Fluoridation: One small step sideways?

elephant in room

Fluoridation. Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room – the need to separate scientific review from community consultation.

Most health officials and science-minded people welcomed the recent announcement of the government’s plan to transfer decisions on water fluoridation from local councils to district health boards (see Fluoridation decisions to be made by District Health Boards). But the welcome was, in most cases, luke warm. The health and scientific community would probably have preferred that central government take on that responsibility itself. Given that District Health Boards employ staff with much more scientific and health expertise than councils the decision was seen as one small step forward – by a government too timid and politically sensitive to local backlash to “go the whole hog.” But I believe this step ignores the elephant in the room – the need to separate the review of the science from political considerations such as community consultation.

On the other hand, anti-fluoride campaigners have presented the decision as a giant step backwards – at least in their public announcements and campaigns. But their disingenuous claims (describing the step as introducing mandatory fluoridation and removing democratic consultation) suggest this has more to do with scaremongering and rallying of the troops. In reality, they probably welcome the announcement of the plans as providing them yet another chance to deluge the public and politicians with their misinformation and scare stories.

I fear that the government’s moves may turn out to be only one step sideways – although the required legislative process does provide possibilities to make changes that clearly separate scientific consultation from community consultation. That would be a step forward

A small step sideways

Simply transferring the hysterical discussions from elected local councils to elected district health boards will provide the same level of access by ideologically and commercially motivated campaigners and their misinformation. In practice, the elected members of health boards may suffer the same degree of scientific ignorance, ideological biases and hubris amply demonstrated by local councils in the past.

Anti-fluoride campaigners recognise this. They already have supporters on some health boards and are consciously planning to increase their numbers with upcoming local body elections.

Jane Clifton recognised that this sideways step is the most likely outcome in her recent NZ Listener column (subscription required):

“Finally rolling up its sleeves to sort out this nonsense once and for all the Government has  . . .  relocated the decision with district health boards. DHB members are no less subject to fearsome lobbying than councils, so this major public health issue will remain the push-me, pull-you of unqualified, internet-schooled amateur lobbyists and ill-equipped local politicians.”

She says controversies like this are “beyond” councils as demonstrated by the “wondrous variety in their deliberations over fluoridation.”

A real step forward possible

According to the Ministry of Health, the government’s plans require an amendment to the New Zealand Public Health and Disability Act 2000. Page 19 of this act has the following section describing a public health advisory committee:

14 Public health advisory committee

(1) The national advisory committee on health and disability must establish a committee called the public health advisory committee to provide independent advice to the Minister and to the national advisory committee on health and disability on the following matters:
(a) public health issues, including factors underlying the health of people and communities:
(b) the promotion of public health:
(c) the monitoring of public health:
(d) any other matters the national advisory committee on health and disability specifies by notice to the committee.
(2) The advice given by the public health advisory committee is to be formulated after consultation by the committee with any interested organisation or individual that the committee considers appropriate.
(3) The Minister must make publicly available, and present to the House of Representatives, a copy of any advice given by the public health advisory committee.”

I think this advisory committee should be given responsibility for the  overseeing and regular review of the science around community water fluoridation. It could do this by commissioning bodies like the Royal Society of NZ and the Office of the PM’s Chief Scientific Advisor in the same way the Auckland Council on behalf of several local Councils did last year to produce the report Health effects of water fluoridation : A review of the scientific evidence (Eason et al., 2014). Maybe an approach similar to the previous National Fluoridation Information Service, which continually reviewed the literature, could be used. Or maybe such scientific consultation could be tailored to fit the specific situation taking into account any movement in the science and public concern.

Clause 2 above enables consultation with “any interested organisation or individual that the committee considers appropriate.” That would give scope for the credible serious opponents to the currently accepted science but, hopefully, would exclude (or reduce the significance of) the  mindless political campaigner and form letters in submissions.

Yes, the anti-fluoride campaigners would moan about the requirement that submitters be “appropriate” – but the honest ones should welcome the chance to present their scientific claims to a scientifically credible body.

Ideally, then, legislation could provide that scientific consideration is separated from the community consultation when fluoridation of a community is considered. It could make clear that the elected district health boards should not consider the science – that they are not the appropriate body for this. Their role should be to make recommendations after consideration from their staff on the oral health of a community and the need and practical possibility for community water fluoridation.  The board would also have a responsibility to consult the community to determine if fluoridation proposals are supported.

But, please, don’t let such elected boards become bogged down with sifting through piles of submitted misinformation about the science as councils have been. Otherwise, we will just see a future demand, this time from DHBs, for central government to take responsibility for the issue.

