Magical World Cup Gala Concert

I have attended several concerts in public squares during European summers and always enjoyed them. Great atmosphere.

But thanks to international broadcasting and modern smartphones I woke up this morning to this concert and it was magical.

Red square on the day before the opening of the world cup. International singers and performers. Beautiful music and an appreciative international audience.

And finishing with beautiful fireworks and the bells of the Spassky Tower.

Incredible.

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May ’18 – NZ blogs sitemeter ranking

Image credit: Follow Teacher Blogs for Daily Inspiration & Classroom Tips

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.

Similarly, if your blog data in this list seems out of whack, please check your site meter. Usually, the problem is that for some reason your site meter is no longer working.

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.

This list is composed automatically from the data in the various site meters used. If you feel the data in this list is wrong could you check to make sure the problem is not with your own site meter? I am of course happy to correct any mistakes that occur in the automatic transfer of data to this list but cannot be responsible for the site meters themselves. They do play up.

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 May 2018. 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

Anti-fluoridation activists buy scientific credibility using a predatory publisher

A group of well-known anti-fluoride activists have just published some new research. Well, this is what their social media publicity will tell us.

In fact, this is not new research. It is simply the republication of a shonky paper from two years ago as a  chapter in a book produced by a predatory open access publisher.

It is a clear example of anti-fluoride activists attempting to buy scientific credibility. This book chapter cost them GBP £1400!

The “new” paper, or book chapter, anti-fluoride people will be promoting is this:

Hirzy, J. W., Connett, P., Xiang, Q., Spittle, B., & Kennedy, D. (2018). Developmental Neurotoxicity of Fluoride: A Quantitative Risk Analysis Toward Establishing a Safe Dose for Children. In J. E. McDuffie (Ed.), Neurotoxins (pp. 115–131). Rijeka: InTech.

In fact, this is simply a slight rehash of the paper published 2 years ago:

Hirzy, J. W., Connett, P., Xiang, Q., Spittle, B. J., & Kennedy, D. C. (2016). Developmental neurotoxicity of fluoride: a quantitative risk analysis towards establishing a safe daily dose of fluoride for children. Fluoride, 49(December), 379–400.

Almost word for word. And the authors acknowledge this at the beginning of the chapter with an introductory statement:

” This work has, in slightly different format, form and content been published in the journal Fluoride, Vol. 49(4 Pt 1):379–400, December 2016.”

I guess that saves me the job of critiquing this new version – my analysis and critique of the original paper was posted as the article  Debunking a “classic” fluoride-IQ paper by leading anti-fluoride propagandists. I also discussed the issues in other articles (see Connett & Hirzy do a shonky risk assessment for fluorideAnti-fluoride authors indulge in data manipulation and statistical porkies, and Anti-fluoridation campaigners often use statistical significance to confirm bias).

I have also submitted for publication a more formal critique of the original Hirzy et al., paper – see Does drinking water fluoride influence IQ? A critique of Hirzy et al. (2016)and  CRITIQUE OF A RISK ANALYSIS AIMED AT ESTABLISHING A SAFE DAILY DOSE OF FLUORIDE FOR CHILDREN.

Perhaps I will just repeat this qualification given by the authors in the first paper (and repeated in the book chapter), as it does call into question the whole campaign against community water fluoridation (CWF). They say:

“However, when comparing a fluoridated area of the USA to an unfluoridated area it would be hard to discern a mean IQ difference, because of the multiple sources of fluoride intake besides drinking water (Table 5). These sources greatly reduce the contrast in total fluoride intake between fluoridated and unfluoridated areas. A very high hurdle is thus created to gaining useful information in the USA, as it was in the New Zealand study [5], via a large, long-range longitudinal epidemiological study of fluoride and IQ.”

They are, in effect, accepting that no study of CWF has shown an IQ effect and argue that such studies will never show an  effect. Because, they argue, there is only a small difference in fluoride dietary intake between children in fluoridated and unfluoridated areas.

The fact that studies show no effect of fluoidation on IQ drives their need to “explain away” these results using dubious estimates of dietary intake. However they are essentially conceding there is no point campaigning against CWF. If they want to stick with their “explaining away” argument then, if anything, they should campaigning against other forms of dietary intake and leave CWF alone.

Scientific credibility

Anti-fluoridationists often argue that they have science on their side – and many of them seem to honestly believe it. Of course, when one is singing to the choir it is easy to delude oneself. The facts are that most claims made by anti-fluoride activists do not stand up to scientific scrutiny and when they cite scientific reports they are usually misrepresenting them.

I just wish these campaigners would sit down and actually read the papers they keep touting – very often they just do not say what is claimed for them.

On the other hand a small number of scientifically dubious papers do make their way into the scientific literature and these get used as “proof” by activists. Usually these are published in poor quality journals (like “Fluoride” where Hirzy et al., originally published their paper) and this is especially true when the authors are known anti-fluoride activists.

So, a combination of misrepresentation of the scientific literature and citation of poor quality papers get churned out again and again by campaigners to give scientific credibility to their arguments.

