“Radiation is good for Japan”: Coulter’s case dissected

Have a listen to Ann Coulter talking to Bill O’Reilly on Fox News last week (the show aired on St Patrick’s Day, hence O’Reilly’s green tie). Coulter is a social conservative columnist and lawyer, well known in the US for her right-wing diatribes. Here she is talking about recent events in Japan, regarding which she takes the somewhat unusual position of claiming that, actually, a meltdown at Fukushima would not be that problematic at all. This is because, contrary to common opinion, exposure to the levels of radiation emitted during nuclear accidents is actually good for you. Literally, she is saying that people in Japan will benefit from radiation exposure. It says something about the rashness of her claims that even a conservative climate-change equivocator like Bill O’Reilly appears to be a little sceptical about them.

One interesting aspect of the clip is that Coulter explicitly attempts to back up her claims by citing relevant mainstream science. It is always difficult to counter research-based arguments without access to the primary sources, and clearly Bill O’Reilly is in little position to question her on the specifics. Given that Coulter’s claims have found a wide-ranging online audience in recent days, it is important that each of her research-based arguments be scrutinised for accuracy. After all, conspiracy theorists and climate-change deniers are always at their most incorrigible when they are able to cite reference after reference to published research studies. And anyway, given that Coulter’s studies sound pretty persuasive, might she actually be right?

Coulter first mentions a study “from Canada” which she says found that the breast cancer rate among women who had received excessive radiation from chest x-rays “was lower than [in] the general population.” Unfortunately for Coulter (and for the women concerned) this was not at all the case. While Coulter identifies a 2001 story in the New York Times Science Section as her source for this study, the original research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1989. It showed that, far from reducing cancer, radiation actually increased the risk of cancer for all groups of patients. In other words, Coulter has it backwards. Her confusion may emanate from a particular nuance of the research data: it was found that cancer risk in these women decreased sharply with age. So, when the NY Times stated that some women “had fewer cases of breast cancer than would be expected”, this referred to comparisons within the sample and not to comparisons between the sample and the general population. All the women in the study had increased rates of cancer: it’s just that the older women had a lesser increase than might expected based on the rates seen in the younger women.

Now, while the NY Times might take some blame for failing to clarify such complexities, we should expect a professional media commentator like Coulter to clarify the issues for herself by consulting the original research report (okay, maybe we shouldn’t quite expect that!). And in fairness to the NY Times, their article contained several strongly-worded caveats. In describing the Canada research it quoted one expert as pointing out that the study was “flawed by statistical pitfalls”, while in summarising the article overall, it quoted another expert as concluding that “There are probably more studies on the harmful effects of radiation than for any other toxic or noxious agents in the environment.” Somehow, Coulter didn’t notice these powerful contextual statements.

The second study Coulter mentions was based on data gathered in Taiwan. Coulter refers to apartment blocks constructed “in 1993” which contained high levels of the radioactive isotope cobalt-60. After 16 years, she says, “only 5 cases” of cancer emerged among their 10,000 occupants, while an equivalently sized group in the general Taiwanese population “should have gotten about 170 cases”. The research she’s describing was published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. However, that report was based on preliminary analyses which were later found to be flawed. Notwithstanding that, Coulter’s description contained a number of significant errors and omissions. Firstly, the apartments in question were built in 1983, not 1993. While this is a small enough point, it can be noted that Coulter’s error has the effect of making the data appear less out-of-date than they really are (for example, the 16-year period she alludes to ended in 1999 rather than in 2009). Secondly, Coulter inaccurately implies that the researchers looked at all cases of cancer that arose; in reality, the researchers examined only deaths from cancer. Across a 16-year period following first exposure to radiation, cancer death rates among a group of 10,000 are likely to be far too low to support reliable statistical conclusions. It would certainly have been more meaningful to track each and every case of cancer onset during the study period, whether or not death was the outcome; however, the researchers did not do this and Coulter is wrong to imply that they did.

