Category Archives: politics

The first victim!

It is well established that the first victim in war is truth. Mind you the dispatch of truth usually comes well before the shooting starts.

I have a personal interest in Ukraine and the dispatch of truth occurred for me straight after the February 21st agreement signed by the then President, the opposition leaders and representatives of the European Union. The very next day there was a coup, the opposition leaders came to power and they (together with the EU politicians) immediately abandoned the agreement – before the ink was dry!

A real pity, as they had signed up to consitutional reform involving the whole country before elections later this year. Seems to me consitutional reform is exactly what the country is crying out for. Instead we have had Orwellian doublespeak and cynical geopolitical maneuvering by the major powers, as well as the Ukrainian politicians while the people have been ignored.

Well, not quite ignored because now the acting president has taken to calling protesters “terrorists.” (This is a guy who was put into power by a coup precipitated by violent protesters in Kiev). You can understand the reaction of people to this – if not have a look at this video. Here local people protesting at the Karamtorsk airstrip in eastern Ukraine captured by military units from Kiev argue with Uranian Gen. Vasily Krutov who was attempting to defend the “anti-terrorist” action.

They ask – “Who is the terrorist here?”

via На Краматорском аэродроме высадился десант. “Генерал” дает интервью – YouTube.

Yes, it sounds mad for a president, even just an acting president, to describe his people as terrorists. But there is a cynical logic here. Appa=rently by law the Ukrainian military cannot be used against protestors unless a state of emergency is declared – or protester are redefined as terrorists, I guess.

Mind you – it’s not only the politicians who have dispatched with truth. Seems to me that many of the journalists on the ground are also distorting the situation. Compare these Twitter reports from Ilya Azsar at the airfield with the evidence of the video! This from the Pro-Kiev  The Interpreter.

Screenshot-2014-04-16-11.32

I can understand the anger of people in eastern Ukraine being described this way. However, I myself also feel violated by the misrepresentations that seems to count for news in the midst of such conflicts. I feel I am being denied my right to information and treated like an idiot.

See also: Tensions Boil Over on Camera in Ukraine’s East and West for more on the above incident and also the mob attack on Oleg Tsarov - one of the candidates in the planned presidential elections – who spoke up for the  east Ukrainians.

An outdated tax anomaly – charitable status of relgion

Here is a New Zealand Kickstarter project well worth supporting – a film which sets out to answer the questions:

  • Why do religions pay few taxes?
  • Why do companies owned by religions also avoid tax?
  • With more non-believers than ever – is this fair?

Pennies from Heaven – A Documentary about religion and tax. by Toby Ricketts — Kickstarter.

The tax-free and rates-free  charitable status of religions in this day and age is an anomaly which will eventually need resolving.  As the proposal says:

Despite this huge rise in the number of non-believers and increased focus on the importance of separation of church and state, most ‘secular’ governments continue to subsidise religious organisations; providing them with broad tax immunity (including any companies or corporations that they own), local rates exemptions and other entitlements. While the public expectation is that all religions are behaving as charities in the traditional sense (working to relieve poverty and advance the public good, etc.), the reality is that some churches are behaving more like corporations; stockpiling cash and buying external investments (putting aside for the moment the mansions, sports cars and diamond rings sported by bishops and ministers). The result of this tax break for the religious is that there is less money for education, healthcare, conservation and other core state functions that would benefit a nation as a whole.”

The problem is highlighted in this report - Religious financial privileges in New Zealand.

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Arrogance of ignorance?

It always seems to be the way – those who know least about a situation usually have the strongest opinions on it.

That certainly seems the case for US attitudes towards the Ukraine crisis – according to a study performed by a couple of social scientists (see The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene).

Ukraine_small

 

The dots on the above map are the responses to the question “where is Ukraine?” found by the study.

Perhaps the poor understanding of world geography is not that surprising. But the worrying thing is that the more mistaken the  responders were in their answer the more definite they were that the US should take military action in Ukraine!

That’s a bit of a worry.

Pandering to anti-fluoridation campaigners

Screenshot-2014-04-07-11.19

Twitter time-line from an anti-fluoride propagandist – Click to enlarge

Social media can be bloody frustrating at times.

I do find Twitter useful for identifying interesting newspaper reports, scientific articles and videos – often long before I would see them myself on other sources. But, boy, there is loads of rubbish – especially when following a search term rather than people you trust.

Take search terms like #fluoride and #fluoridation – most of the time these are a complete waste because they are dominated by crazies who are using Twitter as a political propaganda tool. Click on the image to the left to see just a small part of the timeline from one of these propagandists.

But there are exceptions. Over the weekend these search terms went crazy with links to a great article in the Guardian by David Robert Grimes -  Politicians should stop pandering to anti-fluoridation campaigners. I recommend you read this if you haven’t already.

