Is “Russiagate” another deception like Iraqi WMDs?

Iraq: A Deadly Deception – strong parallels with current “Russiagate” affair

The alleged Russian collusion/interference investigations lumber on. Despite the media spin and intelligence leaks nothing of substance has yet been unearthed. Nothing to verify the claims originally made by Hillary Clinton when she attempted to divert attention from the Democratic National committee emails leaked by Wikileaks.

Politically partisan and Russophobic commentators still hold out hope. Admitting no credible evidence has yet emerged publicly (after 18 months) they call on critics to wait for the investigation final reports. They repeatedly use the phrase “where there is smoke there must be fire.”

But what if the investigations finally report that there is no evidence to support Clinton’s original claims? Worse, what if the investigations show that the claim itself was simply an attempt by the establishment to manipulate US politics? To prevent the election of Trump and then to discredit the election result and work to unseat the elected present?

What if the “fire” causing all this “smoke” actually took place, and still continues, but within the political establishment – and within the state agencies, the FBI and intelligence groups?

Well, that is the conclusion drawn by ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern in a recent report – The FBI Hand behind Russia-gate. His conclusions parallel strongly with what was done to justify the 2003 US Invasion of Iraq. The fact that he, with other intelligence agents, criticised the way intelligence was being selectively used by the Bush government is also another strong parallel (see the video Iraq: A Deadly Deception above where McGovern is interviewed).

McGovern, together with other ex-intelligence officers in the organisation Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity,  is analysing and criticising the use of intelligence in the Russiagate affair. They have, for example, submitted to Congress forensic information on the leaked Democratic National Committee documents which indicate these documents were leaked and not hacked as the political and intelligence establishments  claim

McGovern summarises his report this way:

“In the Watergate era, liberals warned about U.S. intelligence agencies manipulating U.S. politics, but now Trump-hatred has blinded many of them to this danger becoming real.”

McGovern’s conclusion may still lack sufficient convincing evidence (although I think there is far more evidence than has yet appeared to support Clinton’s story). But important evidence has recently appeared and further investigation of that material is sure to be enlightening.

 

The Strzok-Page texts

McGovern discusses some of the evidence of political partisanship and Russiaphobia bias within the FBI revealed in the text messages between FBI Counterintelligence Section chief, Peter Strzok, and his FBI lawyer girlfriend,  Lisa Page. These reveal that they knew their discussions were damning – Strzok insisted their discussion only be in texts to avoid them being traced. Page actually wrote in one text: “So look, you say we text on that phone when we talk about Hillary because it can’t be traced, . .

So far only a fraction (375) of more than 10,000 of these texts have been released, and these only in the last few weeks. These show an almost childish and gleeful partisan support for Hilary Clinton and hatred for Donald Trump. They also show a belief that they could, maybe, play a role in preventing Trump’s elections. Page wrote:  “And maybe you’re meant to stay where you are because you’re meant to protect the country from that menace. “ Strsok replies: “of course I’ll try and approach it that way. I just know it will be tough at times. I can protect our country at many levels.”

McGovern points out:

“Another text message shows that other senior government officials – alarmed at the possibility of a Trump presidency – joined the discussion. In an apparent reference to an August 2016 meeting with FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. Strzok wrote to Page on Aug. 15, 2016, “I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office — that there’s no way he [Trump] gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk.”  Strzok added, “It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event that you die before you’re 40.”

Strzok will be asked to explain the “insurance policy” comment when he is called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But one can’t help wondering if the so-called Trump Dossier (which has been largely discredited) and the DNC email hacking story were parts of this “insurance policy.”

Strzok a key player in investigations

Strzok and Page were removed from the Mueller investigation last August when these texts came to light, although this was not made public until December. McCabe has said he will retire early.

Partisan commenters have tried to play down these texts but we should not forget Strzok was the Deputy Assistant Director of the Counterintelligence Division and led the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. In this role:

” It is a safe bet that he took a strong hand in hand-picking the FBI contingent of analysts that joined “hand-picked” counterparts from CIA and NSA in preparing the evidence-free, Jan. 6, 2017 assessment accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of interfering in the election of 2016. “

Previously:

“As the FBI’s chief of counterespionage during the investigation into then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s unauthorized use of a personal email server for classified information, Strzok reportedly changed the words “grossly negligent” (which could have triggered legal prosecution) to the far less serious “extremely careless” in FBI Director James Comey’s depiction of Clinton’s actions. This semantic shift cleared the way for Comey to conclude just 20 days before the Democratic National Convention began in July 2016, that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring charges against Mrs. Clinton.”

Trump’s vindication a downside

While welcoming release of the FBI text messages which provide “documentary evidence that key FBI officials involved in the Russia-gate investigation were indeed deeply biased and out to get Trump,” McGovern warns that they also add  “hard proof to Trump’s longstanding lament that he was the subject of a “witch hunt.””

“Justified or not, Trump’s feeling of vindication could hardly be more dangerous — particularly at a time when the most urgent need is to drain some testosterone from the self-styled Stable-Genius-in-Chief and his martinet generals.