Deja vu!

Conclusions

At the moment, we are unclear how the new legislation will pan out. Anti-fluoride campaigners are taking advantage of  the current situation to scaremonger (both about fluoridation and about democracy in general) and spread misinformation. They are making the most of this – and probably enjoying the opportunity as these sort of campaigners recognise that the campaign itself brings more psychological  benefits than the actual decisions.

But the drafting and consideration of this new legislation provide opportunities to turn what could be just a small step sideways into an actual step forward. This could be the time to attempt a separation of scientific considerations and reviews from community consultations.

Perhaps the health and scientific communities could learn a little from the anti-fluoride campaigners activity though. Rather than allowing such campaigners to bombard our lawmakers with their misinformation without challenge, as is currently happening, perhaps there is some scope for sensible lobbying to strengthen the legislation by clarifying that scientific considerations must take place at the central government level and be separated from local consultations.

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New research confirms water fluoridation does not cause bone cancers

Osteosarcoma
The most common type of bone cancer is Osteosarcoma. Image credit:  Osteosarcoma

This time for Texas.

A new study confirms what other researchers have found elsewhere. It is reported in this recent paper:

Archer, N. P., Napier, T. S., & Villanacci, J. F. (2016). Fluoride exposure in public drinking water and childhood and adolescent osteosarcoma in Texas. Cancer Causes & Control

The paper concludes with this statement:

“No relationship was found between fluoride levels in public drinking water and childhood/adolescent osteosarcoma in Texas.”

The same conclusion has been drawn in many reviews of the literature. For example, a local review:

Broadbent, J., Wills, R., McMillan, J., Drummond, B., & Whyman, R. (2015). Evaluation of evidence behind some recent claims against community water fluoridation in New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 6758(October), 1–18.

They pointed out that Bassin et al., (2006) “found a small but
statistically significant association with fluoridated water among the 60 cases [of osteosarcoma]  that occurred among males.”

Anti-fluoride campaigners have relied on this study, even though Bassin et al., (2006) had acknowledged methodological issues with their analysis and urged caution in interpreting their findings. Broadbent et al., (2015) say:

“The work of Bassin et al. (2006) stimulated further, more comprehensive research; however, the new studies have not replicated their findings.”

This conclusion was based on the findings of Kim et al. (2011), Comber et al. (2011), Levy & Leclerc (2012) and Blakey et al. (2014).

The New Zealand Fluoridation Information Service (2013) drew similar conclusions from their review of the literature but also checked out the New Zealand data. They reported in Community Water Fluoridation and Osteosarcoma:

“The analysis confirms that osteosarcoma is extremely rare in New Zealand with only 127 new cases registered during this period averaging 14.1 per year. The peak age is 10 to 19 years for both sexes. These rates indicate that there is no difference in the rates of osteosarcoma cases between areas with CWF [community water fluoridation] and areas without CWF for both sexes,”

The authoritative New Zealand Fluoridation Review (Eason et al., 2014. Health effects of water fluoridation : A review of the scientific evidencealso drew the same conclusion:

“We conclude that on the available evidence there is no appreciable risk of cancer arising from CWF.”

So, once again community water fluoridation has been found safe and a published study suggesting otherwise not confirmed. But I am betting this will not stop anti-fluoride campaigners continuing to cite the Bassin et al. (2006) study as the last word on the topic and “proof” CWF causes osteosarcoma.

Note: For the pet lovers out there.

PetsWelcome

You can also be reassured by this recent study:

Rebhun, R. B., Kass, P. H., Kent, M. S., Watson, K. D., Withers, S. S., Culp, W. T. N., & King, A. M. (2016). Evaluation of optimal water fluoridation on the incidence and skeletal distribution of naturally arising osteosarcoma in pet dogs. Veterinary and Comparative Oncology.

This concluded:

“Taken together, these analyses do not support the hypothesis that optimal fluoridation of drinking water contributes to naturally occurring [osteosarcoma] in dogs.”

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Public discussion of science can be toxic

Public discussion of the science around problems humanity faces today seems inevitably to be diverted by hostility, misleading propaganda, personal attacks, and even outright censorship* of scientists and supporters of science. This creates an atmosphere, and an information overload, which turns the ordinary person off –  if it doesn’t actually fool them into taking up an unscientific position.

So I welcome the publication of the new book I’m Right and Your an Idiot. Subtitled The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it up, the book which is launched next week, looks like it will help scientists and supporters of science who regularly confront this problem.