Shonky publishers

In my article Anti-fluoridation propagandists promoting shonky “review”, I discussed the use of shonky journals by anti-fluoride activists. These are usually open access journals which charge authors for publication and have very poor or non-existent peer review standards. I quoted one commenter as describing these journals as “bottom feeders,” but they, and their publishers, are often simply described as “predatory.”

bottom feeder

Some “peer-reviewed” journals really are “bottom-feeders.”

Predatory because these publishers scam researchers and exploit young or naive scientists, often from third world countries, who are impressed by the ease of publication and apparent distinction. An ease which is lubricated by author payments and little or no proper peer review.

Prospective authors can search lists identifying such predatory publishers and journals. So I did my own search and was not surprised to find that the IntechOpen publishers of the Hirzy et al., (2018) book chapter are on such lists. However, even a search of the IntechOpen website and their information for authors showed the signs typical of such predatory publishers. This is what IntechOpen will give you for your money (GBP – see Open Access Publishing Fees):

  • £1400 gets you a book chapter;
  • £4000 will get you a compact monograph, and
  • £10,000 will give you a long form monograph.

So, it looks like Bill Hirzy, Paul Connett, Quanyong Xiang, Bruce Spittle, and David Kennedy had a whip around (probably digging into the Fluoride Action Network funds) and produced £1400 to buy themselves some apparent “scientific credibility.”

I say apparent because more and more readers of scientific literature are becoming aware of the problem of poor quality journals and predatory open access publishers. Rather than providing scientific credibility, publication in such outlets may in fact leave a bad mark on a scientist’s reputation and credibility.

But I guess the politically motivated activists looking to confirm their biases will not care.

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Another shonky OPCW chemical incident report on Syria

Collection of samples from the site of an alleged chemical attack in Saraqib, Syria, by a White Helmets “sample collection team” affiliated with “rebels”/terrorists in the area.  OPCW Report on Saraqib incident.

Last week the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) published a new report on a chemical incident in Syria (see OPCW Fact-Finding Mission Confirms Likely Use of Chlorine in Saraqib, Syria). It claims “that chlorine was likely used as a chemical weapon on 4 February 2018 in Saraqib, Idlib Governorate, Syrian Arab Republic.”

Yet again this very political word “likely.” Unfortunately, the report displays the same sloppiness and lack of adherence to the OPCW’s own procedures which caused earlier reports to be discredited (see for example Chemical weapons use in Syria UN report flawed by political bias). In particular, no on-site inspections, no authentication of interviews or samples, and reliance on “rebel”/terrorist affiliated groups for their information and samples.

No, this is not the report we are waiting on – one dealing with the highly publicised alleged “chemical incident” in Duoma more recently. I certainly hope that one will be better – and the chances are it will because the OPCW was forced to handle this situation in a more honest way.

Whereas the Syrian government and the Russian armed forces asked the OPCW to send a team to Duoma to make its own investigations, the OPCW investigation of the Saraqib incident did not involve any on site inspection or sampling. The Saraqib report bases its conclusions simply on “open source” material and on samples and testimony provided by the jihadi-affiliated “White Helmets” (which unethically calls itself “Syrian Civil Defence”). For example –  see this table extracted from the OPCW report.

Readers can download the OPCW report here – Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria Regarding an Alleged Incident in Saraqib, Syrian Arab Republic on 4 February 2018.

According to the Saraqib report (paragraph 4.3):

“The FFM (Fact-finding Mission) noted that during an investigation, complete, direct, and immediate access to the site of an allegation provides the greatest opportunity to collect information.”

Of course, this is the only way for such a FFM to produce a credible conclusion. This is particularly relevant to this specific case because instead of following its own recommended procedures for examination and establishing lines of custody the FFM relied on:

“examination of existing reports; assessment and corroboration of background information; conduct of interviews with relevant medical care providers, alleged casualties, and other individuals linked to the reported incident; review of documentation and records provided by interviewees; analysis of the signs and symptoms of victims as reported by interviewees; and receipt of environmental samples, for subsequent analysis.”

In practice the FFM report is simply based on testimony and samples provided by the “White Helmets/”Syrian Civil Defence” – a controversial organisation closely linked to the jihadis with a political policy of calling for NATO intervention in Syria and a record of falsifying video reports (see my previous articles on the “White Helmets”).

Paragraph 4.6 illustrates the complete reliance on such suspect sources:

“Through liaison with representatives of several NGOs, including Same Justice/Chemical Violations Documentation Center of Syria (CVDCS), the Syrian Civil Defence – also known as White Helmets – (SCD) and the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), the FFM contacted witnesses and confirmed their willingness to provide testimony and potential evidence. Furthermore, the FFM coordinated with the NGOs to organise movement of the witnesses. “

Why can’t  (or won’t) Syrian opposition provide security guarantees for OPCW?

Of course, they justified this by claiming “various constraints, mainly related to security, have not enabled immediate access to sites by the FFM.” But there is no sign that the OPCW attempted to get security guarantees or even contacted the military units in the area. Nor is there any sign that the NGOs they relied on (the White Helmets and associated groups who are linked with the military groups in the area) made any attempt on their behalf to arrange for a site visit.