On the home front, Trump, his wealthy friends, and like-thinkers in Congress may now feel they have an even wider carte blanche to visit untold misery on the poor, the widow, the stranger and other vulnerable humans. That was always an underlying danger of the Resistance’s strategy to seize on whatever weapons were available – no matter how reckless or unfair – to “get Trump.””

He also warns it will be difficult for the Washington establishment to “turn back” or have “second thoughts” on all this. The Russophobia and its use in political campaigns are now ingrained. How often will it raise its ugly head in the upcoming elections? And what will that mean for the US political climate?

An example already at hand is its use to oppose whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s candidacy for a US Senate seat in the state of Maryland – see the tweets from Molly McKew who Glen Greenwald describes as “one of the media’s favorite Russia-obsessed “experts”” saying “she didn’t even wait an hour before depicting Chelsea Manning’s Senate candidacy as a dastardly Kremlin plot.”

No certainties

McGovern declares:

“The Donnybrook is now underway; the outcome uncertain.”

And he has good reason to doubt a satisfactory conclusion.

“At this point, the $64 question is whether the various congressional oversight committees will remain ensconced in their customarily cozy role as “overlook” committees, or whether they will have the courage to attempt to carry out their Constitutional duty. The latter course would mean confronting a powerful Deep State and its large toolbox of well-practiced retaliatory techniques, including J. Edgar Hoover-style blackmail on steroids, enabled by electronic surveillance of just about everything and everyone. Yes, today’s technology permits blanket collection, and “Collect Everything” has become the motto.”

Let’s remember this warning given to Trump after the election when there were fears he may do a bit of “housecleaning:”

“Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, with almost four decades of membership in the House and Senate, openly warned incoming President Trump in January 2017 against criticizing the U.S. intelligence community because U.S. intelligence officials have “six ways from Sunday to get back at you” if you are “dumb” enough to take them on.”

Still, it is early days. There are many more of the Strzok-Page texts to be released and there is also talk of other, yet to be released,  evidence coming to light of partisan bias and prejudiced actions within the FBI and the investigation team.

Real progress may depend on at least some of the media abandoning their previously partisan attitudes and pressuring the investigations to declassify the evidence they have. As the Wall Street Journal recently said about the current arguments of the “Trump dossier:”

“You can bet that the dossier spin is going to get even crazier, which is why it is so urgent that Congress move quickly to declassify core documents and release them to the public.

So long as those documents remain secret, dossier proponents can concoct whatever story they choose. It’s time to end the season of silly spin and begin one of accountability.”

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“Fire and Fury” exposes the fundamental problems of the anti-Trump movement

Anti-Trump lowbrowism burst into full bloom with the new Michael Wolff book. Credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters

I have long considered myself a “lefty,’ a “liberal” and a “progressive.” But I have despaired over the last 18 months at the behaviour of what I have often considered “my side.” The sinking of “fellow liberals” into a quagmire of political partisanship, political conspiracy theories, confirmation bias and hateful hostility to anyone daring to present an alternative viewpoint distresses me. I have personally been called pro-Nazi and pro-white supremacist for defending freedom of speech and daring to point out simple facts. And this by people from “my side.”

It all suggests the story of the emperor who had no clothes and I can sympathise with those people who have adapted to this atmosphere by simply shutting up. I have found myself also doing that at times as there no longer appears to be room for a reasoned discussion among “liberals” and people on the “left.”

I keep telling myself this will pass – and perhaps we are starting to see a glimmer of hope. A new opinion piece by David Brooks in the New York Times (which has unfortunately often fed the confirmation bias, political partisanship and conspiracy theories) is a hopeful sign. His article The Decline of Anti-Trumpism outlines many of the feelings I have had over the last year about the anti-Trump (and anti-Russian) hysteria in the US.

Lets’ be clear – Brooks’ article is not a defence of Trump – he declares himself  a “proud member” of “the anti-Trump movement.” That is also my position – but not in a party political partisan way. After all, I do not live in the US and if I did I would not have voted for either Trump or Clinton.

Reducing everything to a fairy tale

Brooks believes the anti-Trump movement seems to be “getting dumber:”

“It seems to be settling into a smug, fairy tale version of reality that filters out discordant information. More anti-Trumpers seem to be telling themselves a “Madness of King George” narrative: Trump is a semiliterate madman surrounded by sycophants who are morally, intellectually and psychologically inferior to people like us.

I’d like to think it’s possible to be fervently anti-Trump while also not reducing everything to a fairy tale.”

That’s what I noticed from early on – yet to challenge these fairy tales, particularly the dangerous conspiracy theory of “Russian collusion,” just means one gets called one of “Putin’s useful idiots” or pro-Trump, pro-Nazi and a white supremacist. And this is by people who I have considered in the past as rational – people who should know better.

Insularity and lowbrowism

The anti-Trump movement has all the marks of an internet silo – if a big one – which excludes any contrary viewpoint.

“The anti-Trump movement suffers from insularity. Most of the people who detest Trump don’t know anybody who works with him or supports him.  . . .  So they get most of their information about Trumpism from others who also detest Trumpism, which is always a recipe for epistemic closure.

