Dissertation Abstract

Thresholds of uncertainty: Radiation and responsibility in the fallout controversy

Publication Number:  AAT3115467
Author:  Jolly, J. Christopher.
School:  Oregon State University
Date:  2004
Pages:   591
Subject:  Science history, Public health

The public controversy over possible health hazards from radioactive fallout from atomic bomb testing began in 1954, shortly after a thermonuclear test by the United States spread fallout world wide. In the dissertation, I address two of the fundamental questions of the fallout controversy: Was there a threshold of radiation exposure below which there would be no significant injury? What was the role of a responsible scientist in a public scientific debate? Genetics and medicine were the scientific fields most directly involved in the debate over the biological effects of radiation. Geneticists' prewar experiences with radiation led them to believe that there was no safe level of radiation exposure and that any amount of radiation would cause a proportional amount of genetic injury. In contrast to geneticists, physicians and medical researchers generally believed that there was a threshold for somatic injury from radiation. One theme of the dissertation is an examination of how different scientific conceptual and methodological approaches affected how geneticists and medical researchers evaluated the possible health effects of fallout.

Geneticists and physicians differed not only in their evaluations of radiation hazards, but also in their views of how the debate over fallout should be conducted. A central question of the fallout debate was how a responsible scientist should act in a public policy controversy involving scientific issues upon which the scientific community had not yet reached a consensus. Based on their assumption that any increase in radiation exposure was harmful, most geneticists believed that they had a responsibility to speak out publicly about the deleterious effects of radiation. Physicians, who believed in the likelihood of a threshold for significant radiation-induced injury, generally adopted the opposite view. They believed that public discussion of possible, but improbable, radiation hazards was irresponsible because it risked creating irrational public fear of radiation exposure. In my dissertation, I examine how the different positions of geneticists and physicians over what constituted responsible public scientific debate affected the rhetoric of the controversy, as well as the implications of the debate in matters of politics and policy.

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