James Hoggan, the author, is a co-founder of the website, DeSmog, which is well known for its activity in disseminating the real science about climate change. So it is significant that the Amazon blurb for the book starts with this:

“The most pressing environmental problem we face today is not climate change. It is pollution in the public square, where a smog of adversarial rhetoric, propaganda, and polarization stifles discussion and debate, creating resistance to change and thwarting our ability to solve our collective problems.”

In the book, Hoggan explores:

“How trust is undermined and misinformation thrives in today’s public dialogue. Why facts alone fail – the manipulation of language and the silencing of dissent. The importance of reframing our arguments with empathy and values to create compelling narratives and spur action.”

The blurb finishes with this very relevant point:

“Our species’ greatest survival strategy has always been foresight and the ability to leverage our intelligence to overcome adversity. For too long now this capacity has been threatened by the sorry state of our public discourse. Focusing on proven techniques to foster more powerful and effective communication, this book will appeal to readers looking for both deep insights and practical advice.”

James Hogan is also the author of Climate Cover-Up and Do the Right Thing.

*NoteI think anti-science hysteria can create its own censorship, quite apart from government,  where ideologically motivated activists seek to exclude scientists from debates. This was brought home to me recently when I joined a Facebook group, Methven Fluoride Facts, which has the declared aim:

“This is a place to come for facts about fluoride. Everyone is welcome. We would like facts only. Please refrain from personal attacks on others, this will not be tolerated. This is simply about educating the community in a safe forum.”

I spent the first day answering questions and  attempting to correct some of the scientific misunderstandings on the group posts. Then I was subjected to a frenzy of anti-fluoride memes, accusations of being a shill and a troll, hostile comments and finally banned from the group. Administrators of this group tolerated the science for only two days! And their actions help censor scientific input from other members of the group.

(Come to think of it, I must have been banned from almost every anti-fluoide social discussion group I have ever commented on – and I don’t think it is just me).

These days internet forums, blogs, and social media are an important place for the public discussion of issues.  When such forums fall under the control or pressure of anti-science groups they can seriously distort the discussion by censorship like this.

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Fluoridation cessation studies reviewed – overall increase in tooth decay noted

Anti-fluoride activists love to trot out studies where no increase in tooth decay was found after community water fluoridation  (CWF) ceased. They are cherry-picking, of course, because they ignore the studies which do show a decline in dental health. I have written about this before in What happens when fluoridation is stopped? and Anti-fluoridationist’s flawed attacks on Calgary study.

So I am pleased to see a new, just published, review of fluoridation cessation studies. Also pleased that it confirms my impression of the literature.

In short, this review concluded that:

“Overall, the published research points more to an increase in dental caries post-CWF cessation than otherwise.”

The study is published in this paper – it’s open access so you can download a pdf or see the full text:

Mclaren, L., & Singhal, S. (2016). Does cessation of community water fluoridation lead to an increase in tooth decay ? A systematic review of published studies. J Epidemiol Community Health 2, 1–7.

Unsurprisingly, these sort of studies have problems – humans cannot be treated as laboratory rats. Researchers must rely on ordinary data for dental health collected before and after cessation.

Nevertheless, these researchers managed to find 15 instances of cessation occurring in 13 countries and reported in 29 publications. Several of these were excluded because they did not consider specific cessation effects  but reported on the enduring benefits of CWF even after cessation when children were exposed to CWF in the first 4 years of life. Evidence supporting a beneficial systemic effect of CWF in developing teeth. Another instance was excluded because of the complexity of its reports results didn’t enable any conclusion about effects.

Of the remaining situations, eight showed an increase in tooth decay after CWF was stopped. These occurred in Europe, Asia and North America. This paper was obviously submitted before the publication of the Calgary cessation study (Measuring the short-term impact of fluoridation cessation on dental caries in Grade 2 children using tooth surface indices) which also showed an increase in tooth decay (see Anti-fluoridationist’s flawed attacks on Calgary study for a discussion of this paper). So there are really nine instances showing an increase in tooth decay.

The other three instances did not show an increase in tooth decay. These occurred in East Germany, Finland and Cuba. These last three are, of course, the only studies anti-fluoridationists ever mention.

It’s worth quoting an observation from the paper which could help explain these different results:

“Importantly, in all three interventions, there were other factors which could have contributed to findings observed. In Finland, the CWF-cessation community started to provide fluoride tablets to children postcessation. In East Germany, postcessation fissure sealants were paid for by statutory health funds. In Cuba, postcessation, all children received fluoride mouth rinses fortnightly, and children aged 2–5 years received 1–2 fluoride varnish applications annually. Those initiatives could have offset an impact of cessation on dental caries.”

