Fluoridation means money in the pocket

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

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

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

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

The results are reported in the paper:

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

Community size

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

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

National net savings from universal fluoridation

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

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

That is a nine times pay-off!

Individuals save more than the state

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

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

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

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Anti-fluoridation campaigners often use statistical significance to confirm bias

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignoring relevant confounders

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

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

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

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

Peckham et al., (2015) hypothyroidism paper:

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

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

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

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

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

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

(see Fluoridation and cancer).

The Malin & Till (2015) ADHD paper:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignoring the lack of explanatory power

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

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

Some examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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November ’17 – NZ blogs sitemeter ranking

Image Credit: 10 Social Media Tips for Bloggers

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

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

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

Every month I get queries from people wanting their own blog included. I encourage and am happy to respond to queries but have prepared a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) people can check out. Have a look at NZ Blog Rankings FAQ. This is particularly helpful to those wondering how to set up sitemeters. Please note, the system is automatic and relies on blogs having sitemeters which allow public access to the stats.

Here are the rankings of New Zealand blogs with publicly available statistics for November 2017. Ranking is by visit numbers. I have listed the blogs in the table below, together with monthly visits and page view numbers. Meanwhile, I am still keen to hear of any other blogs with publicly available sitemeter or visitor stats that I have missed. Contact me if you know of any or wish help adding publicly available stats to your bog.

You can see data for previous months at Blog Ranks

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The problem with scepticism

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


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

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

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

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

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

Scepticism needs to be applied more widely

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are all influenced by emotions and values

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

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

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

Being sceptical of sceptics

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

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

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

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

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

Identity problems

Matthew explains this problem partly by identity theory:

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

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

The bias blind spot

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

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

Intellectual humility

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

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

Worth thinking about.

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Chemical weapons use in Syria UN report flawed by political bias

A local reporter at the site of the alleged chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun (Source: YouTube)

I fully accept almost all news reports we see are politically biased. It is up to the reader to recognise this and to critically analyse reports from all media. But I am still annoyed to find political bias in considered, and often scientifically and evidence-based, official reports from authoritative bodies.

The official reports on the  MH-17  commercial airliner tragedy in eastern Ukraine are an example of such political bias and I  discussed these in the past (see MH17 – Preliminary report leaves most conspiracy theories intactMH17 tragedy: 1 year on,  Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know? and But will it stand up in court?).

Unfortunately, I now draw the same conclusion of political bias in the recent report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-United Nations Joint investigative Mechanism (JIM). Mind you, I have seen similar bias in earlier reports from the OPCW in the past. In particular, I am shocked by the fact these reports never relied on evidence collected on-site by inspection teams – they were simply desk-top studies. While reports of chemical weapons use by terrorist groups were usually found “not confirmed” because of lack of supporting evidence the reported of use by Syrian armed forces were often accepted as reliable – without supporting evidence. Indeed, a reason for accepting these unconfirmed reports often given by the OPCW was that the Syrian Air Force had not answered the requests for flight logs!

So why do I think the current JIM report is politically biased?

I won’t go into a detailed analysis here but will simply take a few issues which I think stand out. I am using the leaked copy of the report Seventh report of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism and readers can download this by clicking the link

No on-site inspection

This, together with the lack of proper identification and control of samples, is a huge problem with this report. I really think this approach of “desk studies” from a distance, and reliance on politically motivated non-state and militia reports underlies how unprofessional the chemical weapons investigation bodies have become.

At the time of the alleged attack in Khan Shaykhun last April, there were strong calls (including from the Syrian government) for the investigation groups to send teams to both Khan Shaykhun (where the chemical attack occurred) and the Al-Shaayrat airbase (which the US attacked within days claiming the chemical weapons had come from there). No team was ever sent to Khan Shaykhun but a JIM team did eventually visit the Al-Shaayrat airbase in October – months after the incident on April 4!

At the airbase, the JIM only collected information on flights from the base on the day of the attack and interviewed pilots but specifically excluded any sample collection. Their excuse:

“Collecting samples at the airbase was not an objective of the visit. The Mechanism had assessed that doing so would not advance the investigation. If a single chemical munition was flown from that base, the Mechanism considered that there was little chance of finding any trace of sarin or its degradation products in an airbase of that size without specific information as to where to sample.”