Duoma was also in a military active area. Syrian and Russian armed forces, together with a UN security team, provided security guarantees for the OPCW investigation team. A similar situation could have been organised in Saraqib – after all the area was under the military control of the jihadi militants.

In Duoma, Russian chemical weapons specialists carried out their own investigation and sampling – but, correctly, considered that an OPCW investigation would be far more acceptable to world opinion. The same procedure was used in the OPCW investigation of the Salisbury alleged chemical incident. Although they took subsamples of material collected by the UK authorities the OPCW team also took their own samples. This means that their report, if we ever get to see it (see OPCW on Salisbury poisoning – one step forward, two back?) can be more authoritative than one relying simply on UK samples.

Why should the OPCW consider the jihadi affiliated groups in Saraqib any more respectable or acceptable than the Russian (or UK) experts? If they had produced a report on Duoma using only Russian-supplied samples and testimony they would have been laughed at. Why do they expect us to accept an even less reliable or objective report for Saraqib?

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Not just another rat study

A new high-quality study of the effect of fluoride on the memory and learning behaviour of rats has produced definitive results. Anti-fluoride campaigners had great hopes this study would bring an end to community water fluoridation (CWF) – but their hopes have been dashed.

The study showed no effect of fluoride on the memory, learning and motor skills of rats thus reinforcing the consensus that CWF is safe

Animal experiments are commonly used to investigate possible health effects of chemicals like fluoride. This enables strict research protocols without the ethical problems faced by human studies. Consequently, there have been a large number of investigations of the effect of fluoride on animals. Some of these have suggested harmful effects. The US anti-fluoride activist organisation, the Fluoride Action Network (FAN) lists 45 studies “where mice or rats treated with fluoride were found to suffer impairments in their learning and/or memory abilities” (see FLUORIDE AFFECTS LEARNING & MEMORY IN ANIMALS).

FAN claims these and similar studies as irrefutable evidence that CWF is harmful – particularly in their major campaign claiming CWF lowers IQ and should be stopped. However, a more scientific assessment is far less dogmatic.

The US National Toxicity Program (NTP) examined published research of potential neurological effects from fluoride exposures in experimental rodent animals in a systematic review published in 2016 (see Systematic literature review on the effects of fluoride on learning and memory in animal studies). They found many of the studies had limitations due to confounding in the learning and memory assessments and there was a lack of discrimination between motor and learning skills. Very few of the studies were made at drinking water concentrations relevant to CWF and the evidence for adverse effects was “low to moderate,” and weakest for animals during their developmental phase.

The NTP concluded further research was needed and undertook laboratory studies with rodents to fill the research gaps it had identified. Those studies are now complete and have been published in a research paper:

McPherson, C. A., Zhang, G., Gilliam, R., Brar, S. S., Wilson, R., Brix, A., … Harry, G. J. (2018). An Evaluation of Neurotoxicity Following Fluoride Exposure from Gestational Through Adult Ages in Long-Evans Hooded Rats. Neurotoxicity Research. Neurotoxicity Research.

The laboratory experiment

The authors used four treatments for the rats:

  • G1: Fed standard rodent chow;
  • G2: Fed low-fluoride chow;
  • G3: Fed low-fluoride chow + drinking water with 10 ppm F;
  • G4 Fed low-fluoride chow + drinking water with 20 ppm F.

Effects of drinking water F were determined by comparing results for G3 and G4 with G2.

The drinking water fluoride concentrations still seem high (compared with the recommended level of 0.75 ppm for CWF) but are lower than used in most earlier studies (often around 100 ppm). However, the basis for these choices was the use of the US secondary drinking water standard (2 ppm) and US UPA maximum contaminant level (4 ppm) and “the conventional wisdom that a 5-fold increase in dose is required to achieve comparable human serum levels.” However, this “wisdom” is debated as blood serum levels fluctuate.

These drinking water concentrations are still far higher than the recommended optimum level for CWF (0.75 ppm) so the results should be seen as more related to the defined upper limits than to CWF itself.

Behavioural assessments

A range of behavioural assessments was made. These included:

“motor, sensory, or learning and memory performance on running wheel, open-field activity, light/dark place preference, elevated plus maze, pre-pulse startle inhibition, passive avoidance, hot-plate latency, Morris water maze acquisition, probe test, reversal learning, and Y-maze.”

The purpose of using such a wide range was to overcome deficiencies of the measurements made in earlier studies and to fill in gaps. Animals at the developmental stage were included as most earlier studies had been made with adult rats.

“No significant differences observed”

One of the most commonly used phrases in this paper as the results are presented and discussed is that there were “no significant differences observed across groups.”

The authors note in their abstract that they “observed no exposure-related differences” in any of the behavioural tests listed above.

This result is important. The study is authoritative. The chosen experimental protocols resulted from an extensive systematic review of the earlier work which identified gaps and deficiencies. A very wide range of behavioural tests was used. And the experimental plans were discussed very widely before the experiments began.

