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Attention, Ann Coulter: Report to aisle 5 for radiation cleanup

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Well, I am impressed how conservative columnist Ann Coulter finds ways to make headlines. The darling of the radical right ventured into science journalism the other day, when during an interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, she said that radiation above the government cutoff is good for you. 

She was promoting her latest column on her Web site, "A Glowing Report on Radiation". She was trying to explain the concept of hormesis without fully understanding it.*

Developed by Edward Calabrese of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, hormesis is a kind of Nietzsche toxicology: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The idea is that low levels of toxin can stress your body like exercise does, stimulating immune and cell-repair systems. 

The evidence, based on lab experiments done on mice, zebra fish and other non-humans, is intriguing. But the theory is incomplete, hard to study, often confusing, and impossible to generalize as a basic biological principle. For instance, dioxin shows hormetic effects but only when the data includes all cancers, not specific types of cancer. 

Part of the trouble lies with measuring the effects of extremely low doses. As PZ Myers ably describes in his blog take-down of Coulter’s column, separating signals from noise is difficult at that level. 

As Myers puts it: "In the low-dosage regime, these responses get complicated at the same time the data gets harder to collect." He likened the situation to driving on a winter road: when you see an ice patch, you slow down, cutting your risk of an accident. But that doesn’t mean that a little ice prevents accidents. 

No good evidence exists for hormesis in human epidemiology, either. In her column, Coulter mentions that Japan’s atom bomb survivors lived longer than average. But that longevity has an easy explanation: the survivors received greater medical care over the course of their lives after the bombing. 

And although she correctly points out that identifying Chernobyl radiation deaths is tough, her analysis on the excess thyroid cancer cases is strange: she concludes that they resulted from iodine deficiency. I presume she means that more iodine (like what you might get in potassium iodide pills) would have prevented the radioactive isotopes created by the Chernobyl meltdown from getting into the thyroid. So yeah, it’s the diet’s fault–riiiiight. 

Most researchers remain skeptical of hormesis, and no safety agency can in good conscience change dose safety levels based on controversial animal data. Besides, controlling doses near fallout zones would be impossible. 

You can read more about how radiation threatens health here.

 *Correction (4/25/2011): I had mistakenly written she did not use the term "hormesis" in her blog post . My apologies–I had confounded a portion of her post with another post discussing the topic.
 

 

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  1. 1. frankblank 3:32 am 03/19/2011

    You are asking a lot from the gentleman.

    Link to this
  2. 2. frankblank 3:36 am 03/19/2011

    bonzo666 was working so hard on his capitalization, he flew into a frenzy of inappropriate teabagging.

    Link to this
  3. 3. chaotic 3:39 am 03/19/2011

    pyam, your intent is pretty obvious, which is exactly why people pointed it out. You stupidly pointed out that "She was trying to explain the concept of hormesis without actually using the term" when she in fact did, twice, as pointed out by ivnurse. You were probably too distracted by your slobber to get a piece of her to notice, eh? And why did you choose to take her on rather than the sources she cites? Yep, it was political.

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  4. 4. chaotic 4:46 am 03/19/2011

    Oh, and she mentioned the term in the video clip as well, by the way.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Geoff 7:45 am 03/19/2011

    I wouldn’t bother engaging carpefishus, deraley, Bonzo666, et al: The knee-jerk default to name-calling tells the average intelligent human being all we need to know about their "scientific" neutrality. Too bad they don’t have a mag called "Scientific Patriot" or "Scientist of Fortune" to call their own.

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  6. 6. JamesDavis 8:10 am 03/19/2011

    Another ‘Rich-Bitch-Ranting" about something she knows nothing about. This has become quite common for the GOP, The Tea Party and Faux News. The GOP believes that all nuclear reactors are clean and carbon neutral and the radioactive waste they produce is also safe for human consumption (I think Faux may had meant ‘absorption’.) if it is above government standard regulation.