Most crucially, the biggest problem with the Taiwan study was that its findings were confounded by age differences. When the first analyses were conducted, the researchers did not have data on the ages of apartment residents. Thus, in describing their statistics, they explicitly noted that their conclusions are contingent on “assuming the exposed population has the same age distribution as the population of Taiwan”, an assumption they identify as “a critical factor.” However, subsequent studies of this case have shown that, in fact, the age demographic of apartment residents was much lower than that of the general Taiwanese population. On its own this would be expected to result in lower cancer rates. Accordingly, a more complete revised analysis was subsequently published in the International Journal of Radiation Biology. These fuller analyses entirely contradict Coulter’s statements regarding the preliminary study. When age differences between apartment residents and the general Taiwanese population were finally controlled for, the data showed a significant dose-response effect whereby radiation exposure was associated with increased rates of cancer morbidity among apartment residents compared to in the general population. Furthermore, we can note that Coulter’s emphasis on cancer deaths (mortality) instead of cancer occurrences (morbidity) also proves to be very misleading. Rather than Coulter’s “five cases” of cancer among 10,000 apartment residents, in fact there were 141 cases of cancer morbidity among the 7,000 or so persons who were exposed to radiation.

The third and final study cited by Coulter relates to research by Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh. After describing Cohen as the “coolest cat in her column”, Coulter states that his research covered “90% of the counties in the US”, looking at levels both of radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, and of lung cancer. She says that radon and lung cancer “were inversely related so dramatically that it couldn’t be explained by cigarette smoking”. However, this is not the case; Cohen’s research did not have access to precise county-specific data on cigarette smoking. When this information was subsequently added to the dataset, researchers found that there was a negative association between smoking and radon levels that explained away the apparent association between radon and cancer. In other words, it turned out that counties with high radon levels also had low smoking levels, and vice versa. This in turn is related to urban-rural differences: cigarette smoking is more common in cities than in rural areas and, because of the effects of construction, radon levels are lower. Despite the fact that these more comprehensive analyses appeared in major scientific and medical journals, once again Coulter somehow missed them.

So let’s just summarise all of this. In describing her position, Ann Coulter either selectively or innacurately quotes a range of disparate sources. She egregiously misreports the findings of a 22-year-old Canadian study by implying that it found decreases in cancer risk resulting from radiation exposure, when actually it showed the opposite. She describes a preliminary partial analysis of data from Taiwanese apartment block residents, while failing to acknowledge the more complete and subsequently published analysis of the same residents which identified an entirely different conclusion. And likewise she describes an old correlational study linking low radon to cancer that was long ago exposed as confounded by a far more plausible link between smoking and cancer.

Presumably it is merely a coincidence that this string of errors ends up supporting a position that: (a) casts doubt on environmentalist concerns about nuclear energy; (b) justifies greater freedom from regulation for energy companies; (c) protects corporations that expose citizens to radiation from legal vulnerability; and (d) relieves Coulter’s right-wing audience of the awkward burden of having to feel concerned about the Japanese.

No doubt Fox News will be broadcasting corrections shortly.

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  1. Excellent Critique 😀

    She must know full well that she’s off track.


  2. Good dissection!

    As for Faux News bringing out corrections, I wouldn’t hold your breath on that one.

  3. I see you haven’t actually read the follow-up study from the International Journal of Radiation Biology that you cite as “contradicting” the initial data. Here is one passage from page 12″

    “SIRs were significantly lower in both genders combined for all cancers (SIR = 0.6, 95 % CI 0.5 – 0.7; table 3), all cancers excluding leukemia (SIR = 0.8, 95 %, CI 0.6 –1.0), and all solid cancers combined (SIR = 0.7, 95 % CI 0.6 – 0.9). In men, there were significantly lower SIRs for all cancers combined (SIR = 0.6, 95 % CI 0.4 – 0.8), all cancers combined excluding leukemia (SIR = 0.7, 95 % CI 0.5 – 0.9), and all solid cancers combined (SIR = 0.6, 95 % CI 0.4 – 0.8).