We can conclude, therefore, that rodent experiments are unlikely to show behavioural effects related to fluoride exposure at the concentrations which, the authors argue, are relevant to the recommended maximum drinking water standard (2 ppm) and maximum contaminant level (4 ppm) for humans. The argument that this result is relevant to humans is strengthened by the possibility that ““the conventional wisdom that a 5-fold increase in dose is required” to make results relevant for humans may be inflated.

The argument is further strengthened for humans as the recommended drinking water fluoride concentrations for humans is even lower than the maximum drinking water standard and the maximum contaminant level.

Other assessments

The researchers also analysed thyroid hormones and examined collected tissues. They reported:

“No exposure-related pathology was observed in the heart, liver, kidney, testes, seminal vesicles, or epididymides.”

And:

No evidence of neuronal death or glial activation was observed in the hippocampus at 20 ppm F.”

In fact, the only statistically significant effects they found were a “mild inflammation in the prostate gland” and “evidence of mild fluorosis in adults” at 20 ppm F (treatment G4). Remember this level corresponds to the maximum contaminant level for humans and dental fluorosis has also been reported for humans at that concentration.

The anti-fluoride spin

Several years ago I discussed the planned NTP work and the reaction of anti-fluoride campaigners to it in my article Fluoride and IQ – another study coming up.

These campaigners seemed ecstatic about the planned NTP work, although I did comment:

“You wouldn’t think the anti-fluoride crowd would welcome such a careful analysis of the poor-quality articles they promote”

However, Fluoride Free NZ revealed the spin they placed on the NTP document describing the systematic review and the planned work in their press release at the time (see Fluoride-Brain Studies Set to Expose Fluoridation Damage):

“Results could mean the end to fluoridation world-wide, and definitely should put a halt to any plans to start fluoridation in places not currently fluoridated.

Because it is now well established that fluoride affects the brain, the NTP plans to conduct new animal studies to determine the lowest dose at which this damage occurs. They also plan to do a systematic review of all the existing scientific literature. To date, there have been 314 studies that have investigated fluoride’s effects on the brain and nervous system. These include 181 animal studies, 112 human studies, and 21 cell studies.”

I commented on this:

“The confirmation bias and dogmatic agenda stick out like a sore thumb – don’t expect these people to accurately report this study’s findings.”

Well, it seems that these campaigners are still stuck in dumb shock of the denial phase as they have yet to make any comment on these research results. When they do get around to overcoming their speechlessness they are going to be hard put to reconcile this denial with their earlier hopes for the research findings.

There is no way this study can be used to argue for “the end to fluoridation worldwide” or that there “definitely should” be “a halt to any plans to start fluoridation in places not currently fluoridated.

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Russian sports doping scandal looking like an illusion?

Image credit: RussiangateDOPING SCANDALS IN RUSSIAN SPORTS

There is often a difference, sometimes a big difference between public perception, even media reports, and the facts. Recent news from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) illustrate this for sport.

The belief that Russian sportsmen and women indulge in doping to a much higher degree than for other nations is widespread. Our media reinforces that belief – and, true, the International Olympic Committee and WADA certainly provide plenty of information to support it. Bans on Russian athletes have been common lately and there is widespread media coverage any time there is even a suspicion that a Russian athlete may have violated doping rules.

But what are the facts?

Well, we can check as WADA periodically publishes data for athlete doping violations. In my article  Quantifying the problem of international sports doping I discussed the data for 2014 This showed that when the number of tests taken for each country’s athletes is considered,  Russian athlete’s ranked 19th on the list of positive doping tests. The high number of positive tests for that nation can be explained by the much higher number of tests actually taken.

WADA has now published its data for 2016 (see WADA publishes Anti-Doping Rule Violations Report for 2016). Yes, a few years old, but there is quite a time between taking the test samples, declaring a possible violation, considering the factors involved and finally declaring a violation. The WADA report (2016 Anti-Doping Rule Violations (ADRVs) Report) includes all the data up until the end of 1017.

So what are the facts?

Contrary to public perception, athletes from the Russian Federation do not top the table for the number of doping violations – they actually rank 6th  (together with India) with 69 violations (ADRVs – anti-doping rule violations). After Italy (147 violations), France (86), USA (76), Australia (75) and Belgium (73).

Unfortunately, the current report does not give data for the total number of tests according to the country – only for the national sporting federations. This is not the same thing.

I suspect, given the international furore over doping violations by Russian athletes, and the extra testing imposed by the IOC, Russian athletes may have again undergone a higher frequency of testing. It could be that the Russian Federation actually ranks lower than 6th when considered on a proportional basis.

New Zealand ranks 44th on the WADA list with 7 violations. Good news, I guess. But I wonder what our ranking would be if proven violations were reported as a percentage of tests taken.

Good news also is that the percentage of confirmed violations worldwide is relatively low overall. There were a total 1,326 ADRVs from 229,514 samples taken -0 a rate of only 0.6%. Perhaps sports doping is not as bad as we are led to think. Or perhaps it shows that the huge investment in anti-doping measures has been paying off.

The Russian doping scandal

Finally, I should mention this is not the only current news on the issue of doping by athletes from the Russian Federation. Over the last few years, our media has often covered this issue, apparently exposing a scandal involving the official Russian testing laboratory in Moscow and a state-sponsored scheme to hide doping of athletes at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. This scandal has helped keep the problem of doping by Russian athletes in the public mind – and Russian leaders themselves have not denied there was a problem – although they rejected the claims of state-sponsored schemes.