This is a really useful review as the cessation literature has not been properly reviewed before. For example, the recent Cochrane Review only considered one cessation study and concluded: “there is insufficient information to determine the effect of stopping [CWF] on caries levels.” The authors stress the need for researchers to take advantage of research opportunities presented by CWF cessation.

The authors stress the need for researchers to take advantage of research opportunities presented by CWF cessation ( there is a lot of it about in some countries). The also say there is a need for information on how cessation impacts different socio-economic groups and how decisions about cessation are made.

CWF cessation studies are just one area where anti-fluoride campaigners cherry-pick the literature. This example underlines why readers must always treat claims made by these campaigners critically. Always look at the original studies, the data, other treatments, etc.  And check other research these campaigners are hiding.

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Mistakes were made – but by who?

36-chesterfield-cigarettes-are-good-for-you-ad

How often do we see ads like this promoting a product by claiming scientific support that doesn’t exist. All in the interest of profit.

We are all wrong at times – usually a lot more often than we think, or are happy to acknowledge. But the only person who doesn’t make a mistake is the person who is not doing anything – and that is a mistake in itself. Humanity didn’t get where it is today by refusing to act on our best knowledge – even when realising that our knowledge is inevitably  imperfect.

So why do people sometimes resort to the argument that science has made mistakes? They certainly cannot suggest a better alternative. I can only conclude they do this to attack a current scientific consensus they disagree with. A pathetic argument but one often used. Particularly by people who don’t have a scientific leg to stand on.

The trope of scientific mistakes

The Skeptical Raport put it this way in a recent article (Debunking the “mistakes science made” tropes?:

“The antivaccinationists, creationists, anthropogenic global warming deniers, and whomever else pretends to use science to actually deny science frequently focus on a trope covering the mistakes science made.  And then they produce a list of historical events that “prove” that science is wrong. Of course, this indicates more of a misunderstanding of what is science and the history of science than it is a condemnation of science. But your typical science denier is probably not going to let facts get in the way of maintaining faith in their beliefs.”

The article spends some time discussing the nature of scientific knowledge and the scientific method. It states:

“Yes, science does find errors, all the time. In fact, one of the goals of the scientific process is precisely what defines scientific skepticism, a term frequently co-opted by science deniers, which is a process of evaluating a claim based on the quality and quantity of evidence supporting that claim. A real scientist (or scientific skeptic) is looking for errors, because it is a part of the process.”

The excitement of finding a mistake

Working scientists will know the excitement that comes with finding one’s first ideas have been proven wrong by experiment. Or that we can show that a published scientific idea has just been destroyed by our experiment. Mistakes and incorrect hypothesis are exciting when we find them because they open the door to a better, more complete, knowledge that we can be responsible for.

This searching for, and discovery of, mistakes is an important driver for the improvement of scientific knowledge:

“Because science is not based on dogma or faith, it is self-challenging and self-critical, uncovering errors is part of the process that makes good science. And science is unbiased. The proper method of science is not to invent a conclusion, then find evidence that supports it. It actually works by gathering all of the evidence, deciding which is high quality and which is junk, then determining where that evidence leads.

“And as opposed to science deniers, who think that they have the one truth, real science makes mistakes and uncovers it rather rapidly.”

The smoking is healthy myth

The article goes on to discuss several  examples used by those who wish to claim that science is often wrong. I will only deal with the “Science said smoking is healthy” myth – it is one often used by anti-fluoride and anti-vaccination campaigners. The article says:

“But really, did any real scientist claim that smoking was healthy?Smoking tobacco was prevalent through the native American tribes well before the advent of modern science. There was no Native American CDC, FDA or Board of Physicians to approve the use of tobacco as “safe and effective.”

In fact, those Native Americans and Europeans who picked up the habit believed in all kinds of nonsense about tobacco, including that it cured cancer. This wasn’t “science” pushing these beliefs, but it was the traditions of the world at the time that put inordinate faith in various herbs and how they could cure various maladies. In fact, thinking smoking or tobacco was healthy was advertised by the woo-pushers of the time (who are barely different than the woo-pushers of the modern world).

An article inThe Lancet in 1913 warns “that tobacco smoking can give rise to constitutional effects which diminish the resisting power of the body to disease”

“By the 1930’s, real science observed the increase in lung cancer from smoking. The Nazis banned cigarette smoking in the 1930’s because of the known health effects. . . . In 1950, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article by Martin Levin that linked smoking and lung cancer. By the mid-1950’s, numerous epidemiological studies showed a profound increase in lung cancer risk for smokers. The Royal College of Physicians (UK) warned against smoking in 1962. The Surgeon General of the USA warned against smoking in 1964. The CDC has warned against smoking for over 50 years.”

