In my exchange with Paul Connett (see Fluoride debate: Final article – Ken Perrott) I called him out over the tactics he used to rubbish the science supporting fluoridation:
“Paul’s book, The Case Against Fluoride, provides clear examples of a formula he uses to cast doubt on existing science, build up a library of claimed negative effects of fluoride in the human body and to suggest the scientific community conspires to suppress research findings and prevent important research from going ahead. It’s the sort of stuff ideologically driven opponents of fluoridation lap up enthusiastically. These tactics are not new – we have seen it all before with the creationists and the climate change deniers.”
I described his well-worn 3-step formula:
1: Advance a claim with no real evidence:
A): Establish a logical possibility.
B): Use poor research evidence.
2: Collect together any sources which can be interpreted to support the speculation
3: Use the lack of reputable sources for his claims as evidence of a conspiracy not to do the research.
I should have added another step
4: Launch a media campaign against honest research conflicting with your bias.
Because this is how Connett is currently reacting to recently published New Zealand research on the fluoride – IQ issue. I am referring to the paper by Broadbent et al (2014) (see Fluoridating water does not lower IQ – New Zealand research).
Pretending to call for good research
Connett often makes claims based on poor quality research or speculation, acknowledges the evidence is poor and his claims speculative, but asserts his speculations warrant new research. In his book he often followed a poorly supported claim (there are many of these in the book) with something like - “These speculations need to be investigated.”
Connett’s promotion of the myth that fluoride effects children’s IQ is a typical example. On page 156 of his book he writes:
“there are about twenty studies (albeit with questioned methodologies in some cases) suggesting potential damage to the brains of young children.”
“We do not claim that these IQ studies add up to conclusive evidence that water fluoridation impairs cognitive development. . . . . it is wise to sit up and pay attention. The health authorities and governments of fluoridating countries show little sign of doing that.”
See what he has done?
- Used a number of poor reports to “suggest” “potential damage to the brains of young children.”
- Acknowledged the poor quality (of at least “some”) of the reports. (see my articles Quality and selection counts in fluoride research and Repeating bad science on fluoride for a discussion on their quality).
- Acknowledged this does not amount to anything like “conclusive evidence” for the claim he is making.
- But – we should “sit up and pay attention” – get stuck in and check out his speculative claims. And then he whines that because his claims are not taken seriously there must be some sort of conspiracy causing ” health authorities and governments of fluoridating countries” to look the other way.
But of course he will do nothing to initiate further work himself and he doesn’t really want anyone else to do it either. He prefers to stick with his speculative bias and works hard to spread this myth.
Researchers do not “look the other way”
It’s not as of researcher have ignored the publications Connett relies on. They have been mentioned in reviews – even in New Zealand (see for example the National Fluoridation Service review 2013). While these reviews do not think the quality of Connett’s citations are convincing some of them have kept the question open suggesting further work. In my exchange with Connett I similarly wrote:
“Think about it, if there really was this effect from salt, milk or water fluoridation wouldn’t we be aware of it by now? After all, many countries do collect the sort of data about their populations, especially children, which would show any effect.
Maybe publication of the Choi et al (2012) meta-review will encourage more specialists to extract this data in their own countries and publish analyses.”
We collect this sort of data in New Zealand. It has been analysed and and this analysis reported in the paper Connett attacks. This shows no effect of fluoridation on the IQ of children. Further, this study is of higher quality than the ones Connett relies on because the data was sufficiently extensive to allow consideration of confounding effects (eg. breastfeeding, education, income level, etc.).
Having acknowledged the poor quality of the citations he used, and considering Connett’s expressed concern for possible effects on children’s IQ, we might have expected him to welcome publication of a high quality study. But no – it seems to have put him into a spin. He clearly wishes it would go away as it doesn’t support his political message.
As the leader of a political activist organisation his immediate reaction is to send out a press release (Study Claiming Fluoride Does Not Lower IQ is Flawed) in the name of the Fluoride Action Network (FAN) to condemn the paper. He claims the paper “is scientifically flawed and reveals blatant examiner bias.”
Well, that’s clearly a case of the pot calling the kettle black – considering his own bias (he is after all head of a world-wide activist organisation campaigning against fluoride) and his support for (and use of) scientifically flawed reports.
Of course if Connett is at all genuine in his specific criticism of the NZ paper he should do the normal thing in science – submit a letter to the journal outlining his criticisms. He knows that – after all he has done it before. He has only 3 scientific publications related to fluoride and 2 were letters to the editor critiquing published papers.
I urge him (and his local followers who are also campaigning to discredit the NZ research) to take this simple step – present their claims and criticism in the scientific journal. After all, one doesn’t progress science by press release and social network campaigns.
But Connett is using political techniques in his attempt to counter a significant contribution to the scientific research on possible dangers of fluoridation. These techniques are hardly new and are used extensively by Connett (FAN) and its subsidiary (Fluoride Action Network of NZ/Fluoride Free NZ – FANNZ/FFNZ) in New Zealand. The pattern seems to be:
- Issue a press release with headings, quotes and claims that can be picked up by others.
- Ensure your activist organisation promotes the press release via letters to the editor and by social networks like blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
- Tame organisations and publications concentrating on alternative health and medicine will be sure to reproduce the press release as an article – they might even send you some cash for this.
- Heavily promote these articles via letters to the editor and by social networks like blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
- With luck a main stream media publication may reproduce the press release, if only in part.
- Heavily promote any such article via letters to the editor and by social networks like blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
- Include these derogatory claims in submissions to local body councils.
- Go back to step 1.
As most of this promotion takes place on the internet such activity inevitably pushes the story up near the top of Google searches. Headlines like “Study Claiming Fluoride Does Not Lower IQ is Flawed” (the one used in this press release) become very visible to searchers who can be very uncritical in their searches. And of course the news headlines announcing the NZ research (“No Fluoride IQ Effects” and “Water Fluoridation Does not Lower IQ“) are way down the google list because it doesn’t get promoted in this cynical way.
All this parallels a similar promotion started 2 years ago and still circulating in letters to the editor and social networks like blogs, Facebook and Twitter. We are hounded by messages like “Havard Study confirms Fluoride reduces Children’s IQ,” “Fluoride officially classified as a neurotoxin by world’s most prestigious medical journal,” etc.
A political activist agenda
Connett exposes his unscientific political agenda in his attacks on the New Zealand research. he has suddenly found the ability to critically analyse published research – an ability all scientists should have. But he showed a complete lack of this ability with his judgements on his claimed “substantial body of evidence showing fluoride’s potential to harm the developing brain at relatively low exposure levels.”
But a real scientific critique only has value when presented in the proper place – in this case The American Journal of Public Health which published the New Zealand research. By restricting his critique to press releases, “alternative” and “natural” health publications and social media like Facebook and Twitter Connett once again shows his agenda is political activism and not scientific honesty.