Many people think the Russian athletes have been treated badly. I queried the reliability of the McLaren report which was used for IOC banning of a large number of Russian athletes. (see Ethics and the doping scandal – a response to Guest Work). The banned athletes have also taken legal action to get their names cleared.

A very significant ruling has recently been made public on these bans. The Court of Arbitration for Sport have released their ruling on the case of  Alexander Legkov (see CAS delivers two reasoned awards in the matter of 39 Russian athletes v. the IOC). This ruling found that the case against Legkov had not been proved (see the ARBITRAL AWARD). The evidence of the main witness (“whistleblower”/criminal Grigori Rodchenkov), and hence by implication the McLaren report relying on that evidence, was found unreliable.

This is just the tip of the iceberg and only one of the 39 decisions made public last February 1st which upheld the appeals of 27 Russian athletes and partly upheld the appeals of 12 others.

I guess, better late than never. However, public perception is strongly influenced by first impressions and first allegations (especially when supported by bodies like the IOC). It is going to take some time before the public perception of the problem of sports doping with Russian athletes will become more realistic.

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April ’18 – 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.

Similarly, if your blog data in this list seems out of whack, please check your site meter. Usually, the problem is that for some reason your site meter is no longer working.

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.

This list is composed automatically from the data in the various site meters used. If you feel the data in this list is wrong could you check to make sure the problem is not with your own site meter? I am of course happy to correct any mistakes that occur in the automatic transfer of data to this list but cannot be responsible for the site meters themselves. They do play up.

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 April 2018. 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

Mainstream media-political alliance gets vindictive

Hala Jaber, highly Respected Middle East correspondent and author of  The Flying Carpet of Small Miracles: A Woman’s Fight to Save Two Orphans.” Image Credit: Goodreads.

Several things have come together in the last few months – centred around news about the war in Syria, chemical weapons, the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury and the ongoing geopolitical information war:

  • Government propaganda and claims have become more aggressive – particularly from the UK and USA;
  • Syria and chemical weapons have become central to the Russophobic arguments of these governments;
  • The mainstream media has enthusiastically and unquestioningly promoted these claims;
  • Alternative media, journalists and critics of this propaganda and government policies are being singled out for personal attack, and
  • Readers and viewers are aggressively being directed away from alternative news sources.

OK,  readers here will have picked up on the tone of some of my recent posts so will not be surprised that I think this way. But, let’s be clear, it is not only me.

Journalists also concerned

The highly respected Middle East correspondent, Hala Jaber, who used to work for the London Times wrote in a series of Tweets last week (see @HalaJaber – 18:36 UTC – 19 Apr 2018):

“In my entire career, spanning more than three decades of professional journalism, I have never seen MSM resolve to such ugly smear campaigns & hit pieces against those questioning mainstream narratives, with a different view point, as I have seen on Syria, recently.

This is a dangerous manoeuvre a witch hunt in fact, aimed not only at character assassination, but at attempting to silence those who think differently or even sway from mainstream & state narrative.

It would have been more productive, to actually question the reason why more & more people are indeed turning to alternative voices for information & news, than to dish out ad hominem smears aimed at intimidating by labelling alternative voices as conspirators or apologists.

The journalists, activists, professors & citizens under attack are presenting an alternative view point. Surely, people are entitled to hear those and are intelligent enough to make their own judgments. 

Or is there an assumption, (patronizing, if so), that the tens of thousands of people collectively following these alternative voices are too dumb & unintelligent to reach their own conclusions by sifting through the mass information being dished at them daily from all sides? 

Like it or hate it, agree or disagree with them, the bottom line is that the people under attack do present an alternative view pointLeast we forget, no one has a monopoly on truth. Are all those currently launching this witch hunt suggesting they do?”

Moon of Alabama provides an excellent summary of recent events – far better than what I tried to do with the same material. So I will just quote from their article – The Media War On Truthful Reporting And Legitimate Opinions – A Documentary.

The media smears begin

Remember PropOrNot?

“In fall 2016 a smear campaign was launched against 200 websites which did not conform to NATO propaganda.”

They even provided a browser add-on which would warn you that you were reading material from a website they classified as a “Russian propaganda outlet.” Despite being promoted by some of the mainstream media it was considered a bit of a joke –  independent writers and sources who missed out on the classification were somewhat pissed off.

It still exists as a promoter of extreme Russophobic views on Twitter ().

Government propaganda gets childish and journalists become stenographers

Then came the infamous “dashboard’ which the UK and US governments appear to be using as a source of claims for increased activity of “Russian bots.”