“Yes, tobacco advertisers used to make ads that showed doctors smoking, or worse, endorsing cigarettes. But that wasn’t the “science” of the time. Big Tobacco (a truly evil lot of characters) said just about anything to get people to smoke, whether it was showing doctors smoking or that smoking made you sexy. But they weren’t using peer-reviewed science, these ads were worse than anecdotes, because they were outright lies and mischaracterizations. Science had already concluded that cigarettes were unhealthy a half century before those ads.”

“Once real epidemiological studies were published in peer-reviewed journals, the attitude about smoking changed almost immediately in the medical and general scientific community. And that’s how real science works–it self-corrects.”

As the author says of this particular myth:

“As a suggestion to the science deniers–quit using this trope. It shows how ignorant you are of history, the scientific method, and reality.”

Blaming science for the errors of others

Often these myths about scientific errors boil down to inability to see who made the real errors.  The article quotes Emily Willingham who wrote the following about science in an article in Forbes:

“That said, other ways of viewing of our world clearly carry greater weight for people than science or evidence does. If evidence and data were the only factors in human decision-making, the epic debates humans engage in about whether vaccines eradicated smallpox or whether global climate change is real wouldn’t exist. Even though science is the ultimate lens for truly understanding what underlies our entire existence, we obviously use other, frequently more myopic lenses available to us.

And that leads me to the faults of science. Humans do science, and because we bring our own personalized lenses and biases to whatever we do, science will involve error. But the wonderful thing about science is that it’s a self-correcting process that over time, disciplines itself. How did we discover the real effects of tobacco or DDT that ultimately were revealed? Science made those revelations, and science provided the data everyone needed to know the truth.”

Let’s acknowledge up front that science makes mistakes. But let’s also acknowledge that anti-science campaigners are using these myths inappropriately – blaming science for social mistakes made by governments, business interests or other opinion drivers in society.

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Don’t be fooled by simple media “science”

This video is getting plenty of coverage – and despite its length, it is worth watching. The humour helps, of course. You certainly won’t be bored if you commit the 20 minutes required to watch the video right through.

Oliver warns about the way journalists often misrepresent the science. Further, he is warning that often the science itself is suspect – or even no good.

It’s a warning we should all take on board. If we are interested in understanding something, and not just cherry-picking to confirm an existing ideological bias, then we have to approach what we read in the media about science critically and thoughtfully. Not accepting things at face value. Nor interpreting a journalist attempt at a false balance as somehow authenticating an article.

Hell, all good working scientists know that we should approach the peer-reviewed scientific literature itself in the same critical way. So we should hardly be more gullible when it comes to the media reporting of science.

I do get annoyed at the way our media often presents scientific issues in simplistic and shallow ways.

But then again, I also get very annoyed at the way our media presents important political issues in the same way – or even worse. Just look at the disgraceful way our media covers important issues like the war in Syria.

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“Do the math” – a bit like “Do the research!”

ChCh press letterCherry-picking data is an old technique used by those who wish to raise doubt about a scientific consensus. On the one hand, it isolates the cherry-picked data from their context and the rest of the data. On the other hand is present a “sciency” authority to the argument by pretending to be evidence-based.

I have written about cherry-picking in several articles discussing the fluoridation issue – so nothing new here. But the current surge of activity by anti-fluoridation activists  attempting to raise doubt with the upcoming parliamentary discussion of new legislation on fluoridation is producing a fresh wave of cherry-picked arguments.

The image here is just one example in a letter to the Christchurch Press a few days ago. I thought it worthwhile to actually check out the quoted figures to see if the arguments awere justified.

Firstly, the figures were taken from the Ministry of Health’s 2014 data for the dental health of New Zealand children. Unfortunately, while the actual numbers used are correct, the data has since been withdrawn because of errors in the spreadsheet. So I will use the data for earlier years,  2005 – 20013, in my analysis.

The overall picture

First off – the overall picture shown by the Ministry of Health data is that community water fluoridation does reduce tooth decay. Of course, that is why the anti-fluoride campaigner rarely discusses the overall picture – instead, they cherry-pick data to confirm their bias. The figure below is for 5-year-olds  averaged over the years 2005-2013

MoH-overall

I have separated the data by ethnicity because of the big differences Māori and Pacifica on the one hand and the other ethnic groups on the other. In particular, the dental health of Māori and Pacifica children is poorer. This is an important factor which needs to be taken into account when comparing data from different regions. I discussed this further in my article Anti-fluoridation cherry-pickers at it again.