The movement also suffers from lowbrowism. Fox News pioneered modern lowbrowism.[It] offers a steady diet of affirmation, focuses on simple topics that require little background information, and gets viewers addicted to daily doses of righteous contempt and delicious vindication.”

“Fire and Fury”

Maybe Brooks has come to this position relatively recently as he writes  “anti-Trump lowbrowism burst into full bloom with the Wolff book.” He is, of course, referring to the latest “exposures” in the just-published book Fire and Fury.” it is selling like hot cakes. I even have my own copy but am unsure now whether to waste time reading it. Wile the mainstream media is promoting it more rational comments suggest the book is a disaster. Brooks says of the author:

“Wolff doesn’t pretend to adhere to normal journalistic standards. He happily admits that he’s just tossing out rumors that are too good to check. As Charlie Warzel wrote on BuzzFeed, “For Wolff’s book, the truth seems almost a secondary concern to what really matters: engagement.”

The ultimate test of the lowbrow is not whether it challenges you, teaches you or captures the contours of reality; it’s whether you feel an urge to share it on social media.”

That description seems to me to describe the whole anti-Trump, Russian collusion story right from the beginning. Brooks points out this is not good:

“I’ve noticed a lot of young people look at the monotonous daily hysteria of we anti-Trumpers and they find it silly.”

There is more to life than Trump

On the one hand, this sort of hysteria weakens the “anti-Trump movement,” or of more concern, it discredits serious attempts to fight against the harmful policy of the current US president and Congress. There are many harmful policies that need fighting against and it is silly to see the anti-Trump hysteria as contributing anything to those specific struggles.

More seriously, Brooks points out that this descent into a quagmire of irrational confirmation bias, political partisanship and political conspiracy theories is of wider concern – and more long-term concern:

“This isn’t just a struggle over a president. It’s a struggle over what rules we’re going to play by after Trump. Are we all going to descend permanently into the Trump standard of acceptable behavior?

Or, are we going to restore the distinction between excellence and mediocrity, truth and a lie? Are we going to insist on the difference between a genuine expert and an ill-informed blowhard? Are we going to restore the distinction between those institutions like the Congressional Budget Office that operate by professional standards and speak with legitimate authority, and the propaganda mills that don’t?”

Footnote

Another example of this low brow hysteria “bursting into full bloom,” in this case over the Russian collusion myth, is the book Collusion by former Moscow correspondent for the Guardian, Luke Harding. This interview with Harding illustrates again how the current narrative has become dominated by mediocrity and lies and not truth and excellence.

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Confirmation bias – we all suffer from it but how can we reduce its effect?

Confirmation bias – we all suffer from it. It’s just part of being human. Sure, we are capable of rational thought but it is often overridden by our emotional messages. And even in the best situations, our attempt at rational thought is inevitably contaminated by our emotions.

This video from Above the Noise • PBS explains what is going on in a popular way. Even resorts to brain scans.

Word of warning, though. It inevitably suffers from its own confirmation bias. Right up front, it produces a graph comparing Facebook clicks on “fake news” articles compared with clicks on “mainstream news” articles!! As if that is a proper analysis.

We all know mainstream media regularly publishes fake news. What they are probably comparing is Facebook clicks for mainstream media articles compared with alternative media articles. That is just not an intelligent differentiation when talking about “fake news.”

So take the video with a grain of salt.  Look at it critically and intelligently.

In fact, probably the best way of avoiding, or at least reducing confirmation bias is to approach all information, from whatever source, critically and intelligently. To think for oneself. Avoid group thinking and official interpretations.

December ’17 – NZ blogs sitemeter ranking

I notice a few regulars no longer allow public access to the site counters. This may happen accidentally when the blog format is altered. If your blog is unexpectedly missing please check this out. Send me the URL for your site meter and I can correct the information in the database.

Sitemeter is no longer working so the total number of NZ blogs in this list has been drastically reduced. I recommend anyone with Sitemeter consider transferring to one of the other meters. See  NZ Blog Rankings FAQ.

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 December 2017. 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

Subscribe to NZ Blog Rankings Subscribe to NZ blog rankings by Email Find out how to get Subscription & email updates Continue reading

Yet another way Russia is undermining our society

Are those horrible Russians cheating by getting their children to read? Image credit: Rosman

OK – must stress this is satire. Too many people seem to have adopted the slogan “Question Less” in their approach to the news media, particularly on reports. like this one.

Don’t want anyone to go away with the wrong idea.

I came across this piece on the Blogmire – Results of International Literacy Study Reveal Yet More Attempts by Russia to Meddle in Western Democracies and Undermine Our Way of Life. Written by the Blogmire’s resident Russia expert, Russ O’Phobe:


The recent news that Russia has topped the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (PIRLS), has sent shockwaves through the civilised world, with analysts believing that this is yet more evidence of a mendacious scheme by the Kremlin to destroy our values and way of life.