“The neoconservative Alliance For Securing Democracy declared that any doubt of the veracity of U.S. propaganda stories discussed on Twitter was part of a “Russian influence campaign”. Their ‘dashboard‘ shows the most prominent hashtags and themes tweeted and retweeted by some 600 hand-selected but undisclosed accounts. (I have reason to believe that @MoonofA is among them.) The dashboard gave rise to an endless line of main-stream stories faking concern over alleged “Russian influence”. The New York Times published several such stories including this recent one:”

This is from that NYT article  (Trump Declines to Add Sanctions Against Russians, Contradicting Haley) discussing the recent illegal FUKUS missile attack on Syria:

“Russia did not respond militarily to the Friday strike, but American officials noted a sharp spike in Russian online activity around the time it was launched.

A snapshot on Friday night recorded a 2,000 percent increase in citing the hashtag #isupportsyria on Russian troll networks, according to a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security who was not authorized to discuss the issue by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. Additionally, the official said, the known Russian hashtag #SyriaStrikes had a 4,443 percent increase in activity while another, #Damsucs, saw a 2,800 percent jump.”

The use of such “dashboard” data is, of course, disingenuous. The Times attributed the “bot” claims to Tyler Q. Holton. the spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security:

“One suspects that Holton used the bizzare statistic of the infamous ‘Dashboard‘ created by the neoconservative, anti-Russian lobby. The dashboard creators asserted that the use of certain hashtags is a sign of ‘Russian bots’. On December 25 the dashboard showed that Russian trolls and bots made extensive use of the hashtag #MerryChristmas to undermine America’s moral.


bigger

One of the creators of the dashboard, Clint Watts, has since confessed that it is mere bullshit:

“I’m not convinced on this bot thing,” said Watts, the cofounder of a project that is widely cited as the main, if not only, source of information on Russian bots. He also called the narrative “overdone.”

But, worse still – not only do we get governments making such stupid statements, we are now getting journalist reporting them without any questions:

As government spokesperson Holton is supposed to spout propaganda that supports the government’s policies. But propaganda is ineffective when it does not adhere to basic realities. Holton is bad at his job. Baker, the NYT author, did even worse. He repeated the government’s propaganda bullshit without pointing out and explaining that it obviously did not make any sense. He  used it to further his own opinionated, false narrative. It took a day for the Times to issue a partial correction of the fact free tale.”

This as a concern – these days the media is simply repeating government propaganda without any of the questioning we should expect from journalists. Some media critics are now describing these “journalists” as “stenographers.”

Personal attacks

“Last December the Guardian commissioned a hatchet job against Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett. Beeley and Bartlett extensively reported (vid) from the ground in Syria on the British propaganda racket “White Helmets”. The Guardian piece defended the ‘heros’ of the White Helmets and insinuated that both journalists were Russian paid stooges.”

Both these independent reporters have provided important eye-witness reports from Syria and done much to expose how our mainstream media misrepresents the situation. I referred to Vanessa Beeley’s reports in my articles Anti-Syrian propaganda and the White HelmetsWhite Helmets dupes New Zealand government? and The first casualty . .

“In March the self proclaimed whistle-blower and blowhard Sibel Edmonds of Newsbud launched a lunatic broadside smear attack(vid) against Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett. The Corbett Report debunked (vid) the nonsense. (The debunking received 59,000 views. Edmonds public wanking was seen by less than 23,000 people.)”

Recently government and media apologists have used the “fact-checking” site Polygraph.info. (a project of the CIA propaganda outlets Voice of America and Radio Free Europe):

“On April 4 the Polygraph wrote a smear piece about the Twitter account Ian56 (@Ian56789). Its headline: Disinfo News: Doing the Kremlin’s Work: A Fake Twitter Troll Pushes Many Opinions:
“Ben Nimmo, the Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, studies the exploits of “Ian56” and similar accounts on Twitter. His recent article in the online publication Medium profiles such fake pro-Kremlin accounts and demonstrates how they operate.”

…Nimmo, and several other dimwits quoted in the piece, came to the conclusion that Ian56 is a Kremlin paid troll, not a real person. Next to Ian56 Nimmo ‘identified’ other ‘Russian troll’ accounts:

“Ben Nimmo @benimmo – 10:50 UTC – 24 Mar 2018 One particularly influential retweeter (judging by the number of accounts which then retweeted it) was @ValLisitsa, which posts in English and Russian. Last year, this account joined the troll-factory #StopMorganLie campaign.”

Nimmo’s employer, the Atlantic Council, is a lobby of companies who profit from war.”

The crude level of these claims is indicated by the fact that @ValLisitsa is the twitter account of  Valentina Lisitsa, a famous American-Ukrainian pianist.

“Yes, she sometimes tweets in Russian language to her many fans in Russia and the Ukraine. Is that now a crime? The videos of her performances on Youtube have more than 170 million views. It is absurd to claim that she is a ‘Russian troll’ and to insinuate that she is taking Kremlin money to push ‘Russian troll’ opinions.”

Polygraph.info wrote:

““Ian56,” it seems, is not a real person. He (or she) does seem to be the creation of a flesh and blood Russian, experts say, not a “bot” but a “troll.””

But  is, in fact, the Twitter account of a very real British Pensioner, Ian Shilling. He was interviewed by Sky News:

I should point out this definition of a bot:

“A Twitter bot is a type of bot software that controls a Twitter account via the Twitter API. The bot software may autonomously perform actions such as tweeting, retweeting, liking, following, unfollowing, or direct messaging other accounts.”