    You know what is scary about Ann Coulter and Faux News?… Everyone of the GOP believes every word both of them say, so help them God.

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  7. 7. JamesDavis 8:15 am 03/19/2011

    "Geoff", they do, it’s called Fox News.

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  8. 8. jbairddo 8:48 am 03/19/2011

    So you are’t disputing the fact that A-bomb survivors lived longer, but you attribute that to medical care? First, you complain about her science, but make an off the cuff comment without any studies to back it up? There could be many reasons they live longer including hormesis, or maybe the ones with the best genetics survived. And I assume you all mean the ones who survived the blast and multitudes of cancer many of the survivors got and survived into old age. And they must have better medical care in Japan than here, since we manage to kill over 250,000 people needlessly with our medical care.

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  9. 9. Grendels 10:04 am 03/19/2011

    I read the article, then the comments, then re-read the article. There appear to have been several knee jerk comments reacting to the fact that the article was about Ann Coulter, as if every word she utters is sacred scripture. She spoke on science, she was wrong on science, the article above points out just where and how she was wrong. From what I understand Ann Coulter’s role in the media is political. If she utters an opinion about science, an area in which her expertise is limited, then what is wrong with the opinion section of a popular science magazine pointing out where her publically made comments are inaccurate.

    If you disagree with the scientific viewpoint discussed in the article, perhaps you could demonstrate why you think Ann Coulter is right?

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  10. 10. Wildeye 10:04 am 03/19/2011

    Yet another reason why we need better science education.

    http://radiationhormesis.com/stones/

    (via http://maddowblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2010/10/08/5257180-art-robinson-backs-hormesis-what-the-hecks-that)

    Link to this
  11. 11. teabone 11:07 am 03/19/2011

    Bonzo666, you take selective brevity to the edge of childish stupidy. I ask you: if we have "Libs" and "Dems", do we not therefore also have "Cons" and "Repubs" as well?

    Link to this
  12. 12. teabone 11:18 am 03/19/2011

    Bonzo666, you take selective brevity to the edge of childish stupidy. I ask you: if we have "Libs" and "Dems", do we not therefore also have "Cons" and "Repubs" as well?

    Link to this
  13. 13. Librarian 11:22 am 03/19/2011

    A closer examination of Coulter’s remarks also demonstrates all sorts of misleading information.

    For example, her comment about the lack of iodine in the diet that you mention. Over 6,000 children have gotten thyroid cancer due to drinking contaminated milk. This hardly qualifies as a "lack of iodine."

    Also, in her comments relating to the shipyard study in her article, she picked her facts and left others out(like the dramatic increase in types of cancer other than leukemia) and also left out the conclusion of the study which was that gamma rays could be causing increases in cancer.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17690532

    Link to this
  14. 14. dbtinc 11:41 am 03/19/2011

    Yes, we can laugh but beware. She does not seem any more nutty than some other republicans who vote in congress that they don’t believe in climate change, don’t believe in evolution, and perhaps worse. They are truly the party of the anti-science. And, none of the less nutty ones are standing up and saying this has got to stop. We need to embrace science, not ridicule it.

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  15. 15. chaotic 12:44 pm 03/19/2011

    Ah yes, climate change. Now there’s real science. Forged data. Collaborated peer reviews. Exaggerated charts. Marginalization of opposing views by qualified scientists. Adaptive name-changing ("Global warming" to "Climate change"). All championed by the equally reputable scientist Al Gore who lives HIS life with a super-Sasquatch-sized carbon footprint while demanding that all the minions live with less (and profiting on all of it along the way). Thanks for bringing that one up, it was entertaining.

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  16. 16. LA Guru 1:18 pm 03/19/2011

    The GOP has an agenda to discredit anything that is not good, in their view, for the industry. Therefore the bias you think you see when you read science articles shows that Fox News are successful.

