Cherry-picking and ring-fencing the scientific literature

studytracker-ba

Don’t believe the advertising hype.

Anti-fluoride activists are promoting a “Study Tracker” which they see as a powerful weapon in their fight against fluoride. It is simply a search facility for their own database of articles – really Paul Connett’s database at Fluoride Alert.

So they can now search Connett’s database – big deal.

But why would anyone use this “study tracker?”  You certainly wouldn’t if you were at all interested in finding out what the current status of knowledge is with a particular area of fluoride research. You would use Google Scholar or one of the more specialised databases fo scientific papers. For example here are the results of a few searches I did using both the “Study Tracker” and the more easily accessible and useful Google Scholar.

Dental fluorosis prevalence

First – lets look at the prevalence of dental fluorosis in humans. The “Study Tracker” does not allow you to use your own search words so I just used theirs – “dental fluorosis,” prevalence, and “human study” (adding the word fluoride) for Google Scholar as well. (That inability to use one’s own search terms is already  handicapping a user).

Results – 16 references from the “Study Tracker” and 4440 references from Google Scholar (click on the images to go to the actual search results.

Dental fluorosis prevalence

16 references

Fluoride-Action-Network---S

4440 references

dental-fluorosis--fluoride-

Arterial calcification and heart disease

I wrote about the dishonest use of a research paper on this topic in Fluoride and heart disease – another myth. So using the words allowed by Connett’s “Study Tracker” – heart, arterial calcification, human study – I found 9 references using the “Study Tracker” and 5850 references using Google Scholar. (Again, click on the images to see the details).

Heart arterial calcification

references

Fluoride-Action-Network---S

5850 references

dental-fluorosis--fluoride-

So why use Connett’s “Study Tracker” when it produces such poor results and Google Scholar is more accessible? Here’s a couple of reasons I can think of:

  1. The cherry-picked database provided by Connett and his family. Activists make a lot of the 1500 references Connett has collected in his database – but that is infinitesimally small compared with the total available literature resulting from fluoride research. But if you were only interested in confirming your own bias, finding papers that you can use to support an anti-fluoride narrative, this “Study Tracker” removes the necessity to do your own cherry-picking.
  2. Unfamiliarity with the concept of literature searching. If you are not used to searching the scientific literature the “Study Tracker” may be the only method you have heard about.
  3. Desire to impress. Again, many activists want to give a “sciency” veneer to the material they produce. How better than to actually quote a scientific reference with journal details and a link?  In my experience most people with this motive don’t bother reading the paper to check that it says what they want it too. Most probably don’t even read the abstract! How else could organisations like the Fluoride Action Network of NZ quote a paper describing a proposed clinical procedure for determining risk of heart disease using a radioactive F isotope as “evidence” for fluoridation causing heart disease (see  Fluoride and heart disease – another myth)!
  4. Some people are happier wearing blinkers. After all, if your whole intention is confirmation bias (and anyway papers providing evidence that doesn’t support that bias are written by “industry shills) why should you even allow your eyes to see anything else? Much safer, and certainly less stressful, to stick with a cherry-picked database than look at all the literature available.

I think cherry-picking and confirmation bias a problems for all of us when searching the scientific literature. These are human failings. But this shouldn’t be encouraged.

The research accessible in published literature is immense and complicated. It should be approached intelligently and critically. One can’t do that using blinkers like the “Study Tracker”.

Unfortunately political activists are very often highly motivated in their use of scientific literature – so it is easy to see why this “Study Tracker” will appeal to most anti-fluoridation activists. But this approach is in direct conflict with the scientific ethos which at least encourages processes aimed at an objective approach.

Franky I see this “Study Tracker” as just another tool encouraging an opportunist use of scientific knowledge, encouraging confirmation bias and dishonesty in using this knowledge, and encouraging people to restrict their sources when looking for scientific support for their claims.

It is a form of ghettoisation of scientific knowledge. Users will only be encouraging their own ignorance, rather than knowledge.

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2 responses to “Cherry-picking and ring-fencing the scientific literature

  1. Excellent points, Ken!

    Steven D. Slott, DDS

    Like

  2. When a man points at the moon, a wise man looks at the stars, the fool looks at the finger.

    Like

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