Yet these interviewers ask a flesh and blood person if he is a bot! Also, they had the hypocrisy to suggest he may not be carefully checking out the veracity of the stories he retweets – a question they never put to the government spokespersons and media journalists who make these unverified and stupid claims all the time.

Academics in the frame

“On April 14 Murdoch’s London Times took personal aim at the members of a group of British academics who assembled to scientifically investigate dubious claims against Syria. Their first investigation report though, was about the Skripal incident in Salisbury. The London Times also targeted Bartlett and Beeley. The piece was leading on page one with the headline: “Apologists for Assad working in universities”. A page two splash and an editorial complemented the full fledged attack on the livelihood of the scientists.


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Tim Hayward, who initiated the academic group, published a (too) mild response.”

The Guardian channels UK government propaganda

A Guardian article, Russia spread fake news via Twitter bots after Salisbury poisoning – analysis, uncritically repeated UK government claims and in the process smeared Ian Shilling (see video above) and Maram Susil, a Syrian-born Australian scientist, as “Russian bots” claiming:

“Russia used trolls and bots to unleash disinformation on to social media in the wake of the Salisbury poisoning, according to fresh Whitehall analysis. Government sources said experts had uncovered an increase of up to 4,000% in the spread of propaganda from Russia-based accounts since the attack,– many of which were identifiable as automated bots.

But civil servants identified a sharp increase in the flow of fake news after the Salisbury poisoning, which continued in the runup to the airstrikes on Syria.

One bot, @Ian56789, was sending 100 posts a day during a 12-day period from 7 April, and reached 23 million users, before the account was suspended. It focused on claims that the chemical weapons attack on Douma had been falsified, using the hashtag #falseflag. Another, @Partisangirl, reached 61 million users with 2,300 posts over the same 12-day period.”

The Guardian journalist who authored this story responded to criticism of her article with the tweet:

“As I make very clear in the story, that’s the analysis of British government cyber experts – with whom you are quite welcome to disagree.”

I think that sums up the complete abandonment of their job by many mainstream media and why the term “stenographer” to describe them is so justified.

The Sky News interview of one of these “Russian Bots” Ian Shilling is shown above. He also published a written response:

“I have been campaigning against the Neocons and the Neocon Wars since January 2002, when I first realised Dick Cheney and the PNAC crowd were going to use 9/11 as the pretext to launch a disastrous invasion of Iraq. This has nothing to do with Russia. It has EVERYTHING to do with the massive lies constantly told by the UK & US governments about their illegal Wars of Aggression. “

The other “Russian bot” in the Guardian story, Maram Susli (@Partisangirl) posted her own video debunking the Guardian:

Partisangirl also showed that the government analysts and the Guardian couldn’t even get their figures right – again illustrating how journalists simply do not do any checking:

Ian Shilling (@Ian56789) posted a similar tweet illustrating how the figures given for his tweets were also highly inflated.

The take-home message

The Moon of Alabama article started with this quote about the Spanish civil war from George Orwell:

“Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.
George Orwell, Looking back on the Spanish War, Chapter 4″

So it is fitting that Moon of Alabama finished this excellent article with the comments:

“The governments and media would like to handle the war on Syria like they handled the war in Spain. They want reports without “any relation to the facts”. The media want to “retail the lies” and eager propagandists want to “build emotional superstructures over events that never happened.”

The new communication networks allow everyone to follow the war on Syria as diligently as George Orwell followed the war in Spain in which he took part. We no longer have to travel to see the differences of what really happens and what gets reported in the main stream press. We can debunk false government claims with freely available knowledge.

The governments, media and their stenographers would love to go back to the old times when they were not plagued by reports and tweets from Eva, Vanessa, Ian, Maram and Sarah or by blogposts like this one. The vicious campaign against any dissenting report or opinion is a sorry attempt to go back in time and to again gain the monopoly on ‘truth’.

It is on us to not let them succeed.”

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Novichock – a marketing ploy?

A new line of sunflower oil on Russian supermarket shelves.
Image credit: 

I came across this on twitter – a new line of sunflower oil launched on the Russian market. The labels claim the product is conducive to a long life and has a special flavour.

Perhaps the events in Salisbury are simply a marketing trick. Perhaps some old hacks from the KGB (prominently displayed on the label) have gone into the (sunflower) oil business.

Given the lack of transparency in the investigation and the confusing information we do have, I simply have not been able to make head nor tail of this whole event. None of the conspiracy theories seem at all credible

At this stage, this is the best explanation for the Salisbury poisoning I can find.

If nothing else it shows the Russian people certainly aren’t panicking and have not lost their sense of humour.

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The “heart of the Syrian chemical weapons programme” destroyed?

There were no chemical weapons in Damascus. The French, UK and US (FUKUS) surely knew that. So, their missile attack in the weekend had nothing to chemical weapons.

We all know the first casualty of war is the truth. However, it seems that the time truth really gets a flogging is after a highly publicised military operation. All the levels of patriotism, nationalism and bravado are used. No faults can be admitted. And the “enemy” always suffers a horrible defeat.