The study, which is based on tests taken every five years, measures literacy rates amongst 10-year-olds around the world, with around 320,000 children across the globe sitting the tests. According to the most recent results, Russian children came in first, whilst children from more enlightened countries, such as the US, UK and Canada were much further down the list. Western analysts are in agreement that this simply cannot be the case, given the vast amounts of money pumped into the education systems of those countries every year.

According to a spokesperson for the British Government’s Department of Education, the results provide yet further evidence of Russian meddling and manipulation, this time using innocent children as pawns in a sinister game:

“As everyone knows, whilst Britain has a world class education system that is the envy of every nation, Russia is a poor country where nothing works and everyone is force-fed a constant diet of Kremlin propaganda. Given that this is the case, we simply refuse to believe that it is possible for Russian children to have better reading results than British children, and it is obvious to us that the explanation for these results must be a more sinister one.”

One theory put forward is that the Kremlin has been running a state-sponsored duping campaign, whereby the results from the reading tests have been manipulated and falsified to give Russian children higher marks than their Western counterparts. The theory has been put forward by Dr. Georgy Rodzyanko, who used to work in the Russian Department for Education, before fleeing the country after being arrested for corruption – a charge that is almost certainly trumped up.

According to Dr. Rodzyanko, who has recently been undergoing treatment for psychological problems, this is exactly what happened, and on the basis of his testimony there have been calls for Russia to be banned from future PIRLS tests.

Another explanation is that the results are actually real, but that they have come about only as the result of a nefarious plot to get children to learn their letters and develop an interest in reading from very early ages. According to some analysts, whilst many Western toddlers are being taught real life skills, such as learning how to use an iPhone and questioning their gender, Russian children are being forced to learn the alphabet. It is even thought that some Russian parents may even be reading books to them regularly from an early age.

According to one anonymous source in the US Department of Education, if this is the case it represents a systematic scheme to undermine the West by making its education systems and methods of parenting look shabby:

“The PIRLS study shows that Russia will stop at nothing to undermine our values, even if that means teaching their children in ways that the modern world long ago rejected. It is a clear attempt to meddle with our democratic system, by sowing the seeds of doubt in people’s minds that the huge sums of money we spend on education might be largely wasted. This is a clear threat to our way of life and you can be sure that we will not let them get away with it.”

To back up that threat, the Governments of the US, UK, Canada and the EU are considering placing more sanctions on Russia. This would include banning the export of exercise books and pens to the country. It could also see a ban on imports to Western countries of the works of authors such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, in order to try to prevent the spread of literacy.

In addition, a joint international inquiry has been set up to deal with the threat. Amongst other things, it will be looking into the claim that Kremlin trolls have been attempting to undermine literacy rates in Western countries by advertising the works of Russian authors on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.


 

Anti-fluoridationists misrepresent New Zealand dental data – an annual event

Caught again! – NZ anti-fluoride campaigners tell their annual porky about the MoH statistics for the dental health of school children.

This exercise in confirmation bias by New Zealand anti-fluoridation campaigners has become an annual tradition involving confirmation bias and cherry-picking. Every year the Ministry of Health (MoH) releases a spreadsheet containing the most recent data on school children’s dental health. And every year the Fluoride Free NZ (FFNZ) activists select some figures from the spreadsheet to argue their case that fluoridation is not effective. A simple exercise in bias confirmation by cherry picking.

I wrote about last year’s exercise in my article Anti-fluoridationists misrepresent new dental data for New Zealand children. That involved the MoH data for 2015. My comments on their misrepresentation of the newly released 2016 data will be much the same.

FFNZ claims the 2016 statistics:

“show absolutely NO difference in dental decay rates between five year olds in fluoridated areas compared to non-fluoridated areas.”

Notice the specifics – 5-year-olds. And no mention of ethnicity. They have simply used the total figures (which mislead because of effects of ethnic differences) and cherry-picked the specific data where the figure for fluoridated areas and non-fluoridated areas are very close.

What does the new data really say?

Let’s look at a summary of the data – for 5-year-olds and year 8 children – and for the different ethnic groups listed – Māori, Pacific Island and “other”(mainly Pakeha and Asian).  You can download the spreadsheets contain the data from the MoH web page – Age 5 and Year 8 oral health data from the Community Oral Health ServiceWe will look at the % of these children that a free from caries as well as the mean decayed, missing and filled teeth (dmft and DMFT) for each group.

5-year-olds

Notice the FFNZ cherry picking? Yes, the “Total” figures show very little difference but if they had dared look at different ethnic groups their argument would not have looked so great. Fluoridation appears to be associated with an improvement of dental health from about 6% (for “Other”) to 23% (for Māori)

Year 8 children

You can see why  FFNZ chose the 5-year-olds instead of year 8 children. Even the misleading data for the “Total” group suggests an almost 20% improvement of dental health in fluoridated areas.  Fluoridation appears to be associated with an improvement of dental health from about 18% (for “Other”) to 30% (for Māori)

Importance of ethnic classifications.

The figures above show big differences between ethnic groups, with the dental health of Pacific Island children being the worst.

This is an important factor because most Pacific Island children live in fluoridated areas – about 85%. The figure below shows the distribution of the two different age groups.

