Category Archives: politics

“Fair-weather” scepticism

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My old man used to label us kids as “fair-weather sailors” when we bitched about working outside during bad weather.

That phrase comes to my mind sometimes when I come across people who claim to be “sceptics ” (“Skeptics”) behaving very unsceptically when confronted with a claim outside their area of interest. For example, someone who can be quite objective about scientific claims but reacts quite unobjectively to political claims.

Perhaps politics is a bit like religion to some people – they line up instinctively on one side or another. However, I think a true sceptic should still be able to consider political claims according to the facts available and not just rely on instincts.

So, I am all for this image. Yes it is hard. But when you think about it what use are one’s ingrained prejudices if they do not stand up to sceptical consideration.

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Ukrainian “suicides?”

Several days ago Ukraine Today reported the death of a former politician in the Yanukovych government which was overthrown in a coup last year. He was Oleksandr Peklushenko, the ex-head of a regional council in central Ukraine. Authorities are claiming he committed suicide – but he appears to be the 7th, 8th or 9th such Ukrainian opposition politician to “commit suicide” in the past month or so.

I can’t help wondering if the methods used to purge opposition figures in Ukraine have moved well beyond the well-reported process of throwing them into dumpsters.

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The head of the Chernovtsy municipal hospital for war veterans was “lustrated” in October. Dr. Manolya Migaychuk was accused of not fulfilling his responsibilities and was forced to resign, according to local media.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported  5 officials died in a suspicious way in a single 34-day period between January 28 and February 28 (see Suicide Or Homicide? In Ukraine, Old-Guard Officials Dying Mysteriously).

January 26 — Mykola Serhiyenko, the former first deputy chief of the state-run Ukrainian Railways, died in his Kyiv home after apparently shooting himself with a registered hunting rifle.

January 29 – Oleksiy Kolesnyk, the former head of the Kharkiv regional government, died after apparently hanging himself.

February 25 – The former mayor of the southeastern city of Melitopol, 57-year-old Serhiy Walter, reportedly hanged himself. . . Walter had been dismissed from his post in 2013 and put on trial for abuse of power and ties to organized crime.

February 26 – One day after Walter’s death, the body of the 47-year-old deputy chief of the Melitopol police, Oleksandr Bordyuh, was found in a garage. According to news reports, Bordyuh’s former boss was a lawyer involved in Walter’s trial. Media reported that the cause of Bordyuh’s death was ruled a “hypertensive crisis,” or stroke — a term that police frequently use in instances of suicide.”

February 28 – Mykhaylo Chechetov, the ex-deputy chairman of the Party of Regions faction in Ukraine’s parliament, died after jumping or falling out of the window of his 17th-story apartment. Chechetov was a former head of the State Property Fund. At the end of August 2014 another former head of the State Property Fund, Valentyna Valentina Semenyuk-Samsonenko was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head, with a gun lying nearby. She led the agency from April 2005 to December 2008. Her family told reporters they dismissed the possibility of suicide, saying that she had spoken fearfully of someone taking out a contract on her life.”

In recent months, a number of other former and current officials were reported as having “committed suicide” in Ukraine – the former deputy head of “Ukrzaliznytsia”, Nicholai Sergienko, former head of Kharkov regional council, Nikolai Kolesnik, ex-mayor of Melitopol and former MP, Stanislav Melnik.

Who is responsible?

An epidemic of suicides by opposition politicians is of course possible – after all the regime in Kiev is hounding and jailing their old opponents and that must be stressful for the victims. But it is hardly credible.

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Perhaps we could just blindly line up with the current political “wisdom” and blame Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. After all, our news media seems to think “Putin did it!” is a sufficiently sophisticated explanation for all things ranging from the shooting down of commercial airliners to the recent Moscow assassination of Boris Nemtsov (a deputy prime minister in a previous government under Boris Yeltsin).

Or are our media at least intelligent enough to realise that would be asking too much of its readers?

It seems that our news media has instead decided just to keep quiet about this rash of “assassination/suicides” in Ukraine. Maybe they cannot see any political advantage in reporting them – unlike the Nemtsov assassination.

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A couple of “oldies” inject some sense into international politics

Politicking: Stephen Cohen on the Ukraine crisis and his ‘unpatriotic’ views

At last – something sensible from an American perspective on the Ukrainian crisis and the new cold war.

The trouble is – it’s a minority viewpoint and no-one in power seems to be listening.

