- Terry Pratchett making sense
- Fluoride and the 5 easy steps of a conspiracy theory
- February ’14 – NZ blogs sitemeter ranking
- Pseudoscience in your supermarket
- Another god debate
- Repeating bad science on fluoride
- Truth about those science fairs
- Quality and selection counts in fluoride research
- The precautionary principle
- How can scientists use social media?
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This brief article by Emily Willingham in Forbes shows how the internet has been a real blessing to conspiracy theorists – especially those who are attacking scientific consensus. In Hyping Your Conspiracy Theory In 5 Easy Steps. She is using the anti-vaccination movement as an example. But it is just as applicable to the anti-fluoride movement.
“1. Find something online that is related to your subject. Like this Senate committee report on an investigation of government agencies regarding safety claims of thimerosal in vaccines.”
And there is no short of internet material on fluoride – Activists just have to do a bit of googling If you are too lazy for that others have done it for you. Just go to Fluoride Alert, Mercola and hosts af “natural” health web sites).
“2. Cherry-pick partial quotes that seem to support your position (here, that vaccines cause harm) and assert conclusions that support your claims. Be sure the conclusions are sufficiently scary and conspiracy worthy. Mention of children and/or pregnant women is always good.”
Again, other activists sites have done that for you. Most anti-fluoride activists may have never read any of the scientific papers they “quote.” At most they seem only to have glanced at an abstract.
“3. Ignore the full context that specifically presents the reverse conclusion from the one you want to claim. Full context like this, from the actual Senate committee report (italics mine):”
This is rife in the anti-fluoride community. Take this paper they are currently quoting as “evidence” that fluoridation is not effective:
Majorana et al. BMC Pediatrics 2014. “Feeding and smoking habits as cumulative risk factors for early childhood caries in toddlers, after adjustment for several behavioral determinants: a retrospective study.” BMC Pediatrics
The study did not even consider fluoridation and their notes on the apparent ineffectiveness of prenatal fluoride supplementation using fluoride drops have been misrepresented. (See this outline by Andrew Sparrow for further details).
Be very wary when the word “Havard” is used – misleading information coming up! For example - claims like Harvard study shows “exposing youngsters to fluoride could lead to brain damage and reduced IQ.” Or a Havard paper “looked at 27 studies on children exposed to fluoride in drinking water in China, which on average resulted in a loss of seven IQ points.”
“5. Periodically resurrect dead debates that you lost, shined up to look new and scary for a new cohort of anxious folk and make claims of a coverup, despite the fact that the allegations you’re resurrecting have been addressed and debunked again and again.”
Boy does that happen on the fluoride issue. Sceptics call these stories “rubber ducks” It doesn’t matter haw often these fallacious claims get knocked over they continue to resurface – very often used by the same people.
So much for integrity.
Yes, we are interested in including your new blog in these rankings. Credit: The Health Culture.
There are now almost 300 blogs on the list, although I am weeding out those which are no longer active or have removed public access to sitemeters. (Let me know if I weed out yours by mistake, or get your stats wrong).
Every month I get queries from people wanting their own blog included. I encourage and am happy to respond to queries but have prepared a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) people can check out. Have a look at NZ Blog Rankings FAQ. This is particularly helpful to those wondering how to set up sitemeters.
Please note, the system is automatic and relies on blogs having sitemeters which allow public access to the stats.
Here are the rankings of New Zealand blogs with publicly available statistics for February 2014. Ranking is by visit numbers. I have listed the blogs in the table below, together with monthly visits and page view numbers.
Meanwhile I am still keen to hear of any other blogs with publicly available sitemeter or visitor stats that I have missed. Contact me if you know of any or wish help adding publicly available stats to your bog.
You can see data for previous months at Blog Ranks
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Image credit: Blueollie
This article by Michael Schulson in the Daily Beast struck a chord with me - Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience. Possibly because I have spent far too much time debating anti-fluoride activists. But the experience has certainly made me very aware the pseudoscience extends a lot further than creationism and climate change denial. That’s the point Michael makes:
“you don’t have to schlep all the way to Kentucky in order to visit America’s greatest shrine to pseudoscience. In fact, that shrine is a 15-minute trip away from most American urbanites.
I’m talking, of course, about Whole Foods Market. From the probiotics aisle to the vaguely ridiculous Organic Integrity outreach effort (more on that later), Whole Foods has all the ingredients necessary to give Richard Dawkins nightmares. And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there’s really no better place to go. Because anti-science isn’t just a religious, conservative phenomenon—and the way in which it crosses cultural lines can tell us a lot about why places like the Creation Museum inspire so much rage, while places like Whole Foods don’t.”