Why assume a “single chemical munition” – at an airbase where munitions are regularly stored? And why not make an effort to find out where such munition would have likely been stored on the base?

As for visiting the site of the explosion:

“While the Leadership Panel considered that a visit to these sites would have been of value, such value would diminish over time. Further, the Panel was
required to weigh the security risks against the possible benefits to the investigation.”

That seems very tame to me. As the Syrian government had offered what guarantees they could I am forced to ask what effort was made to get security guarantees from the “rebel”/”terrorist” groups in the area? After all, the media seemed to have no problem linking up with “activists” and others in that area at the time and the investigating agents had no trouble linking up with representatives of the militias when they collected samples from them in other countries.

I have since seen a report that the:

“Director of the UN Department for Safety and Security informed the Security Council on October 4, 2017 that in reality safety guarantees were duly received from the local field commanders but the OPCW Mission declined to use that opportunity and chose to conduct investigation remotely. “

In situations like this where investigating bodies are collecting evidence and where blame may be attributed I would have thought that it imperative for investigation teams to collect samples themselves and ensure the integrity of the samples during transport to a certified laboratory. But in this case, the investigators relied on samples collected by the “rebel”/”terrorist” groups and handed over on the territory of a neighbouring country!

The crater in Khan Shaykhun

Here are a couple of  very early photos (I think within a day) of the crater formed by the alleged chemical weapon in Khan Shaykhun

Credit: Aleppo Media Centre – a “rebel”/”terrorist” news agency in Syria

Credit: Syria Chemical Weapon Attack:  Truth Comes At A Cost

Now that does not look like the result of a bomb or missile launched by a warplane. It looks more like the explosion of a placed device – and that was the early conclusion of some independent investigators. For example, Dr. Theodore Postol concluded the sarin tube was placed on the ground and not dropped from an aeroplane. He presents this image of a likely mechanism in his own analytical report.

Yet the JIM did not properly consider that specific configuration. It did list an “improvised explosive device (IED)” as one possible explanation but discounted it because “No witnesses reported any activities related to the placing of an explosive charge on the ground at the location of the incident.”  That is hardly a good forensic approach – offenders placing such a device are not going to do this in full view of passers-by, are they? The JIM did have a witness statement “consistent with this scenario:”

“In an interview with the Mechanism, the witness reported waking up at around 0700 hours on 4 April 2017 to the sound of explosions. The witness stated that there had been no aircraft over Khan Shaykhun at the time and that aircraft had only started launching attacks at around 1100 hours.”

It also relied on interpretations from unnamed “experts” and “institutes.” (The lack of identification seems very unprofessional – we are asked to trust unnamed people!). But it all seems like straw-clutching to me. I have since read a report on the analysis of the JIT claims by Russian experts from the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Industry and Trade. This can be found in Additional Assessment of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism Seventh Reportwhich was made available to the Security Council by the Russian UN mission. This expert analysis relies on mathematical analysis and research describing the behaviour of stationary and air-launched explosive devices. Their conclusion that the evidence indicated the explosion of a stationary device, and not an aerial launched (from several km high!) missile or bomb seems pretty convincing to me.

Chemical fingerprint of “sarin-like” material

The JIM report describes the expert analysis of the chemical residues found at or near the Khan Shaykhun crater and samples from the stockpiles of precursors for chemical weapons previously held by the Syrian government.  While the Russian analysis questions some of the conclusions (eg. whether the sarin could be produced by “artisan” teams or required factory manufacture) I think the JIM conclusion that the chemical evidence supported their claim that the Syrian government was the guilty party is well off beam.

When chemical weapons and precursor stockpiles were removed from Syria in 2013 the final conclusion was that while all government held material had been removed nothing could have been done about stockpiles which had previously been captured by jihadists – “rebels” or “terrorists.” Jihadist seizure of chemical weapons and precursors is hardly unknown. For example, Foreign Policy reports on an example of the capture of chemical weapons stockpiles by opponents of the government (Al Nusra) in the article How the Islamic State Seized a Chemical Weapons Stockpile.

