Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It's Not Conservative to be Uninformed

Tonight I had the pleasure -- or pain -- of watching Hannity on the FOX News Channel with conservative commentator Ann Coulter on the show. Ms. Coulter is often controversial, hated by liberals, but often makes good arguments that are in-line with the facts. Ms. Coulter was on the show tonight to discuss the latest controversy regarding the Transportation Security Administration, with the new "enhanced" pat downs and whole body imaging that is currently in place at many airports with plans for expansion eventually to all U.S. airports.

Unfortunately, her comments tonight on Hannity were a disgrace to conservatives worldwide, as Ms. Coulter spewed off information that was blatantly wrong regarding backscatter x-ray machines at the airport. Whether you like the idea of whole body imaging being done in an effort to prevent terror or not, the facts are still the same about the machines. Ms. Coulter talked about how the machines were dangerous and exposed people to high levels of radiation. Unfortunately, to debunk her comments, you only need to be smart enough to read an article over at HowStuffWorks, or read articles about radiation exposure that have been written by people with academic expertise, such as this one from Idaho State University.

For the purposes of this blog, I'll debunk Ms. Coulter's comments in a straight forward way. A common unit of radiation dose is the Röntgen equivalent man, or rem. 1 rem breaks down into 1,000 millirem (mrem). In the average day, a person's radiation exposure is 1 mrem. An average of 2,000 mrem a year is considered safe occupational exposure, with 5,000 mrem a year as the maximum safe exposure in any single year.

How much radiation does a backscatter x-ray machine give a person? 0.02 mrem. If you flew twice a day, every day of the year, and went through a backscatter machine each time, your total dose of radiation would be 14.6 mrem. That is less than 1/100th of the safe exposure limit for a year. For a traveler who makes a more reasonable number of flights, say 100 a year, they're looking at 2 mrem, which is 1/1000th of the safe exposure limit.

If radiation from a backscatter x-ray is a serious concern, the more serious concern would be the 2-4 mrems that one would experience on a New York to Los Angeles flight due to the high altitude. Using the low side, 2 mrems, you're getting 100 times more radiation on the actual flight than you are by going through the backscatter x-ray machine. If Ms. Coulter believes there is a danger from the backscatter x-ray machine radiation, then she should become an advocate against air travel entirely given that it's 100 times worse.

Had Ms. Coulter checked the facts and done some simple mathematics, she could have realized that the argument against backscatter x-rays due to radiation concerns is a very poor argument. Instead, Ms. Coulter should have focused on the real issues that exist: the invasion (or perceived invasion) of privacy that the machines create; the high cost that taxpayers are paying to implement technology that might not be very effective and may have failed to catch last year's "pants bomber"; and the greater invasion of privacy and people's emotions created by TSA's use of the new "enhanced" pat-down. Unfortunately, Ms. Coulter went along with rhetoric that was incorrect and untrue. What she did, sadly, was brought her self down to using the tactics that some on the far-left she warns about in books like Godless: The Church of Liberalism often use. True conservatives believe in the truth and the facts, and Ms. Coulter's conduct tonight on Hannity goes against the Reagan-esque principles of openness and honesty that true conservatives embrace.

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