Data for Canterbury

It is likely that at least some of the 2014 spreadsheet mistakes were in the Canterbury data – but still the claim that there is no real difference between data for fluoridated and non-fluoridated areas could well be true – at least for some years. The figure below displays the data for 5-year-old children. Choose your year and you will get the answer you want to confirm your bias. Children from fluoridated areas seem to have poorer teeth in 2008 and 2010 and better teeth in 2012 and 2013.

Canterbury-5-years

MoH 5-year-old child dental health data for 2005-2013. dmft = decayed, missing and filled teeth.

The plots in the above figure indicate how unreliable such comparisons are for Canterbury because the fluoridated data is all over the place. This is because of the very low number of children in the fluoridated area: 22 – 70 over the years, 42 on average. There were on average 4720 children in the non-fluoridated areas. Children from the fluoridated area usually comprised less than 1% of the total.

The data for Canterbury does not deny the effectiveness of fluoridation, as the letter writer claims. They just show that no conclusion can be drawn from this cherry-picked data. At least I cherry-picked the data from 2005-2013 which enabled me to see how unreliable they were. The letter writer just cherry-picked one year! What will they do if the corrected spreadsheet for 2014 no longer supports their bias – switch to 2010 instead?

Comparing Canterbury and Waikato data

Here we have a different problem. The letter writer has simply cherry-picked these figures because they confirm her bias. She has not taken into account the important influence that ethnic composition has. Any intelligent analysis of this comparison must consider this aspect.

This is the ethnic composition of the 5-year-olds MoH data (averaged over 2005-2013).

Canterbury Waikato
Māori (%) 10.2 31.5
Pacifica (%) 3.2 2.1
Other (%) 86.6 66.4

So, whereas only 13.4% of Canterbury 5-year-olds are Māori or Pacifica, 33.6% of Waikato 5-year-olds are Māori or Pacifica. This is an important difference – especially as the dental health of Māori and Pacifica is poorer than others as demonstrated in the first figure .

Any analysis that does not take this difference into account will be misleading.

As well as ethnic distribution between regions there is also the influence of ethnic distribution between the fluoridated and non-fluoridated areas. This was a factor I discussed in Anti-fluoridation cherry-pickers at it again. The graphic below for 5-year-old children shows Māori and Pacifica are more concentrated in the fluoridated Waikato areas than in the non-fluoridated ones.

MoH-ethnic

Distribution of Māori and Pacifica between fluoridated and non-fluoridated areas.

We can ignore the bar for fluoridated Canterbury because of the very small numbers.

What this means is that the mean value for fluoridated Waikato areas is decreased by the higher presence of Māori and Pacifica than in the non-fluoridated Waikato areas. This higher proportion Māori and Pacific in the Waikato region also affects the comparison of the two regions made by the letter writer.

Rather than comparing oranges with apples, let’s compare Canterbury and Waikato for the same ethnic group – Others (not including Māori and Pacifica). As the figure below shows, removal of the effect of Māori and Pacifica from the Canterbury data increase the caries-free percentage – but it is still slightly less than the equivalent data for the fluoridated Waikato areas.

Waikato-Canterbury

So much for children from non-fluoridated Canterbury areas having better teeth than children from fluoridated Waikato areas.

Auckland and Counties/Manakau

Some anti-fluoride campaigners are pulling the same trick – asserting the dental health of non-fluoridated Canterbury children is better than for the fluoridated Auckland and Counties/Manakau children.

Here is a comparison of the ethnic composition of the three regions for the 2013 5-year-old MoH data.

% Māori + Pacifica
Canterbury

13

Auckland

32

Counties/Manakau

52

See the problem? It is just completely naive – or worse, dishonest – to compare data between regions like this without taking ethnic composition into account.

But that is not going to stop the determined activist who will just cherry-pick whatever fits their bias. I think the naive presentation of data in this way is no more justified by the declaration “Do the math” than misrepresentation of the science is justified by the declaration “Do the research!”

Note: I am well aware that the MoH data have other problems. A truly scientific analysis would also take into account factors like the degree of misallocation of children due to different fluoridation status of home and school, dental treatments such as fluoride varnishes differently used in different regions, missing data, different proportion of attendance according to region and ethnicity, etc. I am not the person to make such a thorough analysis. My sole purpose here is to show how such raw data can be misused for confirmation bias and “sciency” support of mistaken political agendas.