Jihadists looting the weapons stockpiles in the Syrian army base known as Regiment 111, shown here in a still shot taken from a video posted online. Source: Foreign Policy

Yet the JIM report does not even mention this possibility. I would have thought the chemical fingerprint of the sarin samples they had indicated the guilty party was more likely one of the jihadist groups than government forces.

An objective consideration may have considered the possibility that the government had secretly manufactured chemical weapons since 2013 but surely it would have also considered the far more likely possibility that the sarin used came from stocks in the hands of one or other of the armed militia fighting the government. (And fighting each other in the area as there are credible reports of chemical weapons use in those conflicts).

The refusal to even consider this possibility is one sign to me of the very poor professional standards of the JIM team and the unnamed experts it relied on.

Conclusion

The reports of the investigations of this use of chemical weapons could be analysed in far more detail. I only discussed what I think are the most obvious aspects here but I can only conclude that this report to the UN was politically biased. It was certainly of very low scientific standards and did not give proper identification of the “experts” and “institutes” it used for analysis and opinion.

While it did give some qualifications underlining that they could not draw  definite conclusions about who used the chemical weapons (despite its chemical fingerprint) and could not identify any Syrian plane sufficiently close to the area which could have carried out the attack it still, nevertheless, finishes by stating:

“the Leadership Panel is confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017. “

An update: The mandate for this joint investigation mechanism was not renewed by the UN Security Council. The   US, the Russian Federation/Brazil and Japan submitted resolutions on its renewal but all were defeated. The stumbling blocks appeared to be:

  • The US wanted to declare the findings of guilt on the part of the Syrian government be accepted and opposed improvement of JIM’s procedures.
  • The Russian/Brazilian resolution insisted that the investigation team’s standards be improved and that, in particular, physical inspection of sites by the investigating teams themselves be obligatory.

Frankly, I think the Russian/Brazilian resolution identified a key problem and the US resolution was motivated by geopolitical interests and did not have proper evidence-based support.

As I said initially – we have come to expect political bias in news media reports but it is very disappointing to find such obvious bias in reports from bodies which are meant to carry out their investigations objectively.

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Anti-fluoride “expert” finds the real reason oral health has improved – and it’s not fluoride

Anti-fluoride campaigners always promote people like Geoff Pain as “renowned” or “world experts.” They aren’t. Pain has no credible scientific publications on fluoride.

No, in fact, he claims lead is responsible for tooth decay and the improvement in oral health is a result of removing airborne lead contamination. And the “proof” is even in the title of his report – “Global Decline in Tooth Decay correlates with reduced Airborne Lead (Pb) but water Fluoridation prevents further progress

Mind you, the word “correlate” appears only twice in the document – once in the title and once in the abstract. Nowhere else. Scientists usually restrict the use of words like this to results of proper statistical analyses – but he presents no evidence of a correlation anywhere in the document.

OK, we shouldn’t expect any better. This document is just another one of a series of documents, dressed up as scientific publications, supported by cobbled together citations which are often are irrelevant or don’t support the claims made. Produced by Geoff Pain, well-known Australian anti-fluoride activist, whose concept of scientific publication is to upload his unreviewed documents on to Researchgate. I have written about his citation trawling and false “publication” before in my article  An anti-fluoride trick: Impressing the naive with citations

But, perhaps he is on to something. Irrespective of fluoride (he has a hangup about that element) perhaps lead is somehow implicated in oral health problems. So let’s see what the document actually claims.

It has three aims:

1: Rejection of all evidence of the beneficial effects of fluoridation

He describes the evidence for fluoridation as “false” and “absurd.”

Of course, he doesn’t consider for a minute any of the many studies providing evidence of beneficial effects – he just relies on the naive use of selected World Health Organisation (WHO) data which the Fluoride Action Network is well-known for. I have written about this before (see, for example, Fluoridation: Connett’s naive use of WHO data debunked).

