Shocker: Nobel prize winner lied about radiation danger; Data suppression abetted rise of linear no-threshold model

Nobel prize winner Hermann Muller knowingly lied when he claimed in 1946 that there is no safe level of radiation exposure, a new study asserts.

Here’s the study media release:

UMass researcher points to suppression of evidence on radiation effects by 1946 Nobel Laureate

AMHERST, Mass. – University of Massachusetts Amherst environmental toxicologist Edward Calabrese, whose career research shows that low doses of some chemicals and radiation are benign or even helpful, says he has uncovered evidence that one of the fathers of radiation genetics, Nobel Prize winner Hermann Muller, knowingly lied when he claimed in 1946 that there is no safe level of radiation exposure.

Calabrese’s interpretation of this history is supported by letters and other materials he has retrieved, many from formerly classified files. He published key excerpts this month in Archives of Toxicology and Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis.

Muller was awarded the 1946 Nobel Prize in medicine for his discovery that X-rays induce genetic mutations. This helped him call attention to his long-time concern over the dangers of atomic testing. Muller’s intentions were good, Calabrese points out, but his decision not to mention key scientific evidence against his position has had a far-reaching impact on our approach to regulating radiation and chemical exposure.

Calabrese uncovered correspondence from November 1946 between Muller and Curt Stern at the University of Rochester about a major experiment that had recently evaluated fruit fly germ cell mutations in Stern’s laboratory. It failed to support the linear dose-response model at low exposure levels, but in Muller’s speech in Oslo a few weeks later he insisted there was “no escape from the conclusion that there is no threshold.” To Calabrese, this amounts to deliberate concealment and he says Stern raised no objection.

Calabrese adds, “This isn’t an academic debate, it’s really practical, because all of our rules about chemical and low-level radiation are based on the premises that Muller and the National Academy of Sciences’ (NAS) committee adopted at that time. Now, after all these years, it’s very hard when people have been frightened to death by this dogma to persuade them that we don’t need to be scared by certain low-dose exposures.”

Within a year after Muller and his group persuaded the NAS to accept the linear model for gonadal mutations, the practice was extrapolated to somatic cells and cancer. Twenty years later, NAS adopted the linear approach for chemicals. Soon thereafter, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it would use the linear model for risk assessment, Calabrese points out.

Some can accept that even the most distinguished scientists have human failings, he acknowledges. But his view is that “the regulatory research community needs to hear about this. The implications of my findings are that we should revisit our exposure regulations because our regulatory history is founded on a deception. We have seen literally hundreds of thousands of cleanup decisions based on a model that was fraudulently derived. I think we should probably have drastically different exposure standards today, and far less fear.”

Calabrese believes, “The die was cast by Muller and regulations adopted since then have gone unchallenged. I think he got his beliefs and his science confused, and he couldn’t admit that the science was unresolved. So he went ahead and expressed an opinion about how to handle the public health situation.”

Geneticists in the 1950s came to embrace the “linear dose-response model” of risk because at the high exposures they tested, there was no level below which DNA damage did not occur. They felt medical doctors didn’t grasp how significant were the dangers. As the smartest and brightest, Muller anticipated the risk of atmospheric atomic testing and became passionately committed to protecting society, Calabrese explains.

Muller and Curt Stern had done many of the key experiments. Muller himself served on the NAS’s Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation (BEAR) committee, through which the linear dose-response approach to risk assessment became firmly entrenched. The two successfully suppressed last-minute evidence from the fruit fly experiment conducted in Stern’s lab by postdoctoral researcher Ernst Caspari, and the rest is history, Calabrese says. It marked the “transformation of a threshold-guided risk assessment to one now centered on a linear dose-response.”

“To me this all raises the question, what happens when a scientific field lies to the public, to federal agencies and the president? It’s a very scary situation that the radiation genetics community in the 1950s assumed that something was correct without requiring the necessary documentation to support it,” the UMass Amherst toxicologist says.