I have found that in very many cases if you scratch an anti-fluoridationist or anti-vaccinationists you will find a food faddist. Often a dogmatic food faddist.
Schulson makes the point that a lot of food faddism is pseudoscience – but it is a pseudoscience which seems far more acceptable, even to intelligent people, than what we usually think of as pseudoscience:
“there’s a lot in your average Whole Foods that’s resolutely pseudoscientific. The homeopathy section has plenty of Latin words and mathematical terms, but many of its remedies are so diluted that, statistically speaking, they may not contain a single molecule of the substance they purport to deliver. The book section—yep, Whole Foods sells books—boasts many M.D.’s among its authors, along with titles like The Coconut Oil Miracle and Herbal Medicine, Healing, and Cancer, which was written by a theologian and based on what the author calls the Eclectic Triphasic Medical System.”
We all know people who get sucked in by this talk – maybe many of us get sucked in a bit ourselves. Perhaps there is a bit of food faddism in all of us. And isn’t this sort of thing harmless – if it makes you happy and doesn’t hurt anyone else, why bother?
But I think Schulson has a point when he writes:
“The danger is when these ideas get tied up with other, more politically muscular ideologies. Creationism often does, of course—that’s when we should worry. But as vaccine skeptics start to prompt public health crises, and GMO opponents block projects that could save lives in the developing world, it’s fair to ask how much we can disentangle Whole Foods’ pseudoscientific wares from very real, very worrying antiscientific outbursts.”
For some people it is not far from a food fad to chemo-phobia. Start buying sea salt because it is advertised as “chemical free” and it is easy to get sucked into ideas that anything is bad because it contains ”chemicals.” “Chemical” becomes a bad word – and “natural” a good one.
In my article Who is funding anti-fluoridation High Court action? I described how the NZ Health Trust, the organisation behind the recent High Court action attempting to rule fluoridation illegal, is a lobby group for the natural supplement and health practitioner industry. I described their court action as that of a corporate lobby group attempting to stop a public health policy.
One of my critics actually made the point that I was wrong. An industry selling “natural” health products could not be described as corporate because of the word “natural!”
Words like “chemical” and “natural’ can be emotionally laden for many people and this can make them susceptible to other pseudoscientific ideas.
That is what I have found with many people I have debated. Their emotional or ideological committment to food fads like “organic” food and coconut oil treatments often goes together with opposition to fluoridation and vaccination. With many of them it seems to lead to conspiracy theories like depopulation and chemtrails.
To me, that is the message of the poster above.
Apparently Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig went head to head this weekend on the question of “the existence of God in light of contemporary cosmology.”
Usually I think these sort of debates are a waste of time but am keen to see the video of this one – it will be on Youtube eventually. In previous debates Craig attempts to use cosmology to “prove” the existence of his god (I use the word “use” as meaning very opportunist use of motivated reasoning). In most debates his opponents are usually not completely familiar with modern cosmology and he gets away with murder in his misrepresentation of the science.
But Sean Carroll is a different proposition. Not only is Sean a researcher and teacher in cosmology he is also an excellent communicator of science. His recent book, The Particle at the End of the Universe, won last year’s Royal Society Winton Prize for best science book (see The particle at the end of the universe’ wins Winton Prize).
Nor is he intimidated by Craig’s acknowledged debating skills. He says in a blog post before the debate:
“You can find some of WLC’s thoughts on the upcoming event at his Reasonable Faith website. One important correction I would make to what you will read there: Craig and his interlocutor Kevin Harris interpret my statement that “my goal here is not to win the debate” as a strategy to avoid dealing with WLC’s arguments, or as “a way to lower expectations.” Neither is remotely true. I want to make the case for naturalism, and to do that it’s obviously necessary to counter any objections that get raised. Moreover, I think that expectations (for me) should be set ridiculously high. The case I hope to make for naturalism will be so impressively, mind-bogglingly, breathtakingly strong that it should be nearly impossible for any reasonable person to hear it and not be immediately convinced. Honestly, I’ll be disappointed if there are any theists left in the audience once the whole thing is over.”
I think his tongue was in his cheek with the last sentence.
His suggestion for viewers:
“Feel free to organize viewing parties, celebrations, discussion groups, what have you. There should definitely be a drinking game involved (it’ll be happy hour on the West Coast, you lightweights), but I’ll leave the details to you. Suggested starting points: drink every time WLC uses a syllogism, or every time I show an equation. But be sure to have something to eat, first.”