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  17. 17. Geoff 1:19 pm 03/19/2011

    "Chaotic," loved your comments! And, by the way, I’ve got a couple of Pacific islands with beautiful beachfront views that should interest you. Call me at 1-800-OSTRICH.

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  18. 18. Trent1492 1:29 pm 03/19/2011

    Deraley Says: So you are’t disputing the fact that A-bomb survivors lived longer, but you attribute that to medical care?

    Trent Says: You think that an unproven hypothesis accounts for a longer life span than does more attentive health care? Here is a logic bomb for you: Correlation does not equal causation.

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  19. 19. Trent1492 1:34 pm 03/19/2011

    Chaotic Says: yes, climate change. Now there’s real science. Forged data.

    Trent Says: Name the data that has been forged. Name it. Now name what particular peer reviewed papers have been based on it. Please us primary sources only. E.G You need to cite the E-mail directly and then the paper that E-mail that would lead us to conclude that it is faulty. If you want to put people in jail you need something called evidence.

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  20. 20. marino13 2:38 pm 03/19/2011

    This is scientific journalism? This woman makes a seemingly outlandish claim and you talk about Hiroshima survivors’ long lives with "but that longevity has an easy explanation: the survivors received greater medical care over the course of their lives after the bombing". Medical care, really? Either radioactive fallout kills you or it doesn’t, healthcare isn’t going to make a difference once you’ve been exposed. You will get sick or you won’t, healthcare can only help you beat sickness in these instances. Does she perhaps have a point? Could Hiroshima and Chernobyl point to the idea that what we think we know about radioactive fallout is wrong? I sure would appreciate a better article than this one.

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  21. 21. marino13 2:40 pm 03/19/2011

    Well said.

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  22. 22. marino13 2:42 pm 03/19/2011

    Actually the article above is 8th grade drivel. That is what we are upset about. Prove her wrong. Hiroshima survivors lived longer because of better healthcare, please.

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  23. 23. marino13 2:45 pm 03/19/2011

    You first.

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  24. 24. marhashag 3:26 pm 03/19/2011

    Hormesis is also a process that does not apply to all phenomena that affect health. Hormesis may be demonstrable from getting a sun burn, but not from exposure to non-ionizing radiation.

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  25. 25. chaotic 3:26 pm 03/19/2011

    Trent1492: Oh goody, a homework assignment from a faceless nameless blog commenter. Sorry, but I feel no obligation whatsoever to oblige – I have better things to do with my time. My point is that the author here is in a tizzy over Coulter’s column when she freely and clearly states that this is not her theory, she is merely citing other sources. And the argument here is primarily an attack on her rather than the sources she cites. Contrast that with Gore. He openly claims to be an authority, and there’s no better proof of his theory than the hormesis theory. And yes, there’s some pretty compelling evidence that data was manipulated in various ways to produce an outcome that better supports the political agenda. Behavior like that means ZERO credibility for me. You have a Gore altar in your basement, don’t you? Come on, admit it.

    Take on some of Ann’s cited examples in a factual and compelling way… the apartments in Taiwan, for example. 10,000 seems like a halfway decent sample size and Co-60 is a stable gamma source.

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  26. 26. Trent1492 3:29 pm 03/19/2011

    Shorter Chaotic: I do not need no filthy evidence for my ideology.

    Link to this
  27. 27. Trent1492 3:32 pm 03/19/2011

    Chaotic: My point is that the author here is in a tizzy over Coulter’s column when she freely and clearly states that this is not her theory, she is merely citing other sources.

    You did not read the article or the thread did you? Libarian

    Link to this
  28. 28. Trent1492 3:45 pm 03/19/2011

    Chaotic Says: My point is that the author here is in a tizzy over Coulter’s column when she freely and clearly states that this is not her theory, she is merely citing other sources. And the argument here is primarily an attack on her rather than the sources she cites.

    Trent Says: You did not read the thread or the article did you? Librarian in comment #22 pointed out how she totally garbled one of those sources.