Stern’s group published a paper in 1947 not long after Muller’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech in which they tried to discredit their own study, further evidence of a deliberate cover-up, Calabrese says. “It’s been hidden in the bowels of the Atomic Energy Commission for decades until I found it. They revised it to remove the one sentence suggesting this experiment might provide evidence for the threshold model.”

“One could argue that Muller single-handedly undermined above-ground atomic testing, which is a good thing,” Calabrese says. “But after uncovering this lie, I’m starting to contemplate what society would have looked like if the regulatory community had felt free to use a threshold model. Members of that 1956 NAS BEAR committee didn’t see the domino effect of their actions on our society. Muller’s impact on the world of today is almost incalculable. He couldn’t have imagined it. But we shouldn’t have to live with it.”


Click here and here for Calabrese’s articles.

29 thoughts on “Shocker: Nobel prize winner lied about radiation danger; Data suppression abetted rise of linear no-threshold model”

  1. Jon,

    there is a huge difference between a scientist going with their guts to create hypotheses, decide on the best approach for further investigation… and passing off their gut feeling as FACT. Think about it for a few years until you grow up.

  2. Intuition plays a role in scientific endeavor much greater than those outside the scientific community might suppose. When an individual thoroughly trained in the framework of their particular scientific field goes “with his gut” in making a determination is using his accretion of scientific problem-solving experience to attempt to reach a conclusion on a science-based, controversial issue. Not all of scientific problem solving is accomplished in the head. One who has mastered the laws and their application in their field has a certain privilege of using both heart and mind to solve problems, construct new theoretical postulates and to teach others. Therefore, far from compromising his scientific integrity and the prestige of the Nobel Prize, Dr. Gaeiver showed integrity and courage in his leaving the APS. He relied upon all that is reasonable in the light of his scientific understanding and experience in being unwilling to be just another “sheeple” on this highly divisive but unfounded issue, conceived and promulgated by a sick man desperate to make a mark in history by sending out a theory which is contrary to common sense as well as to scientific thinking. This man who created the Global Warming theory is the selfish fool of whom you make mention. We need more men like Dr. Gaeiver having the guts to abandon that which does not lead to the truth, Nobel Prize or not. His actions show how his efforts did not end with the reception of the Nobel, but rather, the Nobel illustrated the high standard of the scientist he would need to continue to be. Thus Dr. Gaeiver magnified the rarefied realm of thought a scientist of his caliber possesses and showed himself able to discern between responsible science and the rantings of fools who haven’t a leg to stand on. You sound a little jealous.

  3. The problem with THAT defensive piece of logic, of course, is that IF ‘the Science’ demonstrates a possible Danger-to-Mankind, then there is NO need to lie or exaggerate.

    Unless, that is, you take the Precautionary Principle to its absurdly ‘logical’ conclusion – and wrap the whole of Mankind in cotton wool.

    Thanks – but no, thanks !

    Or, unless you’re REALLY obeying/following/advancing a POLITICAL agenda.

  4. To applaud scientific dishonesty to do the “right thing” is in itself dishonest, and sustains lying by scientists. There were other ways to stop atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons besides lying.

  5. Garret,

    high energy physics has become a boondoggle of gigantic proportions. Can you explain to me how the knowledge of a Higgs Boson or other “god” particle will improve anyones lives who are living today? The theory has possibly strayed from reality and all the money in the world will simply allow them to keep wasting it. There are no other major efforts because they KNOW they are going in the right direction. That isn’t science, that is bias confirmation.

    You mention all the data is available to the public. Err, have you processed any of the, what was it, about 15 petabytes per year of data expected, to see if there are any irregularities?? Be serious man. There is no way in heck that any of us will ever know if they were just making that stuff up.

    I am not claiming they are. I am flat stating that there is no way that there will be anyone doing comparison runs with their own installation to see if there are any issues not caught by this unique project. Remember if the experiment is not duplicable it should not be accepted as absolutely accurate. Who knows, there could be any number of issues that they haven’t figured out yet causing corrupted results that won’t be caught until other installations or different methods are used to check the results.