Thanks to God and Cosmology Debate with W.L. Craig
Anti-fluoride propagandists have been trumpetting a new “peer reviewed” scientific paper in their campaign against fluoride. Most of them don’t seem to realise that the claim is not new – just a re-presentation of claims from a paper they already promote ad nuseam (the Harvard study – see Quality and selection counts in fluoride research). Then again, if they did know – would that stop them from such double dipping for their “evidence?”
It’s the old ”fluoride decreases chidren’s IQ” claim. It’s already resulted in a host of claims on blogs, facebook and Twitter and will no doubt produce more in the future. We are sure to see more tweets like these:
|Children Exposed to Brain-Harming Chemicals Fluoride from Drinking Water Can Contribute to a Seven-Point Drop IQ” shar.es/FfXNn|
|Chad Kanera (@chadkanera)|
|“@RT_com: Children exposed to more brain-damaging chemicals than scientists thought shrd..by/sYrtNq” #fluoride is one.|
It started with a press release from the Harvard School of Public Health - Growing number of chemicals linked with brain disorders in children. This promoted a paper which went on-line less than a week ago - Grandjean & Landrigan (2014) The Lancet Neurology, 13(3) 330 – 338, March 2014. Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity.
On the surface – just another paper reviewing evidence for harmful effects of industrial chemicals on child development.
The paper contains only one reference to fluoride – a shonky reference at that (see below) but this ensures that even though main stream media reports mostly didn’t mention fluoride the anti-fluoride brigade are promoting any and every report as if they did.
What do they say about fluoride – and why?
Here is the only mention of fluoride:
“A meta-analysis of 27 cross-sectional studies of children exposed to fl uoride in drinking water, mainly from China, suggests an average IQ decrement of about seven points in children exposed to raised fluoride concentrations.44 Confounding from other substances seemed unlikely in most of these studies. Further characterisation of the dose–response association would be desirable.”
Their sole reference – 44:
Choi, AL; Sun, G; Zhang, Y; Grandjean, P. Developmental fluoride neurotoxicity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Environ Health Perspect 2012; 120: 1362–68.
Yes, its the paper that get’s the most tweeting, facebooking and blogging from anti-fluoride activists – the paper I analysed in Quality and selection counts in fluoride research. The review that based its conclusion on a few less than randonmnly selected poor quality papers.
Some of the mainstream reports are awake to problems with this new paper.
“In Chemicals erode child IQ: disputed study Health Hub wrote:
“Other experts, however, said the paper had limitations and was based on an array of previously published surveys of varying reliability.
“Because the paper lacks rigour, it is impossible to assess the validity of the authors’ claims, many of which seem highly speculative,” said David Coggon of the University of Southampton’s Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit.
“The conclusions of more focused and thorough reviews have been less alarming,” he said.
Others said autism, ADHD, cerebral palsy and dyslexia have not been definitively associated with industrial chemical exposure.
As for fluoride:
“In comments prepared by the Science Media Centre, epidemiologist Jean Golding of the University of Bristol accused the pair [Grandjean and Landrigan] of issuing scare statements.
“To implicate high fluoride, which they quote as one of the new chemicals… they quote only one paper; this only compares the mean IQs of children in villages with different levels of fluoride, with no allowance made for any other differences, and no actual measurement of fluoride in individual children and comparison with their IQs. This is not good evidence.”"
Another poor quality paper?
Attentive readers may notice that Philippe Grandjean is senior author on both this current paper, and the review mentioned in Quality and selection counts in fluoride research.
Warning signals – here is an author relying excusively on his own work to draw a conclusion that fluoride has been confirmed to be detrimental to child IQ! What’s more, his qualifications about confounding factor have dissapeared in the 18 months between the two papers. A case of double dipping his data and removing qualifications second time around.
In the first paper, Choi et al (2012), Developmental fluoride neurotoxicity: A systematic review and meta-analysis, they wrote:
Still, each of the articles reviewed had deficiencies, in some cases rather serious ones, that limit the conclusions that can be drawn. However, most deficiencies relate to the reporting of where key information was missing. The fact that some aspects of the study were not reported limits the extent to which the available reports allow a firm conclusion. Some methodological limitations were also noted.”
“most reports were fairly brief and complete information on covariates was not available,”
On other possible factors possibly influencing IQ they wrote:
“Information on the child’s sex and parental education were not reported in > 80% of the studies, and only 7% of the studies reported household income. These variables were therefore not included in the models.”
“Although official reports of lead concentrations in the study villages in China were not available,”
In fact the only other factors considered were year of publication and mean age of the study children! All those qualifications above were thrown away in the intervening period and in Grandjean & Landrigan (2014) Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity he claims:
“Confounding from other substances seemed unlikely in most of these studies.