This means that the overall, or “Total” data is distorted. Pacific Island children predominance in fluoridated areas increase the value of dmft/DMFT and lowers the value of caries-free % in the fluoridated areas.

So the FFNZ activists are not only cherry picking to confirm a bias – they have selected the figures which are most distorted by ethnic differences.

Far from the latest data showing “absolutely NO difference” it actually shows differences of the order of 18 -30%.

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Fluoridation means money in the pocket

Local researchers recently presented data showing that the ordinary person, and not the taxation financed health system, is the main financial beneficiary of community water fluoridation.

Their research confirmed that community water fluoridation in New Zealand is highly cost-effective for all but the smallest communities. This study updates previous evaluations by including data for adults – previous studies were limited to children. It also corrected for under-estimation of averted dental restoration costs in a previous study.

The authors also make the point that an update is necessary because:

“Sound public health practice requires periodic re-evaluation of interventions’ benefits and costs.”

The results are reported in the paper:

Moore, D., Poynton, M., Broadbent, J. M., & Thomson, W. M. (2017). The costs and benefits of water fluoridation in NZ. BMC Oral Health, 17(1), 134.

Community size

As with previous studies, the results confirmed that fluoridation is not cost effective for very small communities because of the capital cost of fluoridation plants and the use of sodium fluoride instead of fluorosilicic acid as the fluoridating chemical in small plants. However:

“For ‘minor’ through to ‘large’ plants, there is a net cost saving. For a ‘large’ plant supplying 50,000 people, the cost offsets are over 20 times the cost of fluoridation. The break-even point appears to be reached by ‘minor’ plants supplying a population over 500.”

National net savings from universal fluoridation

The authours estimated the national costs and saving from averted ental costs over a 20 year period. If all New Zealand reticulated water supplies serving populations greater than 500 were fluoridated costs over 20 years would amount to$177 million while the cost offset due to averted dental treatment costs would be $1578 million.

The national 20-year net saving due to such universal community water fluoridation in NZ would amount to $1401 million.

That is a nine times pay-off!

Individuals save more than the state

I hadn’t thought of this before but the data enables separate estimates of savings to the state from universal CWF through reduced costs to the health budget, and to the individual citizen through their reduced costs for private dental treatment.

In fact, the major benefit is to the individual rather than the health budget.  National savings over 20 years for reduction of private dental care expenditure would be $1428 million – 10 times the savings to the national health budget.

Perhaps this helps people understand that they, personally, have something to gain fiancially from community water fluoridation

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Anti-fluoridation campaigners often use statistical significance to confirm bias

I was pleased to read this Nature article – Five ways to fix statistics – recently as it mirrors my concern at the way statistical analysis is sometimes used to justify or confirm a bias and not reveal a real causal relationship. Frankly these days I just get turned off by media reports of studies showing statistically significant relationships as evidence for or against the latest health or other fads.

As the Nature article says, statistical significance tests often amount “to uncertainty laundering:”

“Any study, no matter how poorly designed and conducted, can lead to statistical significance and thus a declaration of truth or falsity. NHST [null hypothesis significance testing] was supposed to protect researchers from over-interpreting noisy data. Now it has the opposite effect.”

No matter how good a relationship appears, or how significant the statistical analysis shows it to be, it is simply a relationship and may have no mechanistic or causal backing.  An example often used to illustrate this is the close relationship between the prevalence of autism and sales of organic produce.

Clearly statically significant but we don’t find those activists claiming autism is related to one thing or another ever citing this one. I am picking these activists may well have a bias towards organic produce.

Here are several examples I have discussed before which illustrates how “statistical significance” is sometimes used to confirm bias in fluoridation studies. I think these are very relevant as anti-fluoridation campaigners often cite statistical significance as if it is the final proof for their claims.

Ignoring relevant confounders

This is an easy trap for the biased researcher (and let’s face it, most of us are biased – it’s only human). Just ignore other confounders or risk-modifying factors that may be more important. Or ignore the fact that the risk-modifying factor one is interested in (in this case fluoride) may just be acting as a proxy for (and therefore is related to) something else which is more relevant.

This why all credible risk-modifying factors should be considered in correlation studies. They should be included in the statistical analyses.

It’s amazing how many researchers either ignore the possible risk-modifying factors besides their pet one – or pay lip-service to the problem by limiting their consideration to only a small range of such factors.

Examples of studies promoted by anti-fluoride campaigners where this is a problem include:

Peckham et al., (2015) hypothyroidism paper:

Peckham, S., Lowery, D., & Spencer, S. (2015). Are fluoride levels in drinking water associated with hypothyroidism prevalence in England? A large observational study of GP practice data and fluoride levels in drinking water. J Epidemiol Community Health, 1–6.

This has been widely condemned for a number of reasons – one of which is that iodine deficiency, a known factor in hypothyroidism, was not included in the statistical analysis.

(See Paper claiming water fluoridation linked to hypothyroidism slammed by experts and Anti-fluoride hypothyroidism paper slammed yet again).

