Politics of science – making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

Anti-fluoride activists have some wealthy backers – they are erecting billboards misrepresenting the Canadian study on many New Zealand cities – and local authorities are ordering their removal because of their scaremongering.

Many New Zealanders are concerned at the scaremongering by anti-Fluoride activists lately. Media commenters have criticised misleading advertisements placed in national and local newspapers by Fluoride Free New Zealand (FFNZ). And local authorities have ordered some of the billboards erected by FFNZ to be taken down because of their scaremongering (see Anti-fluoride billboard removed).

A misleading advertisement anti-fluoride activists are inserting in many New Zeland newspapers. Media commentators believe newspapers must allow space for the experts to present the true science listen to Gavin Ellis, Nine to Noon, Sept. 3).

I can fully understand anti-fluoride activists taking advantage of current interest in the recently published Canadian fluoride/IQ study (see If at first you don’t succeed . . . statistical manipulation might help). They are, after all, an advocacy group, well known for their misrepresentation of the science, and they have rich backers in the alternative health industry (see Big business funding of anti-science propaganda on health and Anti-fluoridationists go to Supreme Court – who is paying for this?) to finance this expensive advertising.

As always its a matter of “Reader Beware.”  In this day and age readers are well-advised to take what they see on billboards and in newspapers (particular advertisements) with large dollops of salt.

“Sexy” science

But what disturbs me is the role the personal ambition of scientists and institutional advocacy, the politics of science, has played in this unfortunate misrepresentation and advocacy of the Canadian study.

This is not an isolated case. Scientific researchers with any experience know of many examples where individual scientists have misrepresented or exaggerated their findings because of personal ambition and institutes have gone along with this to obtain kudos (and money). We all know of young scientists who have behaved in this way, effectively promoting their poor science, risen through the ranks and, before long, exited research to take high-paying roles in science administration. More honest researchers are often scathingly critical of such ambition – especially as we often have to put up with these people manipulating funding and distorting scientific directions when they later become administrators. At the same time, we respect the honest researchers who often plod away, making slow but real progress, but not seeking, or getting, full public recognition for their work – because it is not “sexy” enough.

Yes, I like most researchers, have experienced administrators demanding that we make our research more “sexy.” These same administrators have never expressed the desire we make out research more honest, more professional or more effective (except in terms of winning publicity and unthinking funds).

Relying on “authority” statements while ignoring real data

Interestingly, in this current round of scaremongering the anti-fluoride activists do not reproduce data from the studies. There are no graphs, for example. Perhaps the real-life data is so scattered it would expose their claims of specific values of harm as fantasy.

According to an FFNZ post, the IQ of children in this study would have dropped by 4.5 points, from 114.1 where mother’s urinary F concentration (MUF) was 0 mg/L to 109.6 when the MUF was 1 mg/L. But look at the figure below. Very few of the data points near a MUF of 1 mg/L are actually near 109.6. They vary from about 75 to 125! No wonder they do not reproduce the figure from the paper to support their claim.

Instead, they rely on the approach of quoting the statements of “authorities,” some of the authors and others who have commented favorably on the research.

Yes, the authors did state they had found an association (for boys) with a best-fit line (the blue line above) showing an IQ decline of 4.49 points for an increase in MUF of 1 mg/L. But clearly this is meaningless when the very high scatter of the data is considered – it has no predictive value. This is because the claimed IQ reduction represents only the best fit line, the very weak association of IQ with MUF they reported. An association so weak that it refers only to 1.3% of the data (see If at first you don’t succeed . . . statistical manipulation might help).

OK, perhaps I can be accused of ignoring the stated variability of the reported relationship (although so have the anti-fluoride campaigners). Green et al (2019) described the relationship in the abstract of their paper this way:

“A 1 mg/L increase in MUFSG was associated with a 4.49 point lower IQ score (95% CI, -8.38 to -0.60) in boys.”

As a predictor that is saying that 95% of IQ values for boys at a MUF of about 1 mg/L should be in the range 105.7 to 113.5. Again, simply not true (look at the figure above). In fact, this relationship refers only to the best fit line and the blue zone in the figure above indicates where this line could go 95% of the time.

So this “authority” statement about the reported relationship is simply of no practical value as it applies to only 1.3% of the data. It is meaningless and it’s irresponsible for the authors and other “authority” spokespeople to refer to this relationship in the way they have without mentioning how weak it is.

The “authority” statements and those of the authors themselves are doubly worse because they ignore the fact that there is no statistically significant difference for the IQs of all children and separately the boys and girls, for mothers who lived in fluoridated and unfluoridated areas during their pregnancy. The data showing this is in Table 1 of the paper (and presented below) so it is strange that the authors did not discuss this in their paper at all.

Mean IQ of children whose mothers drank fluoridated or unfluoridated water during pregnancy (SD =  11.9 – 14.7)

Nonfluoridated Fluoridated
All children 108.07 108.21
Boys 106.31 104.78
Girls 109.86 111.47

Shameless advocacy by scientists and institutions

Scientists are only human and it’s perhaps not surprising that authors of these and similar studies will exaggerate the importance of their finding and remain silent about deficiencies in their studies. After all, self-promotion of this sort, especially if it gets widespread industry and public attention, can only be good for their careers.