Frankly I call that misleading – especially as he lists fluoride as a “newly identified “industrial chemical known to cause neuorotoxicity!” I don’t have the expertise to comment on the other chemicals he claims neurotoxic but this example makes me really suspicious. I could not rely on this paper with any confidence as a source of information on chemicaltoxicity.
Note: The American Council on Science and Health went further in their criticisms of Grandjean and Landrigan’s paper than other commenters seem to have. In the article “Upholding its tradition, a new Lancet piece on chemicals aims to scare rather than inform“ they question the authors’ credibility in toxicology. Instead they are:
“experts in the subject of trying to scare parents and the media about remote or hypothetical chemical threats. In this case, they wave the skull-and-crossbones banner of a “pandemic of developmental neurotoxicity.” If they hoped to garner media attention — and they surely did — they succeeded beyond expectations: fright is in the air.”
Their Executive Director and Medical Director Dr Gil Ross says of the paper:
“This piece in essence is simply a call for the precautionary principle: if there is ‘concern’ about a chemical — or substance, or behavior — then ban or restrict it until/unless it can be proven ‘safe.’ But when applied to the tens of thousands of chemicals in our environment, our commerce, and our consumer products, if applied as these authors demand, it would require a complete abandonment of our way of life, period. They don’t seem to care, or even take notice. But why should they: they got what they wanted, publicity and scare-mongering adherents.”
Actually, his comments on the journal, The Lancet, weren’t too complimentary either.
I think the paper most quoted by anti-fluoridation activists must be Choi et al (2012), Developmental fluoride neurotoxicity: A systematic review and meta-analysis. I say quoted but, I suspect, not read. It is always coming up in articles on natural health web sites and continually thrown into blog and Facebook discussions. Often as a link without explanation.
It is also heavily promoted on Twitter. The same tweet is often sent from the same account daily, or more often. Here are examples.
|Harvard Study: #Fluoride Lowers Children’s Intelligence By Seven IQ Points
|Harvard Study Confirms Fluoride Reduces Children’s IQ huff.to/111fe5o via @HealthyLiving|
|Harvard Study Confirms Fluoride Reduces Children’s IQ: articles.mercola.com/sites/articles…|
The paper also gets a lot of mention when anti-fluoride activists petition local bodies to prevent or stop fluoridation. It was one of the papers that had a big effect on the Hamilton City Council during the hearings they held last year (see When politicians and bureaucrats decide the science).
I recently reread the paper – this time paying special attention to the selection and quality of the papers reviewed. I think both of these are important to anyone attempting to understand the significance of this review.
Choi et al (2012) selected 27 papers for their review. Their selection was clearly not random – 25 of these are Chinese studies with 2 Iranian. Very few of these papers are directly available to western readers. One of the Iranian papers has an English abstract and 3 of the Chinese studies were published in English (guess which journal – you are right – Fluoride).
The authors do not give any details of translation of the papers but 8 of them seem to have been translated under the auspices of Paul Connett’s Fluoride Alert (FAN) activist group (FAN describes them as the “FAN English translation”). Copyrights for these English translations are held by the International Society for Fluoride Research (ISFR) and included in their journal Fluoride. They are also available on FAN. (It is sort of difficult to locate the boundaries between FAN, ISFR and Fluoride. And did you know the ISFR has charity status in New Zealand. Yes, as taxpayers we are subsidsing them through their tax exemption!).
The authors acknowledge the reviewed studies were selected and give several reasons:
1: Studies from rural China had not been included in earlier reviews:
“We specifically targeted studies carried out in rural China that have not been widely disseminated, thus complementing the studies that have been included in previous reviews and risk assessment reports.”
2: High fluoride concentrations in drinking water are not common in the west:
“Opportunities for epidemiological studies depend on the existence of comparable population groups exposed to different levels of fluoride from drinking water. Such circumstances are difficult to find in many industrialized countries, because fluoride concentrations in community water are usually no higher than 1 mg/L, even when fluoride is added to water supplies as a public health measure to reduce tooth decay.”
Well, I can understand the logic behind that selection – provided readers don’t think they are seeing a balanced, representative review of all the existing literature. And the reasons given for this selection makes nonsense of Paul Connett’s charge that the lack of material in the industrialised countries indicates at least an unwillingness to research problems or at worst a conspiracy not to do the research and/or hide the results.
Here I will just take the size of the reviewed reports as a possible indicator of their quality. Not that I am against short papers, far from it. But in this cases most of the papers were very short - basically because they reported only a simple relationship found between IQ and fluoride in drinking water. Very few papers consider confounding factors like family education, schooling, breast-feeding, etc. Factors known to influence IQ. Nor did they discuss their results in any depth.