This simply argues that the fact that oral health has improved over time in both fluoridated and unfluoridated countries is “proof” that fluoridation has no effect.

Here is the graph he uses:

This figure is meaningless because of the huge influence of inter-country differences on these data, irrespective of fluoridation. That doesn’t require a scientific training to see. These differences introduce so much noise into the data that no conclusion is possible about the influence of fluoridation. Robyn Whyman pointed this out in his report for the National Fluoridation Information Service – Does delayed tooth eruption negate the effect of water fluoridation?:

“Studies that appropriately compare the effectiveness of water fluoridation do not compare poorly controlled inter-country population samples. They generally compare age, sex, and where possible ethnicity matched groups from similar areas. Inter-country comparisons of health status, including oral health status, are notoriously difficult to interpret for cause and effect, because there are so many environmental, social and contextual differences that need to be considered.”

The figure does not differentiate between fluoridated and unfluoridated areas within countries – a comparison that is more valid. When we look at the same WHO data for fluoridated and unfluoridated areas we can see the beneficial effect. For example, in the data from the Republic of Ireland:

2: Evidence for an effect of lead exposure on oral health

I can accept that – but certainly would not go as far as Pain’s claim that “lead exposure reduction as the major factor in tooth decay decline.” In fact, the articles he cites suggest that the association of  lead exposure with tooth decay is probably weak in most cases.

For example, he cites Gemmel et al., (2002) but ignores what that paper actually says:

“In summary, our findings are consistent with those of several other recent studies (e.g., Campbell et al. 2000; Moss et al. 1999) in suggesting a weak association between children’s lead exposure and caries in primary teeth. The association was region specific, however, suggesting that its magnitude depends on the local distributions of other, more important caries risk factors such as fluoride exposure, diet, and other aspects of environment. The most likely direct role for lead exposure in the development of dental caries, therefore, is as a modifier of host susceptibility. We cannot reject the hypothesis, however, that an elevated lead level is a surrogate or proxy index of some other factor that is itself directly cariogenic.”

Similarly, he cites Martin et al., (2007) but ignores what that paper actually concluded:

“We conclude that this study provides only weak evidence, if any, for an association of low-level lead exposure with dental caries.”

Mind you, he also cites Wiener et al., (2015) who reported:

“This study indicated a strong association of blood lead levels with increasing numbers of carious teeth in children aged 24–72 months.”

But still not evidence that lead is the major factor involved.

Pain ignores suggestions that results may suggest modification of the role of fluoride

I wonder if those who indulge in citation trawling ever actually read the papers they cite. Far from Pain’s citations being evidence of a lack of effect from fluoridation, in almost all cases they suggest the observed effects could be due to modification of the more important effect of fluoride on oral health.

For example, Martin et al., (2007) point out:

” Mechanisms which have been offered to explain the potential association include lead effects on salivary gland development and function (Watson et al., 1997; Bowen, 2001), effects on enamel formation (Lawson et al., 1971; Kato et al., 1977; Appleton, 1991; Watson et al., 1997), and an interference with fluoride uptake in saliva (Gerlach et al., 2002). “

Come on Geoff. Spend some time and actually read the articles you have trawled for your citations.

3: Fluoridation means increase lead concentration in tap water

Having rejected any beneficial role for fluoride and presented lead as the major influence on oral health Pain now puts it all together to “prove” that fluoridation actually enhances tooth decay by increasing dietary lead intake. Why? Because of:

“deliberate addition of Lead as a major contaminant of phosphate fertilizer industrial waste used in Fluoridation plus the exacerbation of Plumbosolvency by Fluoride”

The first point about lead contamination of fluoridating chemicals relies in a naive interpretation of the certificates of analysis required for these chemicals. Just because a very low concentration of lead is recorded in these certificates does not mean this causes an increase in dietary lead intake.

I showed in the article Chemophobic scaremongering: Much ado about absolutely nothing that the fluoridating chemicals contribute less than 0.05% to the lead in tap water – already present from natural sources!