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Victory Day celebration of defeat of terrorism in Palmyra

Victory over terrorism in Syria is still a long way off. But the liberation of Palmyra was an important and symbolic step towards that. This concert on Thursday, in the historic amphitheatre of the ancient city of Palmyra, was dedicated to the 71st anniversary of the defeat of fascism in Europe as well as an expression of gratitude to all those who fight terrorism today and memorial to the victims of terrorism.

During their occupation of Palmyra, Daesh committed public executions by beheading in this amphitheatre. One of the most prominent people beheaded in the city at this time was Khaled al-Asaad, a Syrian archaeologist and the head of antiquities for the ancient city. The New York Time reported the murder (see Syrian Expert Who Shielded Palmyra Antiquities Meets a Grisly Death at ISIS’ Hands):

“After detaining him for weeks, the jihadists dragged him on Tuesday to a public square where a masked swordsman cut off his head in front of a crowd, Mr. Asaad’s relatives said. His blood-soaked body was then suspended with red twine by its wrists from a traffic light, his head resting on the ground between his feet, his glasses still on, according to a photo distributed on social media by Islamic State supporters.”

According to Wikipedia:

“A placard hanging from the waist of his dead body listed al-Asaad’s alleged crimes: being an “apostate”, representing Syria at “infidel conferences”, serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran” and communicating with a brother in the Syrian security services. His body was reportedly displayed in the new section of Palmyra (Tadmur) and then in the ancient section, whose treasures ISIS had already demolished.

In addition to al-Asaad, Qassem Abdullah Yehya, the Deputy Director of the DGAM Laboratories, also protected the Palmyra site. He also was killed by ISIL while on duty on 12 August 2015. He was 37 years old.”

Archeologist

Portrait of murdered Khaled al-Asaad at concert in Palmyra ampitheatre.

Given the religious basis of terrorism in Palmyra, and Syria as a whole, I am a little put off by the title of this concert “Pray for Palmyra. Music Revives Ancient Ruins.” Sure, “prayer” can have a secular meaning – but to me it brings up pictures of terrorists chanting “Allah Akbar” – “God is great.” This chant seems to accompany the launching of all mortars, rockets and almost every bullet fired by jihadists.

Maybe the chant “Allah Akbar” also accompanied each beheading in Palmyra.

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Will we be using contact lens cameras in future?

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A future contact lens camera – from a patent by Sony

A few decades ago I taught photography to night classes. We had no idea then that it would not be long before almost everyone would be carrying around a small camera in the form of a mobile phone. I couldn’t even get students interested in the concept of digitising their photos and processing or storing them on their computers.

It’s hard to predict the paths of new technology or its uptake by industry and the population. But I wonder if this new patent by Sony might give some insight to how we well take photographs in a few decades time. Just imagine – all it may take is to blink!

This article from Digital Photography Review, Sony patents contact lens camera with blink-triggered shutter, predicts privacy problems if the technology goes ahead.

The patented contact lens:

“comes with an integrated miniature camera module and all its components, such as image sensor, lens, processor, storage and even a wireless module to transfer images to a smartphone or other connected device. The camera is triggered by a “conscious” eyelid aperture and closure. A sensor measures the pressure of your eyelid, and other settings such as aperture and zoom can be controlled via eyelid movement as well. A display unit allows you to view captured images directly on the lens.”

So not any old blink will fire the shutter. Even so, I imagine there will be lots of accidental shots. And I have a picture of newbies pulling all sorts of facial expressions as they learn to apply just the right sort of pressure via their eyelid. Then there will be subjects who interpret the “conscious” blink as a wink!

As the article says:

“It’s impossible to know if a product like this will ever hit the market but if it does, it’s certain to raise even more privacy concerns than Google Glass at the time.”

The patent document is available here for anyone who enjoys torturing themselves with the convoluted language which seems unique to patents.

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Barrel bombs, hell cannons, Aleppo and media bias

The result of terrorist shelling of Aleppo

I guess most readers have become familiar with barrel bombs – an indiscriminate weapon currently being used by government forces in the Syrian war. But how many have heard of “hell cannons?”

I hadn’t until recently and I think this shows the bias in our media coverage of the conflict. Hell cannons are an indiscriminate weapon used by rebel/jihadist forces, cause terror and  civilian damage and loss of life. Unfortunately, our media often seems to paint the picture that only government actions cause civilian losses.