    An excellent example of this is the CLOUDS experiment. The data is NOT all available yet in a form useable to most of us. Based on one unreferenced chart tacked onto the end of the published paper it would appear that there was much more done than the paper talked about. Since it wasn’t described, coming to any conclusions based on that chart is iffy at best, but, it does show that they have not been fully forthcoming on the results to this point.

    Climate modeling is an area where this is a real problem. Even if you can understand and work with the climate physics, math, and programming, who is paying for your Super Computer?? No one is getting that size of funding who isn’t doing the research with the results the funders desire.

  6. kuhnkat, I have followed the late Petr Beckmann and Dr Bernard Cohen for a number of years, both being pioneers on radiation hormesis. As you say what we are seeing is a complete disregard for science. But I disagree with the example you mention.I consider the information gleaned from the Collider to be reality based, the interpretations may be flawed but something did take place and the results are available for all to see and challenge. It is the suppression of results in order to meet an agenda that has occurred with NLT theory.
    Global warming is, of course, as Dr Howard Hayden called it, playstaion climatology.

  7. I believe Nick’s point is that we should handle radiation carefully and respectfully. It’s the same tone I hear old veterans and NRA memebers get when young men talk about guns for everyone.

    The premise is the same. If you are careful and reasonable, you will not get harmed by radiation or weaponry. If you are careless and act stupid, people get hurt.

    For instance, a properly run nuclear reactor can handle a beyond-worst-case scenario without causing any deaths (Fukushima), but if you are flippant about safety you can’t handle a simple startup (Chernobyl).

  8. Wow, do you realize the implications of this? I work in a refinery and we have a regulation from the AQMD on portable diesel engines and we have to evaluate the cancer risk. We try to stay below 10 in 1 million. Well, I doubt 50 small diesel engines inside our fence line will cause 9 people in the surrounding city to die of cancer, but if you extrapolate off of high dose exposure data and there is no threshold this is exactly the kind of conclusion you can have.

  9. This is a perfect example of where the Scientific Process is not used in modern times. If an expert has stated it, most people will not even consider there may be a reason to duplicate the work or are willing to put their careers on the line by fighting it.

    Garret, actually, there are a number of people, including scientists who have challenged his findings. Just do a search on radiation hormesis and you will find excellent material along with the usual loons. We have a system that likes these results as they allow more CONTROL!!! If the people controlling the purse strings are not interested in funding the research it isn’t going to happen due to the high costs.

    As an extremem example, how would one go about disproving the findings coming out of the Large Hadron Collider?? I don’t think building your own from private donations is going to work.

  10. Nick,

    the sun’s energy, especially in the ultraviolet band, is neither low dose nor mild. Without the atmosphere absorbing most of the UV we would die. Staying out in the sun too long on clear days does not give a low dose. Try using your analytical abilities and facts instead of your emotion to evaluate these issues.

  11. I have to agree. The initial problems could have been an outright “noble lie”, cognitive dissonance, or even a simple refusal to accept what he viewed was flawed data and confusing results. Everyone can be wrong, and I need a lot more evidence for a conviction.

    The fact that we still use no-threshold models despite contrary evidence is the real crime here.

  12. Dose/response models are necessarily based on statistics. With statistically distributed data it is almost impossible to develop descriptive parameters that have any useful precision. As a rule of thumb, every additional digit of precision (one order of magnitude) in a statistically derived parameter requires TWO orders of magnitude more or raw data.
    Also, linear regressions are frequently used because they are relatively simple, especially when the raw data is limited. Unfortunately only a small percentage of statisticians understand the application of measures of dispersion (variance) to even the simplest parameters of a linear regression – slope (sensitivity) and intercept (threshold).
    Muller’s mathematical error was far more fundamental, though. By assuming a null threshold (i.e. zero intercept) he reduced the statistical mathematics to that of simply taking an average of response/dose ratios. This shows a statistical naïveté comparable to a primary school student, taking averages suitable for evaluating well-characterized phenomena, but not for developing characterizations of novel phenomena.