Pain’s reference to “exacerbation of Plumbosolvency” relies on a limited study which reported an association between blood lead levels in children and the treatment of tap water in the US. Of course, the release of lead from pipe fittings can be a problem irrespective of water treatment – which is why authorities recommend one should let the water run for a while first thing in the morning to get rid of such impurities. However, the studies Pain relies on seem to attribute plumbosolvency to specific chlorinating chemicals rather than fluoride.

One can make a simple check, however. In New Zealand authorities regularly make chemical analyses of their tap water available. These do not show increased lead concentrations after fluoridation.

Conclusion

So, again, Geoff Pain has indulged in citation trawling and confirmation bias to produce this report. The citations he uses do not support his claims.

Dietary intake of lead may be one of many factors influencing dental health – but his citations do not in any way support his assertion that it is the “major factor”. Nor do they support his claim that fluoridation does not have a beneficial effect on oral health.

In fact, it is Geoff Pain, not health authorities, who is making the “false” and “absurd” claims.

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Meat substitutes – prospects and new ethical questions

Nigel Latta tells us about a plant-based meat substitute – chicken-free chicken – produced by  SunFed meats. This is an example and not meant as an endorsement of any specific product.

I am deeply ashamed of it now – but at the time it seemed like an experience I couldn’t afford to miss. It was so exotic – and I was travelling.

Twenty years ago I ate at a restaurant in Johannesburg, the Republic of South Africa,  which specialised in meat dishes – from game animals. It was a real feast. Stews of ostrich, zebra, hippo, giraffe and other animal meats. Not something us New Zealanders normally experience.

But I no longer eat animal meats – and haven’t for several years. My decision is based on ethical considerations. So you can understand my shame.

Some might call me a weirdo – but I do not think my ethical decision is really all that unusual. Vegetarianism, veganism and similar dietary approaches are relatively common these days. And I think there are many more of us who resist labels but wish to avoid animal meats for basically ethical reasons. Even if only reducing animal meat consumption to rare occasions.

However, in common with others who avoid eating animal meat, I am surprised that there are still so few choices for us. Restaurant menus only seem to give token recognition of our existence, if at all, and the dishes on offer are often uninspiring.

On the other hand, there does seem to be a renewed interest in meat substitutes. Not only for health reasons but also because of the growing appreciation of how animal-based agriculture is harming our environment. Even in little old New Zealand which usually insists it is “clean and green” but is also proud of its efficient and intensive animal-based agricultural industry.

I welcome that interest. These days I have no problem finding or producing tasty plant-based meat substitutes for myself but it has taken some research effort. Products on supermarket shelves are few and far between. However, if you believe some recent news reports the arrival of tasty meat substitutes is so imminent the established agricultural industry is starting to worry.  A recent report citing an agribusiness spokesperson, Ian Proudfoot, reckons:

New Zealand meat and dairy producers needed to identify what level of risk the products presented for their industry and plan accordingly.

The threat of vegetarian alternatives to meat products was looming as companies were beginning to create products that would genuinely appeal to consumers, Mr Proudfoot said.

For example, US company Impossible Foods has developed a plant-based food that is said to closely resemble the taste and smell of meat – and has attracted $US150 million in investment.

“This is definitely going to happen in the next five years and it could start to happen in the next two to three years.”

He said in the dairy sector, New Zealand would have multiple alternative milk products – such as almond and hemp milk – competing with it, all of which were designed to meet specific consumers’ desires.

The current alternative meat market was less of a threat because it was aimed at wealthy consumers. However, this would change as the new “alternative protein” companies were bought up by bigger players in the food industry, he said.

What about animal-based meat substitutes?

The company Sunfed Foods is producing plant-based meat substitutes. However, it’s founder Shama Lee says there are another two alternatives:

  1. Cultured meats – these are grown from starter cells taken from animals such as stem cells. This is the method Sergey Brin bankrolled to produce his rich-man’s hamburgers, and
  2. Bioengineered meat – where animal protein is grown from a bioengineered culture of yeast cells.

These alternatives may be a bit further down the line but could be in your supermarkets in 10 or 20ears.