The  Takahashi et al., (2001) cancer paper:

Takahashi, K., Akiniwa, K., & Narita, K. (2001). Regression Analysis of Cancer Rates and Water Fluoride in the USA based Incidence on IACR / IARC ( WHO ) Data ( 1978-1992 ). Journal of Epidemiology, 11(4), 170–179.

These authors reported an association between fluoridation and a range of cancers. Problem is, they did not consider any other risk-modifying factors. When some geographical parameters were included in the statistical analyses there were no statistically significant relationships of cancer with fluoridation.

(see Fluoridation and cancer).

The Malin & Till (2015) ADHD paper:

Malin, A. J., & Till, C. (2015). Exposure to fluoridated water and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder prevalence among children and adolescents in the United States: an ecological association. Environmental Health, 14.

This reported an association of ADHD prevalence with the extent of fluoridation in the US. Anti-fluoride campaigners have cited this paper a lot because it is the only study indicating any effect of fluoridation on cognitive ability. All other studies they rely on were from areas of endemic fluorosis where the natural levels of fluoride are higher than that used in community water fluoridation.

Malin & Till (2015) considered only household income as a possible risk-modifying factor. No consideration was given to residential elevation which other researchers had around the same time reported as associated with ADHD prevalence.

I repeated their statistical analysis but included residential elevation and a range of other risk-modifying factors. This showed there was no statically signficant association of ADHD with fluoridation when other risk-modifying factors, particularly elevation, were included. My critique of Malin and Till (20215) is now published:

Perrott, K. W. (2017). Fluoridation and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – a critique of Malin and Till ( 2015 ). Br Dent J.

(See ADHD linked to elevation not fluoridationADHD link to fluoridation claim undermined again and Fluoridation not associated with ADHD – a myth put to rest).

Ignoring the lack of explanatory power

I think this is where the over-reliance on statistical significance, the p-value, can be really misleading. Researchers desperately wishing to confirm their bias will proudly claim  a statistically significant relationship, a p-value less than 0.05, etc., as if that is the final “proof.” These researchers will often hide the real meaning of their relationship by not making the actual data available or limiting their report of their statistical analysis to p-vlaues and, maybe, a mathematical relationship.

However, if the reported relationship actually explains only a small part of the observed variation in the data it may be meaningless. Concentration on such a relationship means that other more signficant risk-modifying factors which would explain more of the variation are ignored. Anyway, where a factor explains only a small part of the variation it is likely a more complete statistical analysis would show that its contribution was not actually statistically signficant.

Some examples:

The prenatal fluoride exposure and IQ study of Bashash et al (2017):

Bashash, M., Thomas, D., Hu, H., Martinez-mier, E. A., Sanchez, B. N., Basu, N., … Hernández-avila, M. (2016). Prenatal Fluoride Exposure and Cognitive Outcomes in Children at 4 and 6 – 12 Years of Age in Mexico.Environmental Health Perspectives, 1, 1–12.

These authors reported a statistically significant association of Child IQ with the prenatal fluoride exposure of their mothers. However, their figures showed a very wide scatter in the data indicating very little explanation of the variation in child IQ by the association with prenatal fluoride. (see below left). This must be why the Fluoride Action Network removed the data points from the figure when reproducing it for their promotion of the paper (see below right).

Bashash et al., (29017) did not give the complete statistical analysis of their data. However, I was able to digitally extract the data from their figure and my analysis showed that prenatal fluoride expose was only able to explain a little over 3% of the variation in child IQ. So, despite the statistical significance of their observed relationship prenatal fluoride exposure is unlikely to be a real factor in child IQ. In fact, concentration on this minor (even if statistically significant) factor will only inhibit the discovery of the real causes of IQ variation in these children.

Yes, anti-fluoride campaigners will protest that this study did consider some other possible risk-modifying factors. However the very low-level of explanation of the variation in the data indicates they did not consider enough.

(see Premature births a factor in cognitive deficits observed in areas of endemic fluorosis? Fluoride, pregnancy and the IQ of offspring and Maternal urinary fluoride/IQ study – an update).

The Xiang et al., (2003) water fluoride and IQ study:

Xiang, Q; Liang, Y; Chen, L; Wang, C; Chen, B; Chen, X; Zhouc, M. (2003). Effect of fluoride in drinking water on children’s intelligence. Fluoride, 36(2), 84–94.

Anti-fluoride campaigners rely a lot on this and other papers from this group.  Even though this research involved areas of endemic fluorosis it, in a sense, provides some of their best evidence because they reported a dose-dependent relationship of IQ to water F. Xiang et al., (2003) claimed a statistically signficant association of child IQ to fluoride water levels.  Other anti-fluoride campaigners, and some other researchers, have cited Xiang et al., (2003) to support such an association.

I don’t question these researchers found a significant association – but there is a problem. Nowhere do they give a statistical analysis or the data to support their claim! Very frustrating for critical readers (and we should all be critical readers).

They did, however, give some evidence from a statical analysis of the relationship of IQ with urinary fluoride. They did not give a complete statistical analysis but they included the data in a figure  (see below) – so I did my own statistical analysis of data digitally extracted from the figure.