Sound and fury of opposing ideology

Grimes

David Robert Grimes

Grimes is commenting on the irrational backlash against fluoridation in the Republic of Ireland – and expecting a similar backlash to last week’s report from Public Health England urging more councils to consider fluoridating their water supplies. He said “as with so many public health interventions, the sound and fury of opposing ideology often trumps rational analysis.”

“Fluoride has been added to water in Ireland since the 1960s and has substantially improved the nation’s dental health, even in the era of fluoridated toothpaste. Despite this, a small but highly vocal opposition repeatedly pops up to claim fluoridation is harmful to health. These claims have been debunked time and time again.

The current incarnation of the opposition relies heavily on a report by self-proclaimed “fluoridation scientist” Declan Waugh, who blames fluoride for a range of illnesses. The report has been roundly dismissed by the Irish Expert Board on Fluoridation and Health, its chairman Dr Seamus O’Hickey concluding that … in spite of its presentation, its content is decidedly unscientific … the allegations of ill-health effects are based on a misreading of laboratory experiments and human health studies, and also on an unfounded personal theory of the author’s.”

Despite this, clever use of social media and strong lobbying has gained fluoridation naysayers considerable political traction, prompting the Irish government to promise yet another full review of the practice.”

Appeasing politicians

And this is his concern –  appeasement by politicians:

“perhaps the ugliest facet of the Irish debate is how elected representatives have given such outlandish fringe assertions a sense of legitimacy. One Irish politician has claimed that fluoridation causes cancer and Down’s syndrome; others have demanded an end to the practice, parroting claims that would have taken all of three minutes on Wikipedia to expose as utter nonsense.

The Irish government’s response is appeasement, and a waste of time and public money. Not only is there already an Irish body that routinely reviews the safety of fluoridation, this is a Sisyphean task because anti-fluoride groups have already reached their conclusion, and will trust no expert body unless it agrees with their assertions. Almost certainly fluoride will get yet another clean bill of health, campaigners will reject the findings and the same tedious cycle will repeat again, in much the same way parents who oppose vaccination are impervious to the scientific literature undermining their position.

It is irresponsible for politicians to show such contempt for science that they’re willing to take the lead from pseudoscientists and conspiracy theorists rather than experts. Leadership should be about making the best decisions based on the data available, even on emotive issues such as fluoridation and vaccination.”

Hear, hear – that is exactly how I felt about the Hamilton City Council politicians who gave far more weight to “pseudoscientists and conspiracy theorists rather than experts” in their deliberations on fluoridation last year.

A quirk of human psychology?

Grimes makes an interesting observation that the sort of irrationality, conformation bias, motivated reasoning and conspiracy theories we see in the anti-fluoridation and similar movements is really just part of human nature.

“That such beliefs persist in the face of strong evidence may be a quirk of human psychology. Campaigners may see themselves as enlightened crusaders, so when their assertions are questioned or contradicted by the data, this is viewed not as a useful correction of error but rather an attack on their identity and narrative. Conspiratorial thinking is endemic in such groups with critics being regarded as agents of some ominous interest group – big pharma is a common bogeyman – that wants to conceal the truth. This becomes a defence mechanism to protect beliefs that are incompatible with the evidence.

If all else fails, attacking the messenger may be easier than accepting that your whole raison d’être is misguided.

Motivated rejection of evidence is often a symptom of cognitive dissonance, a psychological phenomenon that occurs when individuals are challenged by information inconsistent with their beliefs. They may reject unwelcome information, seek confirmation from those who already share their beleaguered viewpoint, and try to convince others of the veracity of their world view. This may explain why some people proselytise even more vigorously after their beliefs have been debunked.”

So, perhaps we can understand the psychological motivations of people promoting pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. But, as Grimes says,” this does note excuse the fact that “elected representatives have given such outlandish fringe assertions a sense of legitimacy.” That goes for Hamilton as well as Ireland.

Grimes finishes with a message to the politicians:

“what is crucial is that decisions are based on scientific research, not misinformation and fear. The cost of such folly is clear to anyone who remembers the human suffering in the wake of the misinformed panic over the MMR vaccine just a decade ago.”

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International cooperation in space serving humanity

Sentinel-1A_Liftoffw

Photo credit: SENTINEL-1 LIFTS OFF

This morning I watched the launch of the Sentinel 1A satellite. The launch was perfect and the coverage on Spaceflight Now excellent with plenty of explanation along the way.

The satellite was launched aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket from the European Space Agency (ESA) launch pad Kourou near the town of Sinnamary, French Guiana, on South America’s northern Atlantic coastline. Sentinel 1A was built by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy. The satellite is now being managed from a mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

International cooperation important

Viewing this event I couldn’t help noticing the programme is a result of cooperation between several countries. First of all, countries in the European Commission and ESA, but also Russia which provided the launcher and whose companies were involved in the launch. That cooperation is obvious from the fact that English, French, German, Italian and Russian languages were being used.