    Chaotic Says: Contrast that with Gore. He openly claims to be an authority,…

    Trent Says: Citation please. A primary source only. Oh, darn there I go again asking for that pesky thing called evidence.

    Chaotic Says: ….and there’s no better proof of his theory than the hormesis theory.

    A. Science does not operate under burdens of proof but evidence. And no that is not hair splitting but a very important difference.

    B. Your statements underline my conviction that you are utterly ignorant of the evidence. Are you familiar with the empirical evidence at all? You give no indication of it.

    Chaotic Says: And yes, there’s some pretty compelling evidence that data was manipulated in various ways to produce an outcome that better supports the political agenda.

    Trent Says: I wonder why you think that unsupported assertion by some anonymous person on the Internet should be taken at face value? Is your ego that big that you can allow for skepticism of your assertions?
    Once again, please point out what data was manipulated and then tell me specifically what peer reviewed papers the data was based on. Please cite primary sources only. Why is this so hard for you?

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  29. 29. Trent1492 3:49 pm 03/19/2011

    Marino Says: Either radioactive fallout kills you or it doesn’t, healthcare isn’t going to make a difference once you’ve been exposed.

    Really? Dosage makes no difference what so ever. I have a proposal. Why want you to go to the nearest X-ray lab and get about 1500 times the recommended dosage. Tell me how that turns out for you. I mean after all it makes no difference.

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  30. 30. Trent1492 3:53 pm 03/19/2011

    Pressed the submit button on comment #36 to fast. What I should have said is that Librarian in comment #22 tears downs one of those cites.

    Link to this
  31. 31. Trent1492 4:06 pm 03/19/2011

    The research biologist P.Z Myers has an epic take down of this rubbish:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/03/will_radiation_hormesis_protec.php

    Here is an excerpt

    "Alcohol is a teratogenic substance — it causes severe deformities in zebrafish embryos at high doses and prolonged exposure, on the order of several percent for several hours. I’ve done concentration series, where we give sets of embryos exposures at increasing concentrations, and we get a nice linear curve out of it: more alcohol leads to increasing frequency and severity of midline and branchial arch defects. With one exception: at low concentrations of about 0.5% alcohol, the treated embryos actually have reduced mortality rates relative to the controls, and no developmental anomalies.

    If Ann Coulter got her hands on that work, she’d probably be arguing that pregnant women ought to run out and party all night."

    It is all very funny and educational. Go and read it.

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  32. 32. erbarker 4:45 pm 03/19/2011

    Apparently the author doesn’t understand the concept of hormesis well enough to write an article explaining it.

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  33. 33. erbarker 5:03 pm 03/19/2011

    Sorry Philip, Ann Coulter is better on science than you are on politics. Perhaps if you were to stick to science, write an article explaining hormesis and give your critical analysis of it. Your intellectual expertize in science doesn’t seem to transfer to politics. See Dr. Thomas Sowell’s "Intellectuals and Society". It will help you understand why you should stay out of politics.

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  34. 34. chaotic 5:22 pm 03/19/2011

    Read it already. How exactly does "low concentrations of about 0.5%" equate to "party all night"?

    It doesn’t.

    Link to this
  35. 35. chaotic 5:40 pm 03/19/2011

    At least you took the time to properly spell Librarian the second time around. It’s not clear to me at all that Librarian did that at all if you’re referring to the shipyard study. Based on the abstract at least, it doesn’t look like the study that Coulter cites is the same that Librarian linked… but of course you would have noticed that with your keen sense of empirical evidence.

    Link to this
  36. 36. Trent1492 5:52 pm 03/19/2011

    @Erbarker,

    Mr. Yam provided a link that thoroughly demolished this bit of bunk and he even quotes Myers on it. Perhaps you should read the link?

    Link to this
  37. 37. Trent1492 6:00 pm 03/19/2011

    Chaotic Says:. How exactly does "low concentrations of about 0.5%" equate to "party all night"?