The figure shows a high scatter of data points so this is another case of a statistically significant relationship explaining only a small part of the variability. My analysis indicates the relationship explains only about 3% of the variability in IQ value. Another case where researchers have concentrated on their own pet relationship and in the process not properly searched for more reasonable risk-modifying factors capable of explaining a larger proportion of the variation.

I have made a more detailed critique of Xiang et al.  (2015) and Hirzy et al., (2016) which relies on this data (see Does drinking water fluoride influence IQ? A critique of Hirzy et al. (2016)). A paper based on this has been submitted to a journal for publication and is currently undergoing peer review..

(see Anti-fluoride authors indulge in data manipulation and statistical porkiesDebunking a “classic” fluoride-IQ paper by leading anti-fluoride propagandists,  Connett fiddles the data on fluorideConnett & Hirzy do a shonky risk assesment for fluoride and Connett misrepresents the fluoride and IQ data yet again).

Conclusion

This  briefly outlines the statistical problems of a number of papers anti-fluoride campaigners rely on. Two common problems are:

  • Insufficient consideration of confounders or other risk-modifying factors – indicating a bias towards a “preferred” cause, and
  • Reliance on a relationship that, although statistically significant, explains only a very small fraction of the observed variation – again indicating bias towards a “preferred” cause

I don’t for a minute suggest that only those researchers publishing “anti-fluoride” research are guilty of these errors. They are probably quite common. Authors will generally responsibly warn that “correlation does not prove causation” and suggest more work needs to be done including  consideration of a wider number of confounders or risk-modifying factors. However, bias is only human so researcher advocacy for their own findings is understandable. The published research may even be of general value if readers interpret it critically and intelligently.

However, in the political world such critical consideration is very rare. Activists will use published research in the way a drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than for illumination. This makes it important that the rest of us be more objective and critically assess the claims they are making. Part of this critical assessment must include an objective consideration of the published research that is being cited.

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November ’17 – NZ blogs sitemeter ranking

Image Credit: 10 Social Media Tips for Bloggers

Of course, Statcounter has decided to change their format again and this has caused another headache this month. Every time this happens it screws up the existing methods for automatically downloading the statistics.

I notice a few regulars no longer allow public access to the site counters. This may happen accidentally if the format of the blog is altered. If your blog is unexpectedly missing please check this out. Send me the URL for your site meter and I can correct the information in the database.

Sitemeter is no longer working so the total number of NZ blogs in this list has been drastically reduced. I recommend anyone with Sitemeter consider transferring to one of the other meters. See  NZ Blog Rankings FAQ.

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 November 2017. 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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The problem with scepticism

Some readers may be aware I am being purposely provocative with this logo as it identifies the problem of extending the sceptical approach into the political sphere – emotions of identity and values. Image credit: RT America YouTube.


Being a sceptic has its problems. On the one hand, a sceptical approach to information has never been more necessary. On the other hand labelling oneself a Sceptic (or Skeptic) can have negative results – encouraging arrogance and inability to accept criticism.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately and have again and again found myself encouraging a sceptical approach to everything we read – from whatever source. But I also found myself largely agreeing with a recent article in Patheos critical of sceptics by Matthew Facciani – Why Identifying As A Skeptic Can Be Problematic Then I attended (partially) the NZ Skeptics conference in Wellington last weekend – a great conference with some excellent presentations.

But something that struck me during the conference is that the scepticism was really limited to what Wikipedia defines as scientific  or empirical scepticism which questions “beliefs on the basis of scientific understanding:”

“Scientific skepticism may discard beliefs pertaining to purported phenomena not subject to reliable observation and thus not systematic or testable empirically. Most scientists, being scientific skeptics, test the reliability of certain kinds of claims by subjecting them to a systematic investigation using some type of the scientific methodAs a result, a number of claims are considered as “pseudoscience“, if they are found to improperly apply or ignore the fundamental aspects of the scientific method.”

I think this is far too limiting. Societies are faced with many issues – only some of them come under the scientific or empirical classification.

Scepticism needs to be applied more widely

I sometimes think our modern society has quite a good handle on scientific and empirical issues. Sure, we could improve the understanding of what science is and there are far too many people around who are imbued with anti-science or pseudoscience ideas.  But look at the political sphere – aren’t dogmatic and irrational ideas there more common than pseudoscientific ones? Don’t we suffer more from political “woo” than we do from “woo” in the scientific or health areas?

The general definition of scepticism given by Wikipedia in the same article is:

Skepticism (American English) or scepticism (British Englishsee spelling differences) is generally any questioning attitude or doubt towards one or more items of putative knowledge or belief.”

So here is my point – why do “Sceptics,” in practice, limit themselves in this way? Perhaps many “Sceptics” would deny they do – but time and again I come across people who adhere, or attempt to adhere, to a rational and evidence-based approach in matters of health and science (things like creationism, flat earth fanatics, acupuncturists, anti-fluoridationists and homoeopaths) yet will accept, even pontificate on, biased and tribal political arguments without any respect for evidence. Or will seek “evidence” for their political beliefs in a very partisan way. Quite different to their more objective approach on scientific and empirical issues.