I don’t doubt the possibilities – but I will believe it when I see it. I know for a fact that it is possible to produce very tasty plant-based meat alternatives but our supermarkets are hardly swamped with these products. In most cases, they still need to be home produced in New Zealand. So will cultured meat products get the supermarket shelf space – especially if competing with traditional meats?

Still, such products should solve the ethical dilemma many of us face. We would be able to eat “real” meat without worrying about how the animals had been treated and slaughtered.

Is there a new ethical dilemma?

OK, if I am still around when it happens I may be able to take part in a feast of stews like that in Johannesburg but using cultured meat instead of real animal meat. I could still get to taste the ostrich, hippo, zebra and giraffe stews without any feelings of guilt.

However,  will it stop there? We could go even more exotic.

Just think about it. We could also produce cultured meat using starter cells from humans! Imagine eating human meat knowing that nobody had been harmed in the preparation of the product!

Would this make cannibalism respectable? In fact, who could resist such artificial human meat – it would be so exotic.

And once more people got a taste for cultured human meat – will there be some adventurous people wanting to eat the “real” meat – uncultured human meat?

The mind boggles! One thing for sure – like all human advances there will be new ethical questions. And, no doubt, ideological groups and religions willing to use these ethical issues to promote guilt.

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October ’17 – NZ blogs sitemeter ranking

Image Credit: eCorner

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

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

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

Every month I get queries from people wanting their own blog included. I encourage and am happy to respond to queries but have prepared a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) people can check out. Have a look at NZ Blog Rankings FAQ. This is particularly helpful to those wondering how to set up sitemeters. Please note, the system is automatic and relies on blogs having sitemeters which allow public access to the stats.

Here are the rankings of New Zealand blogs with publicly available statistics for October 2017. Ranking is by visit numbers. I have listed the blogs in the table below, together with monthly visits and page view numbers. Meanwhile, I am still keen to hear of any other blogs with publicly available sitemeter or visitor stats that I have missed. Contact me if you know of any or wish help adding publicly available stats to your bog.

You can see data for previous months at Blog Ranks

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

New fluoride debate falters

Characters debate the “fluoride conspiracy” in Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove

What is it with these anti-fluoride campaigners – and particularly their leaders? They make a song and dance about having “science on their side.” They will heavily promote the latest research and papers if they can argue that they confirm their bias. And they will email politicians or make submissions to local bodies making scientific claims – often with citations and long lists of references.

But we simply can not get them to enter into a good faith scientific discussion of the sort I suggested in Do we need a new fluoride debate?

I thought this was going to happen. Bill Osmunson, the current Direct of the Fluoride Action Network (FAN), had agreed and even produced an initial article for posting. But he has now pulled out and asked me not to post his article. Apparently, my critique of a recent paper by him and his colleagues from FAN (see Flaw and porkie in anti-fluoride report claiming a flaw in Canadian study) was the straw that broke the camels back as far as he was concerned.

Talk about tiptoeing around a discussion partner. How can one have a discussion with someone this sensitive?

Excuses, excuses!

This is the explanation he gives for his withdrawal from the planned exchange:

“I have second thoughts about a discussion with you.  Do not publish my comments.*

After reading your comments in response to Neurath, it became obvious that you have no interest in discovering the truth or protecting the public.  Nor do you have reasonable judgment to evaluate research.

You do have good mechanical skills, but not judgment.

You correctly take weaker arguments and point out they are weak.  But you do not comment or appreciate the main more powerful issues.  Your comments make it sound like there is no value because some points have lower value.  Only a person who carefully rereads McLaren and Neurath, and then your comments understands some of your points are valid and you have missed others which are powerful.

In addition, you use derogatory, unprofessional mocking terms to attack the person instead of the issues.  I’m not interested in being your porky or sparky or pimp.

You are unprofessional and are not worth the time.”

  • The “comments” Bill refers to are a 55-page pdf file he sent me as the first post in our exchange. We were discussing a shorter form more suitable for a blog post when he decided to back out.

