Uncertain Science and a Failure of Trust

Isis 93 (4):559-584 (2002)


In the late 1970s, the U.S. Congress was debating a number of different proposals to provide monetary compensation to residents of Utah and Nevada who had been exposed to radioactive fallout from government nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s. Yet scientists and government officials expressed concern that such a program would end up compensating many people for cancers that were not caused by the fallout. Thus, after much debate, Congress directed the National Institutes of Health to produce a set of statistical tables—the radioepidemiologic tables—to target compensation awards to “deserving” individuals. Advocates of the tables, notably Senator Orrin Hatch, argued that reliance on scientific data would provide compensation decisions with predictability and evenhandedness. Yet in the end, the effort to employ the tables failed. The substantial scientific uncertainties in the tables and in their application to individual claims failed to deliver the authority they promised. Additionally, the goal of fairness and objectivity could not be convincingly met because of persistent controversy and mistrust surrounding the government’s role in the study of health effects of low‐level radiation

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