  13. And now, if the rules and regs were changed to support the “its not as bad as we thought” reality, the conspiracy theories (“Big Nuke” is trying to radiate us for evil profit) would run rampant. IF we were somehow able to devise a realistic model, it would take a very long time for the general populous to believe it to be the truth.

  14. You’re not hurt by “all the xrays you receive” because the dose supplied is controlled and directed. I wouldn’t get arrogant about radiation just because someone says the low end is ok. Even low dose radiation from the sun can give you skin cancer. If you look at, you can see we already allow ourselves some freedoms with respect to dosing radiation workers yearly (green) and in emergencies (orange). I’m a nuclear engineer and I’m glad we are wary about and respect radiation. Even if this guy had not lied, people today would still fear it because they don’t understand it. Just like nuclear power, the radiation that comes with it will always be misunderstood and feared because the public feels no need to actually learn about it.

  15. Of course he LIED. And one doesn’t need empirical evidence to show that when annecdotal evidence – i.e. GOING OUT INTO THE LIGHT OF DAY – is perfectly sufficient.

  16. The anti-nuclear power movement depends on the LNT theory to make nuclear power scary.

    Up to the late 60s nuclear construction was on a rising curve which stopped abruptly though (it took just over 10 years for the end of new plants coming online). Partly this was direct banning – partly use of pointless regulations to make nuclear electricity many times more expensive than the engineering costs. At least 90% of our electricity costs are such government parasitism.

    Had the trend been continued the human race would have about 240% of the electricity it has. There is a close correlation between electricity use and GNP so it is likely that this scare has more than halved human wealth, making it far more destructive than even the CAGW fraud. Perhaps we should dig up Muller’s bones and hang them.

    Had that rising trend continued to the

  17. The fact that Dr Muller misrepresented his finding is less significant than the fact that so few scientists have ever challenged his conclusions. Errors can be accidental as easily just as they can be deliberate. The tragedy of our society is the number of so-called bright individuals who so easily believe all they are told.

    The blind follower is cause of the problem, not the original lie.

  18. “One could argue that Muller single-handedly undermined above-ground atomic testing, which is a good thing,” Calabrese says.

    Mr. Calabrese has a problem with making a case using the truth. He is another fool.

  19. One who promotes their personal beliefs as science using the guise of being a non-biased observer is not a scientist. He is an selfish, arrogant fool. Yet another point in how the Nobel prize continues to erode in its prestige.

  20. Hmmm. I smell a conspiracy here to get people to submit to the porno-scan machines…

    Actually, it comes as no surprise considering all the x-rays, both dental and bodily that we have all (I’m sure most of us anyway) have had over our lifetimes. We don’t seem to be harmed by them to any degree. It’s just too bad that science seems to have fallen into the trap of lying to get a result that will satisfy whoever is paying for the research.

  21. The tragedy is that this model was extrapolated to other areas of public policy and helped to create the phobia society has towards “chemicals and radiation”. All based on a lie of omission. This kind of thinking has caused people to be so fearful of physical and chemical processes that they think the breath they exhale is contributing to changes in the climate.
    Common sense trumped by the “experts”.

  22. THe following is from the “Military-Industrial Complex” speech by Dwight Eisenhower, 1961. His statements regarding scientists and government should never be forgotten.

    “[Scientific] research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.
    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
    The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientifictechnological elite.”

    Dwight Eisenhower, 1961

  23. If the zero threshold theory were true, I doubt there would be many people living in or near Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet both are large, very vibrant cities with healthy occupants.

  24. Talk about a timely article, my local paper was just Ginning up the cost of the radiation clean up in Japan. Much of the cleanup effort is the result of the use of the no threshold model. Bet you won’t see this on NBC news.

  25. Muller’s treatment of science back in the 1940s is similar to the reactions today of many scientists on the importance of the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. It is acceptable to lie about or exaggerate alleged dangers of burning fossil fuels because what I am doing is good for mankind. I believe Stephen Schneider, a Stanford scientist, made a remark similar to this years ago.
    James Rust, Professor

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