Mind you, in a previous email he had acknowledged that his mates (presumably in FAN) were unhappy about him participating in this good-faith scientific exchange. He wrote:

“Several people have told me not to respond to you, because you are unprofessional with your statements and comments.  You attack the messenger instead of the message and you have such severe bias and faith in fluoride that you must have worked for the tobacco companies to learn your strident blind bias.  
OK, I gave you a try once before and found you to be violent with your personal attacks and lack of judgment.”
 Sounds like “excuses, excuses,” to me. Surely I am not such a horrible person? I asked Bill to identify anything in my exchange with Paul Connett (see The Fluoride Debate) where I had behaved in the way he charged. He couldn’t. And I challenge anyone else to identify such behaviour on my part in that exchange.

Bill Osmunson and his mates claim I behaved badly in this exchange with Paul Connett – but they refuse to give a single example

 I can only conclude that the people at FAN are unable to provide good scientific arguments to support their case. They may well produce documents with lists of citations and references with “sciency” sounding claims. But they will not allow their claims to undergo the sort of critique normal in the scientific community.
Still – I am willing to be proven wrong. if Bill feels that he doesn;t have the scientific background for this sort of exchange perhaps Chris Neurath, Harvey Limeback or one of the other authors from FAN of the article I critiqued in Flaw and porkie in anti-fluoride report claiming a flaw in Canadian study) could take his place.
The offer is open.

Political maturity in New Zealand – at least compared to the US

A moment of clarity in the NZ election negotiations. Credit: NZ Herald.

Maybe it is the social media silo effect but I think a lot of New Zealanders feel proud about the way our recent elections went.

Once again we are a world leader. A new impressive young female Prime Minister. An atmosphere of cooperation – or at least respect all around from (and towards) the winners and losers. And a feeling that our new Prime Minister may have the unifying skills necessary for the job at this time.

But what has impressed me is the beginning of some clarity about the nature and causes of our problems. We are talking about housing and child poverty as indicators of a failed economy and not low inflation, the balance of payments, etc., as indicators of a “successful economy.” No matter how good the “accepted” economic indicators appear to be an economy is not successful if it fails to protect its children and has the degree of homelessness we are seeing.

Winston Peters’ honesty about the causes of our problems being inherent in an economic system oriented towards the interests of dead money and not towards people is refreshing. It’s a long time since we have heard such economic honesty from a politician in our parliament. Also refreshing is the fact that our media (not known for admitting such basic problems) has repeated his statement.

And isn’t it heartening to have a Prime Minister flagging an interest in ministerial jobs aimed at helping children rather than something like finance?

Maturity

Like many, I am cynical of the concept of “capitalism with a human face” but New Zealand at the moment should be seen as a glowing example of how democracy should work. Yet we have the US promoting itself as exceptional, a leader of the free world” and the best example of “democracy.” A self-belief so strong it wishes to impose their example on “less fortunate” countries. And, too often, even New Zealander commentators and journalists get captured by such silliness.

But come on!

Just imagine if Bill English threw his toys out of the cot because his “natural” assumption of power has been denied by the electoral system. Just imagine if he attempted to “explain” his failure by promoting the fiction that the “Russians did it,” or blamed President Putin for his problems. Just imagine if all sorts of attempts were now being made to produce “evidence” of collusion between our new leaders and those horrible Russians. I am sure we could, if we were that childish, find examples of meetings with diplomats, maybe even professional or financial links with someone indirectly connected to a firm which may exist in St Petersburg.

And what about all those pro-Labour and pro-Green”trolls” on social media? Hell, they were all over Facebook and Twitter! Surely that is evidence of manipulation by Russian “troll farms.” And what about the “fact” that the pro-Russian media heavily promoted Jacinda Adern and is glorying in her victory?

OK, perhaps not even Hillary Clinton would accuse the NZ Herald of being “pro-Russian” – but here is the “undeniable evidence” – this story run by Sputnik which, for this purpose, we could describe as being a propaganda arm of the Kremlin!

Oh dear. The “evidence is mounting up.” It’s becoming “undeniable!”

I am glad we live in a country with more political maturity but isn’t it sad that the most powerful (militarily) country in the world is so politically immature. And, also sad when even commentators in New Zealand buy into that immaturity.

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