I think there are two important points about this cooperation in our modern world:

  1. International cooperation is vital to the success of these scientifically important projects. They are just too big and complex to be handled by single nations.
  2. Scientific success is not an end in itself – is the basis for humanitarian success. international cooperation is vital for solving environmental, economic and security problems all countries face today.

So, alongside this good news of the Sentinel 1A success I am concerned about the bad news that NASA is to take part in the politically initiated sanctions against Russia. Yesterday, NASA released this statement:

Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station. NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space. This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017. The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.

Any long-term operation of these sanctions, despite the exclusion of the International Space Station work, will inevitable have a negative effect on international scientific cooperation. And will inevitably retard humanity’s work on alleviating our environmental, economic and security problems.

Frankly I think these sanction are cynical measures resulting from inevitable geopolitical frictions and should only have a relatively short lifetime.

Let us hope so.

Copernicus and Sentinel 1A

Sentinel 1A is the first of 17 satellites to be launched over the next decade in the Copernicus programme – described as “the largest Earth-observation program in history.”

“When all of the Sentinel satellites have been launched, they will form a network tasked with gathering an unprecedented amount of data regarding the planet. . . Using a wide variety of instrumentation, the Copernicus program will be able to provide scientists, government agencies and other parties with the necessary data to precisely determine the exact current state of the planet. Moreover, the data will also be useful in creating simulations and predictions of future climate and weather trends.”

Have a look at this infographic for a summary of the Copernicus programme and the satellites involved.

airbus_infographic

Click on image to enlarge

An overview of the Copernicus programme describes it this way:

“Copernicus provides a unified system through which vast amounts of data, acquired from space and from a multitude of in situ sensors, are fed into a range of thematic information services designed to benefit the environment, the way we live, humanitarian needs and support effective policy-making for a more sustainable future.

These services fall into six main categories: land management, the marine environment, atmosphere, emergency response, security and climate change.

In essence, Copernicus will help shape the future of our planet for the benefit of all. ESA is contributing by providing a proven framework for the development of operational systems on behalf of the user community, paving the way for investment in future generation systems. ESA is exploiting its 30 years of expertise in space programme development and management to contribute to the success of Copernicus.”

See also: European Earth observing craft prepared for launch.

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Is anyone listening?

anyone

Thanks to: Twitter / SonyKapoor: “Is this mic actually on?” ….

Scientific cooperation despite political posturing

I find it heartening scientific cooperation continues (so far) despite all the political posturing going on down here over the Ukraine political crisis.

Here we see the arrival of Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev and NASA astronaut Steven Swanson at the  International Space Station (ISS). This brings the ISS to its full capacity of six people. The arriving astronauts were welcomed by three astronauts on board the ISS, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata, NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin.

Soyuz docks succesfully, astronauts meet

European border changes over 5000 years

Once you have reached a certain age border changes no longer seem unusual. I have certainly seen a few in my time. There have been a few videos floating around showing the large number of border changes in Europe over the last few hundred years.

But this video goes back even further – 5000 years.

Have a look at how things changes in Europe from 5000 BCE to 2013 CE

The precautionary principle

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.

See also: GUEST POST: Ken Perrott – Making sense of the fluoride debate

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False balance and straw clutching on fluoridation

The alignment of the poster above with a “balanced” duo of opinion pieces on fluoridation in the recent issue of the Journal of primary healthcare is just too good not to comment on.

The articles are:

Looks a bit uneven, doesn’t it? A Professor of  Dental Epidemiology and Public Health “balanced” against a political  activist? Worse, Atkin’s organisation is an astroturf one set up by the Fluoride Action Network of NZ (FANNZ). Rather clumsily, I add, as they use the same office address! (See Anti-fluoridationist astro-turfing and media manipulation).

Still, I want to comment on the chemical arguments used by Atkin. He is effectively clutching at straws, using very naive interpretations of the chemistry of fluorosilicates and fluoride. As a chemist I find such opportunist distortion of chemistry offensive. Problem is, his and similar arguments are often presented by anti-fluoridation activists and lapped up by their supporters.

Fluorosilicic acid and sodium fluorosilicate are common fluoridating chemicals. When diluted in water the fluorosilicate decomposes to form silica and the fluoride anion. Some anti-fluoridation activists, including Mark Atkin, deny this becuase they wish to deny the relevance of studies showing the safety of fluoride at concentrations used in fluoridating drinking water. So they advance the bogey of  an especially toxic fluorosilicate species. Atkins condenses two of their arguments in this succinct statement:

“Silicofluorides do not fully dissociate to form free fluoride ions in aqueous solution and revert to the silicofluoride ion in acid stomach conditions.”