Then, of course, dissident voices get suppressed or vilified. That is until everyone calms down and the truth starts to sink in.

It has happened before, (remember Iraq). It will happen again. And, although it may be too early to completely burst the bubble of self-declared victory, it happened again in the weekend with the missile attack on Syria by the French, UK and US (the FUKUS team).

The Barzah Scientific Research Centre, Damascus, before the weekend attack

But the truth is already coming out. The whole attack was based on a lie. The constant reference to proof from classified evidence is complete nonsense. We can see this clearly in the case of the main target – the Barzah Scientific Research Centre.

This centre was completely destroyed. Most of the missiles launched (76 out of about 105) targeted this centre. But why?

Pentagon Spokesperson U.S. Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie declared “We believe that by hitting Barzah, in particular, we’ve attacked the heart of the Syrian chemicals weapon program.”

A Syrian soldier films the damage at the site of the Barzah Scientific Research Center in Damascus on Saturday morning after it was annihilated by 76 missiles. Image source: Daily Mail: Pentagon celebrates airstrikes which ‘crippled’ Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal 

So there you have it. This is maybe the key “fact” that the FUKUS military action centred on. The claim that the  Barzah Scientific Research Centre was the “heart of the Syrian chemicals weapon program.” That’s where most of the destruction occurred, where most of the missiles were targeted. And US spokespersons claim they have successfully destroyed the Syrian chemical weapons programme.

What does the OPCW say about this centre?

While the FUKUS team has not supplied a single verifiable fact to support their action the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has supplied plenty of evidence to show the attack was based on a lie. And that evidence was surely known by the intelligence communities in France, UK and USA.

That OPCW evidence is in official reports from their investigators who regularly monitor possible chemical weapons sites in Syria (and other countries). The OPCW regularly monitor the  Barzah Scientific Research Centre. Here is an extract from one of the latest OPCW reports (23 March 2018) which refers specifically to the Barezeh Scientific Research Centre (see OPCW Document EC-88/DG.1 “PROGRESS IN THE ELIMINATION OF THE SYRIAN CHEMICAL WEAPONS PROGRAMME”).

France, the UK and the USA are, together with Syria, signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). They have access to all these documents. In fact, they have members on the OPCW Executive Council who actively peruse these documents. The permanent representatives are Mr Philippe Lalliot for France, Mr Peter Wilson for the UK and Mr Kenneth D. Ward for the USA. FUKUS must have known that regular inspections did not show the presence of any chemical weapons or relevant chemicals at the Barezh Scientific Research Centre.

OK – they may well argue that these weapons had arrived since the last inspection (last November) or are hidden from the inspectors. If they honestly believed that then they should have used the “‘challenge inspection’ provisions” of the Convention:

“A unique feature of the CWC is its incorporation of the ‘challenge inspection’, whereby any State Party in doubt about another State Party’s compliance can request the Director-General to send an inspection team. Under the CWC’s ‘challenge inspection’ procedure, States Parties have committed themselves to the principle of ‘any time, anywhere’ inspections with no right of refusal.”

Comments from a worker at the centre

The morning after the attack, France 24 interviewed Said Said, an engineer who is head of the centre’s paint and plastics department (see At destroyed Syria lab, workers deny producing toxic weapons):

“The building had three storeys: a basement, ground floor, and second floor. It had labs and departments that were unfortunately completely destroyed, with all their equipment and furniture. Thank God, no one was here. As we work in civilian pharmaceutical and chemical research, we did not expect that we would be hit.”

According to Said Said only non-lethal research and development occurred at the centre. It had been producing antidotes to scorpion and snake venom while running tests on chemical products used in making food, medicine and children’s toys.

“If there were chemical weapons, we would not be able to stand here. I’ve been here since 5:30 am in full health — I’m not coughing.”

The OPCW had visited the site in Barzah in recent years and had declared it free of any toxic weapons.

“The OPCW used to stay in the two upper rooms, and use the labs, and we would cooperate with them completely. The OPCW has proven in two reports that this building and the centre as a whole are empty and do not produce any chemical weapons.”

Update

Here is a video of the interview referred to by France24:

To summarise

The FUKUS group clearly knew there were no chemical weapons at the Barzah Scientific Research Centre.  They had access to all the OPCW information on that centre. They claim to have relied on classified intelligence to make a different assessment. But that is clearly a lie – not only because “classified’ is the oldest trick in the book to hide the fact there is no evidence. But because any such evidence should have triggered a request by them for a “challenge inspection” – a request which could not have been refused by Syria.

Of course, we are still in the in the propaganda phase of this operation. Patriotism and jingoism are still driving the narrative of officials and politicians. The mainstream media suffers from this too and most real informaiton is coming from alternative media.

But these warmongers have an answer for that. According to Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White:

“The Russian disinformation campaign has already begun. There has been a 2,000% increase in Russian trolls in the last 24 hours therefore we will keep you all abreast of the facts moving forward.”

I expect to be labelled one of “Putin’s useful idiots” (again) or – and this is a new one – one of “Assad’s useful idiots,” any day now for daring to look at the real facts behind this missile attack.

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