My personal feeling is that this problem is inevitable. We are not a rational species, more a rationalising one. Humans definitely have the ability to pursue logical and rational thought but emotions still linger under the surface. Probably a good thing as this makes us human and not robots.

So “scientific or empirical sceptics” are able to follow the evidence and logic to a rational conclusion. Partly because they have not started with any emotional or values-based committment to the final conclusions. Although a non-Sceptic speaker at the Wellington conference did make the valid point that even sceptics will react emotionally when their rational conclusions are challenged by non-sceptics. That is because they inevitably do, in the end, feel an identity with those conclusions. They do so not because they fell an ideological committment to the conclusions – the commitment is to the method used to reach the conclusions.

We are all influenced by emotions and values

Even the most rational thinkers are influenced by emotions and valvalues. These may exert a bigger role when the sceptic has to deal with a subject outside their area of knowledge and they are therefore less secure in their understanding.  Or, perhaps more strongly, in areas like politics and religion where values and identity attachments are much stronger.

Perhaps this is why a Skeptics conference will deal only with the scientific or empirical subjects and not treat the political ones in the same manner. These may be avoided in fear they will lead to conflict. Or worse, they are avoided because of a prevailing political consensus. A consensus which may have no evidential or rational basis.

I really don’t like the way groups assume a consensus in this way. It is this assumption which has probably annoyed me most about the partisan-driven political hysteria in the US at the moment and the way this has been uncritically accepted here by people who, on the basis of their sceptical or rational approach on scientific issues, should know better.

Being sceptical of sceptics

In his Patheos article Matthew Facciani gives a general definition – “a skeptic is someone who tries to be objective and questions the validity of many things.”

I am certainly with him there as I really cannot understand why anyone should limit their sceptical approach to only an approved field. Matthew then goes on to say:

“I used to think of myself as a skeptic. It seems like a identifying with skepticism is a good trait to have. However, I’ve grown to really dislike the word over time and now feel rather skeptical of those who identify as skeptics!

I’ve run into far too many skeptics who turn off their skepticism when it’s convenient for them. You’ll see them apply great skepticism to some areas (like religion), but then become much less critical of ideas that are consistent with their own ideologies (like maintaining the status quo).”

I wonder if many New Zealand Sceptics (or Skeptics) have had the same experience? I certainly have and it is one reason why I would never join the NZ Skeptics Society. (To be accurate, that general reason is probably why I never join any societies – I really can’t adhere to a “Party line”).

Identity problems

Matthew explains this problem partly by identity theory:

“people are going to be motivated to ignore information that conflicts with their identity. So this becomes a problem when a conservative rejects evidence for climate change for example. Their deeply held beliefs are threatened with evidence that climate change is caused by human activity, so they are extra motivated to ignore it.

 So if you are a skeptic, a person who thinks as themselves as particularly objective and rational, wouldn’t it be threatening to be told you are being irrational? As someone who used to identify as a skeptic, I would say this was the case for me. The stronger the identity is held, the more vulnerable a person is to being biased. So if someone strongly thinks of themselves as an amazing skeptic, it may be very identity-threatening to be exposed to information that proves them wrong. Especially if that information threatens another identity they have!’
All very human of course. But it is a worry when someone who may have a well-founded objectivity and rationality about a scientific subject automatically transfers the resulting confidence to another area like politics where it simply works to support their biases and values and not facts.

The bias blind spot

Another issues he raises is the bias blind spot:
Worryingly, researchers report:
“that higher cognitive ability does not prevent people from experience this bias blind spot. In fact, those with high intelligence can even be better at rationalizing away their biases!”
As I keep saying, we are not a rational species – more a rationalising one. Perhaps higher cognitive ability just makes it easier to rationalise.
Matthew’s view is:

“much of these bias blind spots occur from the certainty and dogmatism that occurs from having too much confidence in holding certain positions.” A “strong skeptic identity” may also make you less receptive to feedback that challenges your worldview.”

Intellectual humility

So perhaps this explains the annoying confidence, even arrogance, that many people see in Sceptics (or Skeptics). Matthew’s solution, and it is worth considering, is intellectual humility:
“I would urge all of us to work on our “intellectual humility.” Intellectual humility is the psychological construct that can generally be defined as “understanding the limits of one’s knowledge.” Those with higher intellectual humility are more likely to be open to opposing viewpoints.  Additionally, research by Samuelson and colleagues (2015) found that “an intellectually arrogant person uses education in a prideful way to confer social status, while an intellectually humble person pursues education out of curiosity and love of learning.” Seems like too many skeptics may be intellectually arrogant instead of intellectually humble.
As I noted above, it’s often self-protective to believe we are correct and objective people. It’s certainly an unpleasant feeling to be proven wrong. However, working on our intellectual humility will make us more open to feedback. Yes, it may sting in the short term, but if we value truth, that’s a small price to pay.”

I think Matthew resorts to a bit of intellectual arrogance himself in this article as it has its own polemics. However, I fully agree with him about the desirability of intellectual humility.

Worth thinking about.

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