A Fate Worse Than Pseudoscience

You have to be careful what information you believe nowadays. The internet is chock full of wannabe experts trying to sell you on their various theories on health, wealth, and child rearing. It isn’t even limited to the internet anymore. Even that television doctor Doctor Mehmet Oz was dragged in front of the United States Senate to explain his charlatan ways. It’s one thing when such pseudoscience causes unwitting dupes to shell out their hard-earned cash on some useless panacea. It’s quite another when personal opinion masquerading as science actually causes harm.

Case in point – the anti-vaccination wave. A 6 year old boy recently died in Spain because his parents chose not to vaccinate him against a preventable disease – diphtheria – because one money-grubbing doctor wrote an article based on pure falsehood that associated vaccines with autism.

So imagine my [lack of] surprise when I ran across an article aimed at convincing women that mammograms cause cancer. The article, to the unscientific eye, looks legitimate. There are no flashy ads, no claims of CIA schemes or Obama plots, and two scientific articles are even referenced. But a simple examination of the details revealed this blog to be full of unscientific bullshit.

For example, the author straight up claims mammograms cause cancer. [This is where my jaw nearly fell off, it dropped so low.] To support this argument, the author cites Paul Yaswen, a researcher with the Life Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and links to a journal article by the same. Taking a look at the article, one can clearly determine the study findings are taken out of context. Yaswen’s study proved that epithelial breast cells respond to radiation by creating variant cells, which he postulates to be more likely to be pre-cancerous. However,Yaswen’s finding cannot be logically interrelated to the claims being made in the mammogram article. Yaswen did not even prove radiation caused the cells to become cancerous. In addition, the radiation dose applied to the epithelial cells in Yaswen’s research is far, FAR higher than that which would result from a mammogram. (Sorry to pick on you Yaswen.) In fact, some of Yaswen’s samples were dosed with 200 Rads – a dose that would cause visible skin inflammation (burns). In contrast, a mammogram results in around 0.3 Rads. And I don’t know anyone who every got a skin burn from a mammogram.

[Smooshed Boobie Syndrome – now that’s another story…]

The author goes on to make many other bogus claims. I’m not going to enumerate them all. Suffice to say it is bull crap like this that could potentially cause real, actual harm. What if a woman reads that crap and then decides not to get a mammogram? If she develops cancer, it might not be detected in time to save her breasts or, possibly, her life.

I wish there was a way to scour the internet and zap away all the harmful falsehoods to make it easier for users to discern fact from fiction. Or better, we need a way to hold people accountable for things they post on the web. As replacement, I give you this warning – beware the internet pseudo-expert.

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What is NOT Science

Nuclear power has always had its adversaries. Long before Three Mile Island, anti-nuclear “experts” spewed warnings about two-headed fish and leukemia epidemics. In this post-Fukushima age, there is just so much disinformation about nuclear power floating around, counter-balancing the flow of falsehoods  with accurate information can feel like an overwhelming challenge.

But someone’s has got to do it. So here I go.

Energy News is ‘reporting’*:

“Legal Expert: 3 police died of acute leukemia after being sent to Fukushima within 50 kilometers of plant”

And that article links to another article saying the same, which links to a blog that is deleted. So, we are to believe some unsourced, unknown, non-cited pseudo-person says three people died of leukemia so it must have been from Fukushima. (It couldn’t have been any other carcinogen. No, no…) Behold, the internet says it is so, so it must be true.

Dude, that is not science.

The background radiation dose received by humans from naturally occurring sources is 2.4 mSv per year globally, 3.0 mSv in the United States. (FUN TIP: If you want to find your estimated personal annual radiation dose, you can use the interactive Personal Annual Radiation Dose Calculator on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission‘s website.) In comparison, the annual radiation dose limit for radiation workers in the United States is 50 mSv (5 rem). But the dose radiation workers actually receive is substantially smaller than the legal limit. For example, in 2010 the average radiation dose actually received by U.S. radiation workers was 1.7 mSv (0.17 rem). (NUREG-0173, 2012)

In 2006, the National Research Council’s Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) developed risk models for estimating the relationship between exposure to low levels of low -LET (linear energy transfer) ionizing radiation (such as gamma rays) and harmful health effects (ISBN: 0-309-53040-7 ). The committee defined low dose as doses from zero to about 100 mSv. (That’s 10 rem!)

The BEIR risk model predicted that approximately 1 person in 100 would be expected to develop solid cancer or leukemia from a dose of 100 mSv above background (3 mSv), while approximately 42 individuals per 100 would be expected to develop solid cancer or leukemia from other causes.

Per the BEIR model, lower doses would produce proportionally lower risks. For example, the committee predicted that approximately 1 individual per 1000 would develop cancer from an exposure to 10 mSv. In comparison, approximately 1 individual per 100 would be expected to develop cancer from a lifetime exposure to low-LET, natural background radiation (excluding radon, which is high-LET radiation).

So, while there is a correlation between significant (compared to background radiation dose) exposure to ionizing radiation and leukemia risk, there are many other contributing factors that contribute far more to the risk for developing the disease. Workers exposed to certain carcinogenic chemicals over a long period of time, such as benzene, are at much higher risk. Some genetic conditions, like Down’s Syndrome, can increase risk, as well as electromagnetic fields, cancer drugs, and even smoking.

The claim made in that Energy [non]-News – I can’t even call it an article! – blurb are purely hysterical. Any claim that cancer or leukemia was caused by radiation dose by someone not involved in epidemiological studies of the correlation between radiation exposure and cancer should be taken with a very big boulder of salt.

*I can’t even link there because this site is just that bad. If you really want to read it, google can help you out.