    Trent Says: So let me get this straight you think it is healthful for pregnant women to consume alcohol up to 0.5%. Tell me, more Dr. Chaos.

    Link to this
  38. 38. Trent1492 6:14 pm 03/19/2011

    Chaotic Says: It’s not clear to me at all that Librarian did that at all if you’re referring to the shipyard study. Based on the abstract at least, it doesn’t look like the study that Coulter cites is the same that Librarian linked..

    Trent Says: So Dr. Chaos produce this study then. You and Coulter made the assertions….. Oh, darn it. I did it again, did I not? I asked for evidence again, such things as evidence are beneath you lot. My bad.

    Link to this
  39. 39. Trent1492 6:27 pm 03/19/2011

    So I was curious and went to find this study. I did. And it had intriguing preliminary data. Then again if you read the conclusions and recommendations you find this:

    It is possible that healthy workers would be able to spend more time at work to accumulate the higher doses than unhealthy employees, who might have accumulated
    ower doses because they spent fewer years on the job. This may be partly responsible for the lower cardiovascular and all-cause mortality among the higher-dose group. We recommend an extension of the NSWS data collection and analysis from 1981 to 2001 to
    help resolve these questions. "

    http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CBkQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ecolo.org%2Fdocuments%2Fdocuments_in_english%2Flow-dose-NSWS-shipyard.pdf&rct=j&q=1991%20shipyard%20study&ei=CiuFTY2qOo6isAO_sKj2AQ&usg=AFQjCNELiQYnPtIWQctTcYvn1nD4SVEDxQ&sig2=PoS13boUfTaaXU0Thudk2g&cad=rja

    Pg 475
    Nuclear shipyard worker study (1980-1988)

    Then of course Librarian found a follow up study where the epidemiology does not look so rosy. Any one care to guess why Coulter and Chaotic choose to ignore that subsequent analysis?

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  40. 40. chaotic 6:38 pm 03/19/2011

    Trent1492: "Any one care to guess why Coulter and Chaotic choose to ignore that subsequent analysis?"

    I can’t speak for Coulter… but for me it’s likely very different than the reason Gore and Trent1492 choose to ignore things like the pesky medieval warm period.

    Link to this
  41. 41. Eugene Williamson 8:12 pm 03/19/2011

    Or perhaps he does mean "loose". You haven’t lived until you’ve had those folks loosed on you. I’d prefer pit bulls.

    Link to this
  42. 42. Trent1492 9:17 pm 03/19/2011

    Chaos Says:I can’t speak for Coulter…

    Trent Says: But you have. So please stop being disingenuous.

    Chaos… the reason Gore and Trent1492 choose to ignore things like the pesky medieval warm period.

    Trent Says: Oh, look another ignorati spouts fossil fuel talking points. Surprise /s

    Tell me, Chaos, are you at all aware that the the Hockey Stick has been replicated about a dozed different times by various researchers using different techniques and proxies. I bet you did not. I am willing to wager that you simply accepted what was feed to you with a hint of skepticism. Here take a look at the following spaghetti graph has of the temperature trend for each of those studies:

    NOAA: Medieval Warm Period:
    http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/globalwarming
    /medieval.html

    Btw, what is up with your obsession Al Gore? Is is some sort of John Hinckley/Jodi Foster obsession going on here or what?

    Link to this
  43. 43. LC in CA 11:07 pm 03/19/2011

    Bottom line, she should put her bleached-blond head where her mouth is. Go to Japan, stand in front of the damaged reactors, and prove her words with action. Anyone up to taking bets that will happen?

    Link to this
  44. 44. robert schmidt 11:42 pm 03/19/2011

    What a surprise, a right wing fanatic misrepresenting the science in order to advance her agenda. Where have we seen that before? Where in the propaganda does it say that in order for you to be a republican or tea party leader you need to be a pathological liar? Someone needs to take the right wing in a new direction that will give it some legitimacy, they should try speaking and acting with integrity. Never been done but it might just work.