Hydrolysis of fluorosilicate.

There is some straw clutching going on here in the discussion of the chemistry of fluorosilicates and fluoride which distorts the real chemistry.

The Nuclear Magnetic Resonance work of Finney et al (2006)  (“Reexamination of hexafluorosilicate hydrolysis by 19F NMR and pH measurement”) showed complete decomposition of fluorosilicate species at neutral pH values on dilution. They also showed the presence of surviving fluorosilicate species at low pH values (3 and below) – which is of course irrelevant for water treatment. No one is going to produce drinking water at such acidic values.

Anti-fluoride people are using the observation at low pH values to claim that fluorosilicate species remain in solution at neutral pH values. They sometimes also rely on studies where authors have expressed their results with an indication of precision. For example, Atkin’s activist organisation (the NZ Fluoridation Information Service) claims fluorosilicates:

“do not completely break down into Fluoride ions. This was shown by Crosby in 1969.”

But Crosby (1969) (“Equilibria of fluorosilicate solutions with special reference to the fluoridation of public water supplies”) actually reported:

“sodium fluorosilicate, at the concentration normally present in public water supplies, is dissociated to at least 95%.”

Atkins and his organisation are clutching at a very weak straw there.

Let us be clear – the research indicates that within experimental precision the deocmposition of fluorosilicates is complete and, as expressed by Urbansky (2002), (“Fate of fluorosilicate drinking water additives”):

“equilibrium should have been achieved by the time the water reaches the coinsumer’s tap  if not by the time it leaves the waterworks plant.”

Reversion of fluoride to fluorosilicate?

Atkin’s claim of reversion of fluoride to fluorosilicate “in acid stomach conditions” is also incorrect. He is relying on a simplistic misunderstanding of the nature of “dissociation” of fluorosilicate on dilution.

It is important to recognise the “dissociation” of fluorosilicate species into fluoride and silica at neutral pH values is, in effect, a decomposition. Because of the polymerisation of the silica, and the olation and oxolation reactions involved, the equilibrium is driven to completion – in effect the silica is removed from the reaction. (While it may remain in “solution” or “suspension” for a time it is effectively inert – due to olation – as far as the equilibrium is concerned).

What do I mean by olation? While monomolecular Si(OH)4 is formed on dissociation of the fluorisilicate it rapidly undergoes reactions which lead to exclusion of water and the transformation of Si-OH bonds to Si-O-Si bonds.

(HO)3Si-OH + OH-Si(OH)3

↓ Olation

(HO)3Si-OH-Si(OH)3 + OH

 Oxolation

(HO)3Si-O-Si(OH)3 + H2O

Eventually this leads to formation of colloidal and solid silica. But even while in solution olation and oxolation reduces the reactivity of the silica species.

Just as fluorosilicate species do not reform in your tap water, they do not reform in your stomach. Even if the silica is still in suspension it is no longer present as mono-molecular Si(OH)4 and is effectively inert. So despite the low pH there is no simple equilibrium. Remember too, your drinking water will contain silica derived from other sources besides fluorosilicate (which is probably a minor contributor).

Sure, one can prepares solutions in the laboratory at pH values of 3 or less that contain fluorosilicate species – but once decompostion (involving loss of silica reactivity) occurs at neutral pH values the reaction  is not easily reversed. Especially considering the time lapsed between decomposition of the fluorosilicate and drinking water entering one’s stomach.

HF in stomach

But Atkin still has a fallback postion – if the fluorosilicate doesn’t get you the hydrofluoric acid will. He aserts:

“that 40% of ingested fluoride is absorbed through the stomach wall as molecular hydrofluoric acid (a known mutagen). This negates the ‘all fluoride ions are the same’ deception.”

Yes, in the acid conditions of your stomach F anions will exist in equilibrium with the protonated HF species.

H+ + F- ↔ HF

This is also true for other weakly acidic anions – even sulphate – that is just simple chemistry. But, the real danger of the solution in your stomach is that it is very acid, it has a low pH – a very high concentration of hydrogen ions. It is the hydrogen ions that are corrosive. (If anything, the presence of weakly acidic anions like fluoride will actually lower the acidity by removing some of the hydrogen ions). One does not put one’s hand, or any other sensitive tissues, into acidic solution like this. However the stomach is built to handle these conditions.

I understand the molecular species involved in the transfer of fluoride across the stomach wall cells into the blood stream is HF. (Once in the blood HF will convert to fluoride because of the higher pH). So clearly the low pH assists in uptake of F by the body. Don’t forget the concentrations of fluoride, and therefore HF, is actually very low. The protonated species in your stomach solution are not equivalent to the HF (or HCl and H2SO4) chemicals we are used to in their concentrated forms in the laboratory.

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