    In women, there were significantly lower SIRs for all cancers combined (SIR = 0.6, 95 % CI 0.5 – 0.8).”

    So yes, even on the followup study with rigorous controls, living in the irradiated building appears to have protected the residents from cancer. Now this does not mean, as Coulter said, that radiation is good for us. I’m pretty sure that if it comes in the form of radioactive Iodine that collects in the thyroid, any increased dose is bad. However, I think we can state with great confidence that chronic low doses of ionizing radiation are causally connected with a lower overall risk of cancer.

    It sucks to learn this scientific truth from Ann Coulter. She’s an absolutely terrible person, and a science denier in too many fields to count. But like a stopped clock, she too is right every once in a while.

    • Brian Hughes

      Thanks for that comment. However, your position is not without its problems.

      Firstly, I don’t know where you got that quote from. It doesn’t appear in the IJRB paper at all. You say it appeared on page 12. But the paper is only 10 pages long (and, in any event, appeared in print as running from pages 849 to 858). The sentences you’re quoting may have come from some other report, but they don’t come from the IJRB report.

      It seems to me that you haven’t even seen the IJRB paper. As such, it’s a bit ironic of you to accuse me of not actually having read it. In the interests of decorum, I will take it that you are simply mistaken here (and that you are not deliberately trying to make a false allegation against me to support your own position).

      Reading the IJRB report is absolutely crucial to this debate, so I recommend that you read it as soon as you can. It provides a very clear summary of its results as follows (I have highlighted the particularly important bits):

      “A total of 7271 people were registered as the exposed population, with 101,560 person-years at risk. The average excess cumulative exposure was approximately 47.8 mSv (range < 1 – 2,363 mSv). A total of 141 exposed subjects with various cancers were observed, while 95 developed leukemia or solid cancers after more than 2 or 10 years initial residence in contaminated buildings respectively. The SIR were significantly higher for all leukemia except chronic lymphocytic leukemia (n = 6, SIR = 3.6, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.2 – 7.4) in men, and marginally significant for thyroid cancers (n = 6, SIR = 2.6, 95% CI 1.0 – 5.7) in women. On the other hand, all cancers combined, all solid cancers combined were shown to exhibit significant exposure-dependent increased risks in individuals with the initial exposure before the age of 30, but not beyond this age.”

      In other words, the IJRB study is completely clear in stating that there was an increased risk of cancer among the Taiwan apartment residents. This not only contradicts Ann Coulter’s characterization of the data, but it also entirely contradicts yours. In fact, your statement about what overall conclusions we can draw (“I think we can state with great confidence that chronic low doses of ionizing radiation are causally connected with a lower overall risk of cancer”) is almost exactly the opposite of the statement of conclusions presented by the IJRB authors:

      “The results suggest that prolonged low dose-rate radiation exposure appeared to increase risks of developing certain cancers in specific subgroups of this population in Taiwan.”

      Let’s not drag this out any longer. The idea that prolonged low dose-rate radiation exposure is “causally connected with a lower overall risk of cancer” is entirely controversial because it is completely at variance with the vast majority of the available data. All the solid studies tell us it is wrong; only methodologically weak or vague ones say otherwise. As with any contrarian position, it is not without its supporters at the fringes of science. However, to state that this conclusion is something “we can state with great confidence” is frankly ridiculous.

      Incidentally, it doesn’t matter who is doing the talking here. Whether or not Ann Coulter is (to use your words) “an absolutely terrible person” is beside the point. What matters is the corpus of research that informs our understanding of the issue in question. This involves an objective and balanced assessment of the data, taking account some evaluation of its quality.

      It also involves reading the actual paper you’re quoting from, as and when required.

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