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Social health policies, freedom of choice and responsibility

Social health policies inevitably raise the issue of the individual’s freedom of choice. While debates around these policies often concentrate on questions of fact, scientific consensus and reliability of evidence, these tend to be surrogates for the underlying values issues. To what extent should I sacrifice my freedom of choice, or my freedom of choice to decide for my children, for the good health of the community? And what if my freedom of choice violates the freedom of choice for others?

hall-offit-fullPaul Offit discussed these issues in a recent Point of Inquiry podcast – Paul Offit, MD, on Measles in the Magic Kingdom and the Anti-Vaccine Movement. He is a Professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children Hospital of Philadelphia. Offit is the author of the book Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.

He basically talks about the spread of measles throughout California and neighboring states because of a source of infection at Disneyland. Although measles were eliminated in the U.S. by 2000, the misinformation of the anti-vaccine movement has caused a return of a full-fledged outbreak.

Levels of responsibility and consequences

Paul makes the comparison of opposition to vaccination with opposition to blood transfusion.

1: Blood transfusions. A person my refuse to accept treatment involving blood transfusion because of their personal religious beliefs. More questionably they may refuse on behalf of their children. However, the consequences are limited to the person or her child. The decision does not harm the community at large.

2: Vaccinations. A person may refuse a measles vaccination for themselves or their children. But in this case the consequences are not personal – they affect the whole of society. By lowering the degree of immunisation in the community they threaten the lives of others – particularly the most vulnerable, children.

In these two cases the person has refused an intervention, a medical treatment or vaccination, which could be seen to violate their freedom of choice – or even to violate their body. In the first case the consequences are personal, limited to the person who made the wrong decision. But in the second case the consequences are social. An personal wrong decision has taken away the freedom of choice, the health and in some cases the lives, of others in society.

A bit like the personal decision to drive on the wrong side of the road. Society has taken away a small personal freedom of choice in our road rules to protect the lives of all of us.

3: Fluoridation. Social health policies like community fluoridation of water, salt, milk, etc., are recognised as being safe, beneficial and cost-effective. But they are opposed by a vocal minority. Activists will passionately promote the freedom of choice argument and, considering they don’t have the scientific evidence on their side this is often seen as their strongest argument. After all, it is values-based and therefore can’t be tested and rejected by evidence.

But, this third case is different to the other 2.

  • The act of fluoridation or not is social, taken by society as a whole or their representatives. An person may contribute to the decision but cannot decide the issue by a personal action as they can with vaccinations or blood transfusions. Although individual political action, or dissemination of information or misinformation, may influence that social decision – and hence the social consequences.
  • Fluoridation does not involve an intervention or treatment, medical or otherwise. No one is forced to drink fluoridated water or milk, or to consume fluoridated salt. The freedom of choice argument is invalid here because there are always alternatives.

Despite actively promoting the freedom of choice argument even the NZ anti-fluoride activist Fluoride Free NZ provides information on these atlernatives. They list alternative water sources, distillation, ion exchange filters and reverse osmosis. Most of these choices are cheap and available.

So what is driving anti-fluoridation propagandists?

Unlike opponents to blood transfusion they cannot argue freedom of choice to refuse an intervention on religious grounds. There is no intervention. The only personal imposition is that they may wish to buy a water filter (many already have these) or buy water from a different source.

Again, unlike opponents of vaccination they cannot argue freedom of choice to refuse an intervention even on grounds of personal belief – because there is no personal intervention.

Given the lack of any forced or personal intervention I am forced to conclude the freedom of choice issue that concerns the anti-fluoride activists is their freedom of choice to decide the oral health quality of other members of their community. And given the health and scientific expert consensus on the issue they are really arguing for their freedom of choice to decide the oral health of others on the grounds of their own minority personal beliefs or convictions.

In last year’s High Court judgement on the question of fluoridation in South Tarinaki, Justice Hansen wrote:

“Provided it does not have consequences for public health a person has the right to make even the poorest decisions in respect of their own health. But where the state, either directly or through local government, employs public health interventions, the right is not engaged. Were it otherwise, the individual’s right to refuse would become the individual’s right to decide outcomes for others. It would give any person a right of veto over public health measures which it is not only the right but often the responsibility of local authorities to deliver.”

The freedom of choice the anti-fluoride activists are promoting is their freedom of choice to decide health outcomes for others – not themselves.

