Fluoridation: Newsweek science journalism bottoms out

One of the worst pieces of distortion and misrepresentation of the Cochrane Fluoridation Review is that written by an anti-fluoridation journalist Douglas Main in Newsweek – Fluoridation May Not Prevent Cavities, Scientific Review Shows. It has, of course, been heavily promoted by anti-fluoride activists.

Dr Charles Payet*, a dentist from Charlotte, NC, USA, has debunked this Newsweek article report in his blog article More Bad Journalism on Fluoride which is also a guest blog at Making sense of FluorideOoops, [Newsweek] Did It Again.

Readers should go to these original posts to read the full article.  However, here are a few quotes from important sections:


Cochrane-fluoridation-quote

Yes, Water Fluoridation Has Been Proven Effective

Main starts off with an awful mischaracterization of the Review by stating that “…while using fluoridated toothpaste has been proven to be good for oral health, consuming fluoridated water may have no positive impact.” Let’s take that apart quickly.

First of all, there’s no disagreement that fluoridated toothpaste has been good for oral health. However, to state that consuming fluoridated water may have no impact is to completely ignore all historical evidence as to the dramatic decrease in dental decay once standardized CWF was implemented for the first time in Grand Rapids, Michigan 80 years ago. Not only that, the Cochrane Review directly contradicts Main’s assertion:

“Data suggest that the introduction of water fluoridation resulted in a 35% reduction in [DMF] baby teeth and a 26% reduction in [DMF] permanent teeth. It also increased the percentage of children with no decay by 15%.”

How About the Quality of the Papers Included?

Next up, Main claims that the Review “…winnowed down the collection to only the most comprehensive, well-designed, and reliable papers.” Is that accurate? Sigh……no. No it’s not. Let’s turn back to the Review to see what it says [emphasis mine]:

“For caries data, we included only prospective studies with a concurrent control, comparing at least two populations, one receiving fluoridated water and the other non-fluoridated water, with at least two points in time evaluated. Groups had to be comparable in terms of fluoridated water at baseline. For studies assessing the initiation of water fluoridation the groups had to be from nonfluoridated areas at baseline, with one group subsequently having fluoride added to the water. For studies assessing the cessation of water fluoridation, groups had to be from fluoridated areas at baseline, with one group subsequently having fluoride removed from the water.”

In other words, the Review only selected what are called “prospective” studies. While these are generally considered to be of higher quality better than cross-sectional studies, (performed at one point in time) for identifying causes, they are also much more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to do.  They are especially difficult today for one important reason when it comes to fluoride: because so many communities have already been fluoridated for a long time, it is very difficult to find one or more in which to set up a prospective study today, and the regulatory hurdles in doing so are enormous.

Therefore, it is false to claim that the Review only included the “most comprehensive, well-designed, and reliable papers.” In fact, the Review included one type of study regardless of their quality. Beyond that the Review’s discussion actually noted that more recent cross-sectional studies were often of better quality because computer use enabled better statistical analysis and consideration of confounding factors.


Payet also discusses the Cochrane judgement of study quality which Main and other anti-fluoride propagandists have misrepresented:


The Review judged quality using blinded randomised controlled studies (RCTs) commonly recommended for clinical drug trials as their baseline. However, they acknowledged this criteria is usually impossible to achieve in fluoridation studies because the assignment of subjects into a treated group versus a control group is outside the control of the investigator. Instead, researchers must use observational studies. Dr John Beal noted in his response to the Cochrane Health Group’s blog The value of cross-sectional studies on the dental benefits of water fluoridation – a response from Dr John Beal to the Cochrane Oral Health Group blog, the claim that cross-sectional, observational, studies, which were all excluded, are somehow of lower quality than RCTs, is false because a previous Cochrane Review said they’re similar!

“It is interesting to observe the conclusions of a different Cochrane review published last year (Anglemyer at al) which compared a range of study designs applied in various fields and concluded that, on average, “there is little evidence for significant effect estimate differences between observational studies and RCTs, regardless of specific observational study design”.

Well now, isn’t that interesting? The previous Cochrane Review specifically found that the 2 study types yield comparable results in terms of quality, but now this one says the cross-sectional ones aren’t good enough. As usual, Douglas Main ignores the previous one because it hurts his point. Admittedly, it would be nice if the Cochrane Review would apply more consistent standards in the selection and exclusion criteria to avoid confusion.


However, Dr. Payet has some criticisms to make of the Cochrane Review itself. It’s lack of proper qualification has been a godsend for cherry-picking anti-fluoridation propagandists:


Did you notice a certain pattern there? “Our confidence…is limited…” “We did not identify any evidence…” “There is insufficient information…” “The evidence is limited…” How in the world does Douglas Main turn that into “fluoridation doesn’t work!” As the saying goes, “The absence of evidence for something is not the same evidence for the absence of that something.”


Payet drives this point home in his conclusion:


So what’s the real take-home message of this particular Cochrane Review? Here’s all they really said: “Our exclusion criteria meant that only 9 studies were reviewed. Regardless of the quality of other studies done, we ignored them. Based on the extremely small study size and the strict criteria applied, all we can say is that more contemporary RCTs prospective studies are called for, because the ones available are old and might be biased.” That’s it! Main and his interviewees, however, go straight to, “OMG IT DOESN’T WORK WE SHOULD STOP IT NOW!” Perhaps this will make the point more clearly:
What-the-Cochrane-Review-Should-Have-Concluded


*Dr. Charles D. Payet has been a full-time practicing dentist in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina since graduating from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Dentistry in 1998. He blogs on the science and art of dentistry for all ages with a skeptical eye atwww.SmilesbyPayet.com and has recently published several articles on the safety and efficacy of fluoride in community water fluoridation, toothpaste, etc.
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