Science should never be protected from critical and rational discussion. Funding bodies should also be aware of problems in the research they fund. Image credit: The value of experience in criticizing research.
The scientific community was generally critical of the recent Canadian maternal neonatal fluoride – child IQ research (see expert reaction to study looking at maternal exposure to fluoride and IQ in children). But this has now taken a more serious turn. Thirty academics and professional experts from health and dental institutions in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, and Australia have formally complained to the US National Insitute of Environmental Health Science (NEHS) about the study.
This is highly important as the NEHS is the funding body for this research. If it takes seriously the criticisms of poor quality of the research and its bias it could well mean these study authors lose their funding.
I have covered professional criticism of this study in previous articles (and included some of my own critical comments). See:
- If at first you don’t succeed . . . statistical manipulation might help
- Politics of science – making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear
- More expert comments on the Canadian fluoride-IQ paper
- An evidence-based discussion of the Canadian fluoride/IQ study
- Fluoridation – A new fight against scientific misinformation
- Biostatistical problems with the Canadian fluoride/IQ study
Here is the letter to the NIEHS – readers can download and read it for themselves. I urge you to do this as there may well be a lot of misrepresentation circulating in the near future if anti-fluoride activists launch a campaign to discredit it.
Release of data and methodology requested
The letter requests the NIEHS:
“formally ask the Green authors to release the HIPAA-compliant, Research Identifiable File (RIF) data sets from their study, as well as a complete explanation of their methods and the computer program/codes used in their data management and analysis.”
This request is motivated by the fact that several of the study authors “have declined to respond affirmatively to requests from other researchers for access to the data and analytical methods they used.”
I know that study authors have gone even further – for example, asking that a university department pressure one of their research students to remove social media discussion of the study. Unfortunately, the student did remove his posts – but I can understand the power of institutional pressure.
I think such to such limiting of critical post-publication discussion is ethically unscientific as it inhibits true peer review. It’s made worse in this situation as the journal has a policy of restricting publishing any critiques of papers to four weeks after publication. The journal editor did refer to “the implications of this study” being “debated in the public arena” – but it appears that the authors are not exactly keen on that either.
Large range of problems with the Canadian study
The letter lists a number of problems with the Canadian study. These include:
- Focusing on a subgroup analysis amid “noisy data”:
- Modeling and variable anomalies:
- Lacking data on relevant factors:
- Omitting crucial findings:
- Using invalid measures to determine individual exposures:
- Defining the final study group:
- Assessing the impact of fluoride exposure:
- Reporting anomalies:
- Internal inconsistency of outcomes:
- Overlooking research that conflicts with the authors’ conclusions:
I urge readers who are interested in either of these aspects to refer to the letter for details of the problems. The letter includes a list of 30 references relevant to these problems and to criticisms of the study by other professionals.
In Politics of science – making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear I raised the problems presented by scientific politics where poor studies are often promoted by journals, institutions, and authors. Maybe that is to be expected – science is a human activity and therefore subject to human problems like ambition and self-promotion.
However, in this case, scientific ambition and self-promotion have led to apparently “authoritative” statements by professionals that have been used to feed the scaremongering of anti-fluoride activists. These professionals may argue they are careful to qualify their statements but in the end, they must bear a lot of responsibility for the sort of completely misleading and false advertising activists have been promoting. Advertising which has serious consequences because of its scaremongering.
Scaremongering and scientific integrity
The letter also raises the problem of scaremongering in its final paragraph:
“. . . the Green article could generate unjustified fear that undermines evidence-based clinical and public health practices. So much is at stake. Hundreds of millions of people around the globe—from Brazil to Australia—live in homes that receive fluoridated drinking water. Hundreds of millions of people use toothpaste or other products with fluoride. Many millions of children receive topical fluoride treatments in clinical or other settings. Tooth decay remains one of the most common chronic diseases for children and teens, and fluoride is a crucial weapon against this disease. Decay prevalence could increase if a journal article unnecessarily frightens people to avoid water, toothpaste or other products fortified with fluoride.”
This letter by 30 high ranking professionals is extremely important. The concerns it raises are very relevant to scientific integrity and hence scientific credibility. I hope that the NIEHS and similar bodies will take on board the responsibility they have to ensure the work they fund is credible, expert, scientifically authentic and as free as possible from personal scientific ambitions and biases.