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Reality of war for civilians

The civil war in Ukraine is almost forgotten by our news media but it is only getting worse. Poroshenko’s announcement that the US is to supply lethal weapons to the Kiev government means things are going to get much worse before they get better.

But this is what it is like for civilians being evacuated by Donetsk forces from the current battle area near Debaltseve.

[eng subs] Uglegorsk residents evacuated by the militias from the town destroyed by UAF “Grads”.

As one of the refugees demands – Poroshenko should negotiate. A political solution is necessary and it is the only way to end this war. It is what the suffering civilians need.

Update

For balance here is some footage on the evacuations from the side of the Kiev troops.

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US meddling in Ukraine behind coup

Ukraine Deputy has proof of USA staging civil war in Ukraine

Just came across this video. It is useful as we tend to forget the early history of the current crisis in Ukraine. This is a speech in the Ukrainian parliament made just before the outbreak of the Maidan demonstrations and riots which eventually lead to the overthrow of the elected government in February and installation of an unelected junta. Everything was downhill (or downhill at a faster rate) from then on.

The speaker is Oleg Tsarov. He eventually ran in the early 2014 presidential election where Poroshenko was elected. However, he withdraw just before election day because of intimidation and violence (he was beaten up by nationalist thugs several times). Several other candidates withdrew in similar situations, one having been the victim of a failed assassination attempt.

You get a flavour for the conflict and struggle of the time from the constant heckling and interruptions by ultra-nationalist/neo-fascist groups in the parliament. Members of the ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party are easily recognisable in the video.

Some other reminiscences from that period

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Assistant US Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and Ambassador Geoff Pyatt walk inside the protester’s tent camp in Kiev, Ukraine, in December 2013.

US politicians were often present in the Maidan demonstrations. Hell, Geoff Pyatt was even involved in directing traffic during one tense period. John McCain was another US politician prominent for his close association with anti-government forces in Ukraine.

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Victoria Nuland gets chummy with Oleh Tyahnybok (leader of neo-fascist Svoboda Party, Vitaly Klitschko and Arseniy Yatseniuk (current pro-war PM).

Phone call

A leaked phone conversation between Victoria Nuland and US ambassador to Ukraine Geoff Pyatt became infamous because of her comment – “Fuck the EU.” It is often forgotten that the conversation involved decisions on who should become President and Prime Minister in the government they hoped to install to replace that of democratically elected Viktor Yanukovych  – This was soon before the coup which overthrew Yanukovych.

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Six months on – concerns about MH17 investigation

People around the world are frustrated over the sluggishness of the official investigation into the MH17 tragedy. The documentary “Reflections on MH17″ describes some of this frustration felt by families of the victims and those who are carrying out their own investigations or attempting legal actions.

This short video from the BBC endorses the concerns at the slow investigation felt by a Dutch family of victims.

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“Internet and social media misinform thousands daily”

A recent analysis of the internet and social media illustrates the up-hill battle science and health professionals, and pro-science lay people, often face with misinformation and outright distortion of science. The authors show the problem for the case of community water fluoridation and concluded:

“The Internet and social media are misinforming thousands of people daily about the safety, health, and economic benefits of community water fluoridation. The leading anti-fluoridation website had 5 to 60 times more traffic than the two leading profluoridation health organizations. All Groups and Pages analyzed on Facebook were against fluoridation, while 99 percent of the videos searched on YouTube and the majority (70 percent) of fluoridation tweets on Twitter were anti-CWF fluoridation.”

This study drew important lessons for science and health professions:

Pro-fluoridation organizations need to have a better presence on the Internet and utilize social media to educate the American people about the facts on fluoridation. Individual dental and health practitioners need to educate their patients about fluoridation, so their patients will not be easily misguided by misinformation on the Internet and social media.

And, of course, these lessons are just as applicable to New Zealand.

The study is reported in the paper:

Mertz & Allukian (2014). Community Water Fluoridation on the Internet and Social Media. Journal of the Massachusetts Dental Society, 63(2), 32–36. (You can download a pdf here.)

They monitored website traffic for major fluoridation websites from June 2011 – May 2012 and fluoridation information on Facebook on April 3, 2012. In addition they collected search data for the term “fluoridation” on Twitter for 2 periods (March 1 – 14 and April 1 – 14, 2012) and on YouTube for April 3, 2012.

The data

I illustrate some examples of the data presented in the figures and tables below.