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  45. 45. ConcernedCitizen 1:34 am 03/20/2011

    You have really lost my respect, SA. deraley says what I was thinking well,
    "Science should be about facts. Taking political sides say to me, the rational consumer of their products – that they have an agenda. That’s fine if you’re a publication that is supposed to deal in the subjective, but science is objective. And SCIAM, like all publications these days, cannot afford to alienate half their readers – which they do on a regular basis. I take their so called "facts" with a grain of salt, since I can see a clear agenda in all articles presented – not just the editorial pieces. They do a disservice to science with what amounts to yellow journalism. Save this type of hyperbole for publications with a different standard, or be prepared for your reading public to downgrade their opinion of your work – as I have done."

    Link to this
  46. 46. witchrunner 1:12 pm 03/20/2011

    Unfortunately, a magazine that used to have credibility has lost it thanks to its political agenda. Serious scientific journals don’t need to resort to petty name calling, even in editorial blogs. For those who justify it because it is an opinion blog, you have failed to notice that there is not much difference between blogs and "news." Look under news, environment, climate, you will find an article about "blue carbon." I didn’t see anything different in that than this article. Strictly opinion and trying to state it as facts. Add the editorial blogs to the slant of its news and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they need to take the "scientific" out of their title. The same thing they they criticized Coulter for, they do themselves.

    Link to this
  47. 47. EyesWideOpen 4:20 pm 03/21/2011

    I received much needed assurances from a Fundie in our office that Ann Coulter "knows what she’s talking about" and that "those who question her wisdom will be embarassed in the end."

    Well, based on her political sway to the extreme right (which is growing in numbers) we may be referring to her in 2012 as President Coulter and hear the sweeping reforms she has planned during her inaugeral address. Impossible? Come on, if Bernie Madoff can dine on prime rib at the mess hall, Ann Coulter can quaff caviar in the White House.

    Link to this
  48. 48. mihrant 4:29 pm 03/21/2011

    I have not read all of the comments, so perhaps this point has been discussed already. The phenomenon of radiation hormesis is controversial, but deserves more investigation than it has been gotten. A textbook on radiation hormesis was published decades ago and describes several thousand experiments involving plants, insects, etc. Many of the experiments showed data revealing that at the lowest doses of radiation, there were desirable effects, for instance, improved growth of plants, etc. The more recent study by the University of Pittsburgh indeed showed that, to a point, lung cancer in the 90% of the counties in the US went down as background radiation dose went up. This decrease in long cancer leveled off st the highest doses of natural radiation, but at this level the reduction in cancer rate approaches a factor of two. In my opinion, this potential improvement in cancer treatment should not be dismissed lightly. My view of this positive effect of low radiation dose is that it is efficacious because the radiation interferes with the pathways of chemical agent that causes lung cancer due to cigarette smoking. For instance, radiation changes the PH of the cytoplasm in the cells, thus altering (reducing?) the ability of the carcinogen from cigarette smoke to be transmitted from the cell wall to the nuclei of the cells where the DNA resides. This reduction in chemical carcinogen transmission can be interpreted as a positive effect of radiation. I would like to discuss this aspect further with anyone who is scientifically interested in it. My email is mihrant@verizon.net.

    Link to this
  49. 49. vernwrites 3:35 pm 03/22/2011

    Ann is a bright, right writer of political opinions. I would expect a science magazine writer to use scientific facts to refute scientific error. She did not make firm claims, just opinion of another viewpoint.
    When you use argument ad hominem, you lose. Using false reasoning to attack is admitting you lack fact.

    Link to this
  50. 50. na73x 7:07 pm 03/23/2011

    The only thing that Ann Coulter has going for her is her looks. This also proves that the speed of light is faster than the spped ofg sound; she’s very attractive until she opens her mouth. In my opinion, politics should stay out of science and vice versa; she has no legitimacy in this arena.

    Link to this

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