State, Power, and Genes

Robert Nisbet's identification of the state with power is right on the money ("Cloaking the State's Dagger," Oct.). But Nisbet understates the state's role in the unending competitions for mates and scarce resources. For those who wield the state's power—and to a lesser extent for those who apply for it—the state is an armored chariot in the race to propagate genes.

Bart Kosko
San Diego, CA

Tippecanoe—and Johnson, Too?

I enjoyed Tom Hazlett's assessment of conventions and candidates ("Convention Comedy," Nov.). One day recently, I amused myself by charting the qualifications of our 40 presidents at the time they were elected. I included service as congressman, senator, governor, general, major ambassador, and vice-president.

By a prior-experience test, the all-time best ticket would have been William Henry Harrison and Andrew Johnson. Harrison was a general, member of House and Senate, ambassador to Colombia, and (appointed) governor of the Northwest Territories. Johnson served as governor, congressman, senator, and vice-president, and held the rank of brigadier general as military governor of Tennessee.

There was a tie for "least qualified by virtue of prior experience," but of those tied, one could have assembled a respectable ticket out of Washington and Lincoln.

John McClaughry
Concord, VT

The Cancer Connection

Your publication of an excerpt from Edith Efron's book, The Apocalyptics: Cancer and the Big Lie (May), and then the laudatory review of the book by William Tucker (Sept.), prompt me to offer another opinion. Take it from someone who is neither an ideologue nor an environmental zealot, but who has had many years of experience with the issues raised by Efron—her book presents a wholly deceptive view of important but highly complex public health issues. She is not only unfair to competent scientists grappling with the difficult problem of estimating cancer risks to large, heterogeneous populations, but she also exhibits ignorance of generally accepted scientific principles.

To cite one of many examples, Efron heaps scathing ridicule on the principle that one cannot establish a threshold below which exposure may be considered safe. This is not, as she states, a matter of ideology, but is based on a solid body of knowledge demonstrating that carcinogenic chemicals, like radiation, attack the DNA in the nucleus of the cell. Accepting this indisputable fact, it follows that a single "hit" at a vulnerable site could theoretically cause a neoplastic change. But even if a threshold did exist, for which there is no evidence whatever, it would be low and variable; and for many people it would already be exceeded by the many carcinogens to which we are unavoidably exposed.

For these reasons, the concept of a threshold is not useful in making regulatory decisions. The public does not generally understand that tests for carcinogenesis have to be carried out by exposing animals to high concentrations, and there are honest differences among scientists as to how to extrapolate from experimental data to estimate risks to humans exposed to low concentrations. Despite the admitted uncertainties, no responsible scientist would dispute the validity or necessity of accepting data from animal experiments for revealing human cancer hazards.

The principles of carcinogenesis testing, so scorned by Efron, have been endorsed by the president's own Office of Science and Technology Policy (Federal Register, May 22, 1984), an agency that can hardly be accused of anti-industry bias.

Purporting to defend the American chemical industry against "ideological conspirators," this book will, I believe, be an embarrassment to this industry, which in the main understands and follows rules of prudence in protecting its employees and the public against health hazards. It was the chemical industry's own Institute of Toxicology in North Carolina that recently found that formaldehyde is a carcinogen, using the very methods and principles condemned by Efron.

Despite a stupefying 500 pages, the author contributes little to deserve praise, let alone attention, in a magazine professing reason.

Sidney Weinhouse
Professor of Biochemistry
Temple University
Philadelphia, PA

Edith Efron replies: Dr. Weinhouse is in error. He recites the entire rationale for linear extrapolation and the one-hit theory as though it is not in my book. It is—in the thresholds and risk assessment chapters. He will find all his ideas, major and minor, accurately presented and he will also find half of his letter, almost verbatim, on page 226. I state, as he does, that this is the dominant theory in the cancer prevention world, and it is unsurprising that Reagan scientists espouse it.

He is again in error when he says that I mock the "principle" that one cannot calculate safe doses and argues with me as though I say that one can. The inability to perform a calculation is not a scientific principle. And I say, as does Dr. Weinhouse, that one cannot perform it.

He is yet again in error when he says that I "condemn the methods and principles" of animal testing and when he implies that I deny the significance of animal carcinogens. I never opine on biological and statistical matters. I do quote hundreds of Dr. Weinhouse's responsible colleagues on the problems of animal testing. If they said something to upset him, he should write to them. And I say and demonstrate clearly that what causes cancer in an animal may cause cancer in a human being.

Further: he invents facts. He says I "purport to defend the chemical industry." I don't. I explicitly said that I kicked industry data out of my book because they are "discredited." And I do not use the term "ideological conspirators." He invented that quote.

Dr. Weinhouse has wasted his time arguing that the unproved one-molecule theory is not an ideological position. It isn't, of course, when it is simply an academic exercise in linear extrapolation. It is, however, when it is used as a moral and political rationalization (a) for arbitrary risk assessment, regulation, and banning; (b) for invoking a zero-risk policy, and (c) for invoking a zero-risk policy for synthetic carcinogens, as does the FDA, while hiding from the public the carcinogenicity of natural foods and cooking methods. Dr. Weinhouse cannot refute an argument that he evades by misrepresenting and abusing my book. The alleged emotions of the chemical industry are irrelevant to these issues.

Exposing Regulation for What It Is

I found Lester Hunt's review of Rights and Regulation (The Book Case, Oct.) entirely inadequate and below REASON's standards. He may as well have said, "I like this book even though I did not know what it was talking about." It is odd, a contributor to REASON—especially one who teaches philosophy—who does not know what regulation is.

Regulation is simply the delegation, by the legislative branch, of law-making authority to an executive department. This means giving that part of the government that enforces laws the power to make its own laws. What could be more subversive to a representative system of government? Why was Hunt so milk-toast about the subject? REASON's readers deserve better.

Steven B. Vandervelde
Columbia, SC

Big Brother on the Road

In "Road to Insolvency" (Further & More, Oct.), REASON once again is pushing the idea of electronic metering of automobiles for their use of roads. This would be a good idea in theory, but given the government control of roads in the United States, it would be totally unacceptable in practice.

First, it would be very easy to set up a system where a driver could be timed between two points, and then fined for driving in excess of the (ridiculously low) 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. Radar and airplanes already give the police more than enough advantage right now.

Second, the government would be able to track the whereabouts of any metered car, thus providing an easy way to intercept anybody on its hit list.

Even if an electronic metering system started out as a voluntary system, it's a pretty sure thing that it would later be made mandatory.

Robert S. Russell
Walnut Creek, CA