The authors acknowledge the brevity of the reports reviewed:
“In regard to developmental neurotoxicity, much information has in fact been published, although mainly as short reports in Chinese that have not been available to most expert committees.”
“Although most reports were fairly brief and complete information on covariates was not available, the results tended to support the potential for fluoride-mediated developmental neurotoxicity at relatively high levels of exposure in some studies.”
The histogram below gives an idea of the size of these reports – obviously some were extremely short – 19 of the 26 considered were of 3 pages or less!
Another reason for brevity is that most papers give hardly any discussion, let alone critical assessment, of the reported results. I wonder if this is because of the well-known problem of excessive levels of fluoride in many Chinese well waters and the associated incidence of dental and bone fluorosis. Perhaps this encourages researchers to simply consider fluoride as a factor in other problems when we might think it more rational to look at factors traditionally related to IQ. Like education and breastfeeding.
Even Paul Connett has conceded the poor quality of many of the studies considered in this review (while of course still scare-mongering that fluoridation is somehow going to make us all dumb). The authors of the study itself warned their paper was not relevant to the fluoridation issue (see Harvard scientists: Data on fluoride, IQ not applicable in U.S):
“Two of the scientists who compiled the Harvard study on fluoride said it really doesn’t address the safety of fluoridation levels typical of American drinking water.
“These results do not allow us to make any judgment regarding possible levels of risk at levels of exposure typical for water fluoridation in the U.S.,” the researchers said in an e-mail response to questions from The Eagle. “On the other hand, neither can it be concluded that no risk is present.”
The researchers noted that the fluoride levels they studied were much higher than what is found in fluoridated water in the United States and recommended “further research to clarify what role fluoride exposure levels may play in possible adverse effects on brain development, so that future risk assessments can properly take into regard this possible hazard.””
I guess this paper, and its continual promotion, must impress many anti-fluoridation activists and even some local body councillers and staff. But scientists and other experts familair with the subject are not so impressed. The NZ National Fluoridation Information service last year reviewed literature on possible effects of fluoridation on IQ (see A review of recent literature on potential effects of CWF programmes on Neurological ):
“The available evidence raises the possibility that high levels of fluoride in drinking water may have subtle effects on children’s IQ. However all of these studies have limitations in design and analysis, a clear dose-response relationship between DWFCs and assessed IQ are often not evident. The study authors are frequently very cautious in their comments, and several noted that any indicated negative effect applied only to high DWFCs. An hypothesis of fluoride neurotoxicity would also be supported by some experimental animal studies, however the great majority of these have only considered high fluoride intakes.
However collectively the data described are not robust enough to draw a firm conclusion that high fluoride levels in drinking water supplies contribute to retarded development of children’s brains. Also there is no clear evidence to suggest an adverse effect on IQ at lower fluoride intakes such as that likely to occur in New Zealand, where fluoridated water supplies contain fluoride in the 0.7 to 1.0 mg/L range.”
Since then a local New Zealand study has failed to find any relationship between fluoridation and IQ (see Dunedin fluoride-IQ study finds no ill-effect). The study did find a positive influence of education and breast feeding on IQ though – just as we would expect.
In a typical sour grapes comment Paul Connett, who was told of this research by a reporter, quipped “rather convenient.”
Confirmation bias in action! I guess he won’t be promoting the New Zealand research in the way he does the poor quality research in the Choi et al (2012) review.
This has become a sort of slogan for activists. We have all probably seen the anti-fluoride political posters – “If in doubt, keep it out.” And we have heard the appeal that we should not be putting fluoride into our drinking water until all researchers are unanimous and it has been absolutely proved it can do no harm.
Well, what do these activists make of this plot.
The data look pretty good and the correlation is excellent. Surely this at least shows the science on organic food is not settled.
Should we stop the sale of organic produce “in the meantime.” Or until rigorous checks have been made and researchers are absolutely unanimous that organic foods are harmless?
In fact, data in that graph are far better, and certainly “seem” more convincing, than the poor data often used by anti-fluoride activists to promote doubt about fluoridation.
To take another ploy used by prominent political activists. Even if this data is shonky doesn’t it at least suggest we should be careful? That it should “be an urgent spur to higher quality studies” to check it out?
Why is no-one doing this important research – checking the relationship between organic food and incidence of autism? Is that because researchers are biased, “shills” for the organic produce industry or part of a huge conspiracy?
Next thing I will be raving about Agenda 21.