One of the authors, Cristine Till is reported as saying:

“At a population level [4.5 IQ points, SC], that’s a big shift. That translates to millions of IQ levels lost” [reported by CNN]

And:

“We would feel an impact of this magnitude at a population level because you would have millions of more children falling in the range of intellectual disability, or an IQ of under 70, and that many fewer kids in the gifted range…We recommend that women reduce their fluoride intake during pregnancy.” [Reported by NPR]

And:

“Four and a half IQ points is of substantial societal and economic concern…We’re talking a magnitude that’s comparable to what we’re talking about when we talk about lead exposure. You would have millions of more children falling into the range of intellectual disability with IQ scores of less than 70, and that many fewer kids in the gifted range.” [Reported by WebMD]

Looking at the graph we can clearly see that at the population levels there are not these huge losses in IQ. She omits the fact that the relationship they report is extremely weak. Her statement is misleading – but she no doubt feels its good for her career. She also omits the fact shown by their own Table 1 that there is no difference in IQ fo children whose mothers lived in fluoridated or unfluodiated areas.

And then we get promotion of these misrepresentations by other scientists – apparently independent of the authors but a closer look shows them to be linked.

This from  Phillipe Grandjean:

“This is an excellent study,”  . . . CDC has to come out and look at the risk-benefit ratio again, because they can’t continue relying on studies that were carried out decades ago.” (Reported by Washington Post]

Grandjean frequently makes these sort of comments on studies which can be interpreted as supporting anti-fluoride positions. He is even a bit of a go-to spokesperson for the Fluoride Action Network (FAN) and his bias is clear, despite his professional standing. As the chief editor for Environmental Health he would not allow my critique of the Malin & Till (2015) ADHD study to be considered for publication (see Fluoridation not associated with ADHD – a myth put to rest). My critique was later reviewed and accepted by a different journal but ethically it should have been published by the journal which published the original Malin & Till (2015) paper.

Grandjean was one of the people I commented on in my articles about the poor peer review of the Malin & Till paper (see Poor peer-review – a case study and Poor peer review – and its consequences). So was David Bellinger – a subeditor who dealt with the Malin & Till (2105) paper. Bellinger, coincidentally, wrote a supportive opinion piece on the Green et al (2019) paper in the issue of JAMA  Pediatrics which published the Green et al paper.

It amazes me sometimes how incestuous journal editors, paper authors and peer reviewers cna be.

Don’t get me wrong. there was also quite a widespread criticism of the Green et al (2019) paper in the scientific community. Hopefully, some of these critics will contribute critiques of the paper to the journal. Also, hopefully the journal editor will allow these critiques to be published (although, as I point out in If at first you don’t succeed . . . statistical manipulation might help the editor seems only to be welcoming debate on these findings if it is in the public media).

The point, of course, is that activist anti-fluoride organisations like FAN and FFNZ never quote those critics. they simply quote the apparently “authoritative” figures who have praised the paper or promoted the misinformation described above. Thes misleading quotes from authors, institutes and “authority” supporters are simply mana from heaven to the FAN and FFNZ activists.

Dangers of science politics allied with ideologically-motivated advocacy

Problems with the politics of science occur all the time. That is why I always suggest readers should look at papers, even those in the most reputable journal, critically and intelligently. Importantly, one should look at the actual data where possible to check that it is portrayed properly in the discussion, conclusions and abstract. Otherwise, it is easy to be misled by ambitious authors, public relations press releases from institutions and “independent” scientific commenters.

Also, only the most naive reader accepts information in news articles and adverts as necessary gospel truth. The sensible reader approaches the media and advertising critically.

However, in this case, I think people have a right to be far more concerned about the misinformation – both that presented by authors, their institutes and their colleagues, and the way it is presented to us by the media and advertising. This is because the worst sort of fear-mongering is involved – playing on our love for our children and inherent wishes to do anything to protect them.

So I support the concern expressed by people in the media, the suggestion that such advertising should be accompanied by more informed articles, and the actions of local authorities in ordering the offending billboards be taken down. I passionately believe in free speech and defend the rights of even those I think wrong to partake of this – to express their opinions. But when the wellbeing and health of children and their parents are compromised by that free speech I think there is a case for it to be limited.

After all, there are other avenues, especially one which enable claims to be challenged properly, where that free speech can continue without creating harm.

Science reporters should be more responsible

I can’t finish without airing a concern I have about science reporters. In a sense, they are in a privileged position because the subjects they deal are credible because science is involved. Science does have a reputation for getting to the truth and being objective.

Privilege is also conferred on these reporters because they continually cite and quote experts – people of “authority” because of their education and scientific positions.

But surely an experienced science reporter is aware of the problems of politics in science – the role of ambition and search for fame which can lead to misrepresentations or at least over-glorification of the subjects being reported by the researchers involved. They must also surely be aware that different schools of thought within the scientific community can lead to biased presentations.

It’s not good enough for science reporters to simply quote authors and biased researchers. Surely they have an obligation to do some checking on the credibility of the claims being made. Why not read the full papers rather than rely on an abstract or an author’s claim? Further, and more importantly, why not cast a critical eye over the evidence reported in the paper and the data if it is there? Surely most science reports have some scientific and statistical skills.

I realise reporters have deadlines. In this case, some of the “authorities” commenting on the paper had been given prior access – a bit unfair for other reporters. It is tempting to go with what one has and not delay an article by indulging in critical analysis. But reporters should also think responsibly. Misinformation, in this case, is being used to promote dangerous scaremongering. That scaremongering should not be assisted by negligent reporting.

I am saddened that hardly any reporters quote the important information from the paper – that presented in the paper’s Table one and the table above. Differences in IQ of children whose mothers lived in fluoridated or unfluoridated areas are not different – or more correctly the differences (changes of +0.14 points for all children, -1.53 points for boys and + 1.61 points for girls when fluoridation is involved) are not statistically significant.  OK, the authors and their promoters were silent about that data – but a good reporter should have picked it up.

On the other hand, most science reporters ignored the actual data and went with the quotes. So instead of the data in the table above a misleading IQ change of 4.5 points for boys was presented as the main message. With absolutely no evaluation of how weak the relationship used to obtain that figure is.

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