, is good. It has revived the reputations of fat, cholesterol, eggs, salt and butter. And it is making putative environmental dangers disappear. As writer Gregg Easterbrook observes in his comprehensive book, A Moment on the Earth, empirical studies are deconstructing virtually every disaster scenario, including forest depletion, global warming, acid rain, asbestos and pesticides.

And now this insidious cheeriness has invaded the last bastion of dread radiation.

For years, radioactivity was the mainstay of dedicated worry-buffs. Then in April, The Atlantic Monthly published a piece by Jeff Wheelwright revealing that plutonium -often dubbed “the most toxic substance known to man” — may actually be good for you. According to Wheelwright, a study of 7,000 workers at the Rocky Flats nuclear plant in Colorado found that “men with plutonium in their urine turned out to be healthier than the American populace overall.” Likewise, of 26 men exposed to large doses of plutonium at Los Alamos in 1944 and examined again a few years ago, “the rate of mortality … was much lower than that for white males in general.”

Naturally, pessimists couldn’t take this news with a smile. So this month, newspapers around the country were reporting that “radon may cause thousands of lung cancer deaths.” Distributed by the Associated Press, this story was based on findings published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, which claimed this naturally occurring radiation might kill 14,400 people annually.

Nevertheless, such deliverance from optimism may be merely temporary. For another scholarly article published this year in the journal Health Physics indicates that radon, too, may be good for you. Written by University of Pittsburgh physicist Barnard L. Cohen, it found “a strong tendency for lung cancer rates to decrease with increasing radon exposure.” And this piece seems based on better science than the Cancer lnstitute report. It contains an argument that, if valid, could topple the entire superstructure of scientific pessimism.

Most gloom scenarios rest on something called the “no threshold theory” of environmental risk. This supposes that if big exposures to “hazards” cause cancer, then little ones are harmful also, only less so. It is like supposing that since consuming 5,000 calories a day makes you fat, eating only five calories will do likewise. Yet however questionable, this is apparently the Cancer Institute’s reasoning. Since many miners (who are exposed to big amounts of radon) get cancer, it suggests, and then those who experience small amounts are at risk, too.

But Cohen may have found evidence disconfirming the “no threshold” hypothesis, as applied to radon. Rather than shortening life, he says, this radiation may prolong it, possibly because it stimulates “biological defense mechanisms” that improve health.

Such an optimistic conclusion could send any dedicated pessimist into paroxysms of despair, if it were not that fortunately, Cohen’s thesis is unlikely to catch on. Since it contains good news, politicians and the press are sure to ignore it. Thus the expensive policies intended to fight radon will remain, along with the myriad others designed to neutralize dangers that scholars mischievously insist do not exist.

So despite increasingly joyous findings of science, alarmists have reason to hope. With luck, Uncle Sam will spend himself and the economy into poverty, attempting to counter imaginary dangers, so as environmental threats disappear, everyone can still worry about money. That’s called a “self-fulfilling prophecy”: Concern about phony threats generates real ones.

Isn’t it marvelous how things work out?

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