This figure shows that the most important anti-fluoridation website, Paul Connett’s Fluoride Action Network, had far more traffic than the Wikipedia fluoridation section and the institutional web sites (which are pro-fluoridation) on fluoridation.

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The situation for Facebook groups and pages was even more dire with 193 search results being “anti” while none were “pro.”

Table-1

The Twitter search also showed far more anti- than pro-fluoridation tweets, although the data shows  the numbers are influenced by important articles.

Table-2

Some observations

Of course this is a limited study and much more could be said about this situation, the business interests driving it and possible solutions. I list a few observations below:

1: This study is a snapshot in time. For example, Table 1 would look a little different at this time (January 2015) than it did in April 2012. There are now a number of specifically pro-fluoridation, or at least uncommitted Facebook pages and groups.

My brief search for Facebook “pages” and “groups” using the words fluoride or fluoridation showed about 8 pro-fluoridation, or neutral, pages in the first 50 results for “fluoride” and 2 for “fluoridation.” There were about 4 “pro” Facebook groups in the first 50 for either of these two search terms.

Things are improving. In New Zealand we have seen an increased activity of pro-science groups since the undemocratic decision (now reversed) of the Hamilton City Council to stop fluoridation. This was under pressure from anti-fluoride activists (nationally and internationally) and against the expressed wishes of the citizens. Similar fight-backs are happening overseas – in USA, Canada, Ireland and the UK. The progress is welcome  but more is required. Although I should note there is a tendency for anti-fluoridation activists to set up Facebook pages for many locations where there may have been suggestions of campaigns but the pages become inactive in a short while.

2: Who is financing these anti-fluoridation websites and social media activity? There is a clear connection between the “natural” health industry and anti-fluoridation organisations and activity. Paul Connett’s Fluoride Action Network is organisationally connected with Mercola’s “natural” health business (and anti-vaccination groups) through the “Health Liberty” organisation  and financial flows from Mercolla to FAN are well known. Similarly in  New Zealand the “natural” health industry, through the NZ Health trust, has financed legal action of anti-fluoridation groups (see Who is funding anti-fluoridation High Court action? and Corporate backers of anti-fluoride movement lose in NZ High Court).

3: Is there an underlying purposeful strategy behind then internet and social media anti-fluoridation activity? Definitely. I gave an example illustrating this in Anti-fluoridationist astro-turfing and media manipulation. Activist groups will create press releases pretending to be scientifically authoritative. These are picked up by the “natural” health web sites and magazines (and sometimes, if they are lucky) by the main media. They get coverage on Facebook pages and are tweeted – often automatically by internet bots and the web sites themselves. They can easily create “Twitter storms” this way and widely spread their misinformation.

Here are some typical examples that get repeated ad nauseum:

And, the misinformation cycle gets repeated. Information on Twitter gets reproduced in blog comments and included in web sites and press releases.

4: Institutional web sites are not really suitable for this sort of debate on the internet and in social media. This is partly the problem of a serious, rational or logical web presence challenging an often emotional web presence. A calm explanation of the science challenging claims appealing to preconceived prejudices and emotional needs.

Also, institutions traditionally have felt such debates are somewhat “below” them, preferring not to get into what they see as “street-fighting.” Recently I heard of a case where an anti-pseudoscience group had asked permission to use material from a professional dental site for use in a booklet. They were turned down because the association could not see why this was necessary!

This suggests that pro-science activists should consider taking the initiative, launching their own web sites, etc., and participating in these sorts of struggles, rather than relying on existing institutions. Similarly such activists should see they can play a far more active role on Facebook and Twitter than institutions can, or a willing to.

Conclusion

This study shows that people are in general being misinformed by social media and the internet about community water fluoridation. I suggest this is not accidental – political and business interests are actively encouraging this misinformation. In particular, the “natural” health industry plays a key role in promoting misinformation on fluoridation.

Recently things are improving a little with a fight back from pro-science groups and individuals. I suggest their activity is essential as institutional groups and media outlets are not suited for  internet and social media debates.

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The victims of terror

Appropriately, some of the most effective protests against the most recent act of terrorism has come from cartoonists.

Charlie Nebdo

Let’s hope the pencil, and brush, are mightier than the weapons of terror.

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The MH17 blame game

I know this is provocative, but couldn’t help thinking of the blame game going on around the MH17 tragedy (the Malaysian plane shot down over Eastern Ukraine in July) when I saw these on social media.

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Thanks to David for this meme

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