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“Rebels” load hell cannon with explosive filled gas bottle in Aleppo. (Getty)

This bias seems particularly bad in their current reporting of the civilian deaths in Aleppo. Here are some of the mythical stories our news media is promoting:

1: The government is not attacking a city held by “rebels” as many of our media stories imply. Rebels hold the smaller part of the city in the east and attacks by the government forces and its allies are aimed at removing them. There is also intensive fighting in areas around Aleppo – particularly in the north where Syrian and allied forces recently disrupted rebel supply lines with Turkey.

So, if anyone is attacking Aleppo it is the rebels/jihadists.

2: The claim that the government and its allies are attacking “moderate rebels” is biased propaganda. the anti-government militias are numerous and allegiances are complex. They often fight among themselves.  Some may well be “moderate” but they cooperate and are often integrated with Al-Nusra – the main terrorist/jihadist group in the area.

How does one define “moderate” in Syria, though? I guess one way is to characterize those rebel militia which accepted the recent cessation of hostilities and signed ceasefire agreements with the Syrian government, as outlined in the US/Russian initiative, as the real “moderates” ready to take part in a political solution. It would seem that the “rebel” militia fighting in Aleppo have not accepted the cessation of hostilities agreement.

3: I recently heard an Al Jazeera reporter imply that only the Russians and Syrian government classifies “rebel” groups like Al Nusra as “terrorists” implying this was unfair. Again biased propaganda. The UN specifically lists Al-Nusra, together with Daesh (ISIS) as a terrorist organisation. Those groups were specifically excluded from the cessation of hostilities agreement.

There is a media tendency to describe only Daesh as terrorist or to present the aim of the US-based coalition and the Russian Federation in Syria as fighting Daesh. US spokespersons seem to repeat that description. This is very misleading. The UN and the cessation of hostilities agreement make clear that Al-Nusra is also the enemy.

Al-Nusra is the Al-Qaeda group in Syria (ISIS/Daesh originally broke away from Al-Nusra). Its aims and programme are just as obnoxious as those of Daesh but Al-Nusra has been able to form links with other anti-government militia – often groups that have been backed, armed and financed by the US and its middle eastern allies (eg. Saudia Arabia and Qatar). Very often these militia are operating under the command and structures of Al-Nusra. The ability of Al-Nusra to form these arrangements probably means it will outlast Daesh – and may actually be the bigger danger.

The death of the “last pediatrician” in Aleppo?

A blatant example of bias has been the media claim that a pediatrician who died in the bombing or shelling of a hospital in the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo meant Aleppo no longer had any pediatricians. Horrible Syrian government denying medical care for children!

But Dr Nabil Antaki, who works in Aleppo, responded to this propaganda with this:

“For three days now, these media outlets have been accusing the “Assad regime” of bombing an MSF hospital [Medecins sans Frontieres] to the east of Aleppo and of killing the last paediatrician in the city. This demonstrates that, for these media, the only priority is this pocket of the city where terrorists are embedded.

The three-quarters of Aleppo under Syrian Government control where numerous paediatricians are practicing is of no consequence for this media. We witnessed the same bias when Al Kindi, the biggest hospital in Aleppo, was targeted by terrorist mortars and then intentionally burnt down about 2 or 3 years ago. The media ignored this criminal act.”

He refers to this sort of propaganda as “lying by omission” saying:

“This media never mention the continuous bombardment and the carnage we have witnessed in western Aleppo where every single sector has been targeted. On a daily basis we see dozens of people murdered.

What makes these omissions even more despicable is that these areas represent 75% of Aleppo and there are 1.5 million people living in them. Compare this to the 300,000 living in the eastern zone which is occupied by terrorist groups.

This twisted narrative engenders the belief that these terrorist groups that are attacking us are actually the victims. Even more abhorrent, these media have distorted our “Save Aleppo” appeal, to make it look as if we are calling for Assad and the Syrian Army to cease hostilities!

This is FALSE. Added to which, they are not “Assad’s forces“, they are the national forces of the regular Syrian army that is defending the Syrian State.

The western and gulf media could at least have had the decency to mention the terrorist massacres of our people. For example, on Friday 30th April, when one of their mortars targeted a mosque at prayer time.”

Footnote: I find the New Zealand media pathetic in its coverage of events like the Syrian war and tend to search for other sources. I regularly watch Al Jazeera but now find their coverage of Syria extremely biased. Perhaps this is because the organisation is based in, and financed by Qatar, a sponsor (together with Saudi Arabia and Turkey) of anti-government forces in Syria.

Of late I notice that Al Jazeera has been smudging out the logos identifying sources in many of the videos they display. Can’t help thinking they wish to cover up they fact they are relying on the “rebel’ news media for their videos of action in Syria.

Pathetic if true.

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