October ’15 – NZ blogs sitemeter ranking

How Do You Rank question on a webscreen asking how highly you appear in rankings on search engine results

Image credit: 5 Factors That Affect Your Search Engine Ranking

Sitemeter has been extremely slow again this month. The collection of Sitemeter data is hardly “automatic” at the moment.

There are about 300 blogs on the list, although I am weeding out those which are no longer active or have removed public access to sitemeters. (Let me know if I weed out yours by mistake or get your stats wrong).

Every month I get queries from people wanting their own blog included. I encourage and am happy to respond to queries but have prepared a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) people can check out. Have a look at NZ Blog Rankings FAQ. This is particularly helpful to those wondering how to set up sitemeters. Please note, the system is automatic and relies on blogs having sitemeters which allow public access to the stats.

Here are the rankings of New Zealand blogs with publicly available statistics for October 2015. Ranking is by visit numbers. I have listed the blogs in the table below, together with monthly visits and page view numbers. Meanwhile I am still keen to hear of any other blogs with publicly available sitemeter or visitor stats that I have missed. Contact me if you know of any or wish help adding publicly available stats to your bog.

You can see data for previous months at Blog Ranks

Subscribe to NZ Blog Rankings Subscribe to NZ blog rankings by Email Find out how to get Subscription & email updates Continue reading

Scientific papers, civil disobedience and personal networks


Image credit: 4 tips on finding and reading scientific papers…

Jerry Coyne raises an important issue about science publishing on his blog, Why Evolution is True. That is the problem of most published scientific journals being behind a firewall and so inaccessible to readers who do not have an institutional subscription – unless they pay an exorbitant fee – US$30 or more per paper.

His article, Scientists engage in civil disobedience, share copyrighted papers, is aimed mainly at scientists, but the problems is probably greater for the non-scientist, as most working scientists already have institutional subscriptions and libraries which can source papers where there is no subscription.

Incidentally, this is also a big problem for the retired scientist. Since the advent of Human Resources Departments, one loses all privileges and accesses on retirement. Cards and pin numbers for access to buildings no longer work. Emails addresses are lost. And access to institutional networks, databases, libraries and journal subscriptions also disappear.

It is particularly a problem for people who wish to discuss scientific evidence online – whether they have a scientific background or not. Firewalls often mean that discussion is hindered because people rely only on abstracts (and sometimes only titles!). Sure, we are all familiar with trolls who will make confident assertions on even less evidence – but they are dishonest. I strongly believe that participants in these discussions have a responsibility to at least read the papers they cite.

So, it is frustrating to post a blog article about a new paper knowing that many readers simply don’t have access to more than the abstract. Providing a link to a copy of these papers violates copyright and there are limits to the amount of text that can be quoted in a blog post.

So what is a reader to do? I wouldn’t recommend paying exorbitant fees for a paper which may or may not be useful – and that only encourages science publishers in a practice which is little more than  blackmail or piracy.

Here are two suggestions – first the “civil disobedience” described by Jerry Coyne, which is most probably illegal because of copyright violations. Secondly, one that is far more legal and better for one’s conscience.

Sharing copyrighted papers by civil disobedience.

i-can-haz-pdf-memeJerry describes a method using the hashtag  #icanhazpdf on Twitter. The procedure is described in the Atlantic article, How to Get Free Access to Academic Papers on Twitter. Have a read – but I find it impersonal and a bit sneaky (it involves deleting one’s tweet once a paper is downloaded and there is no real contact with the person who made the paper available). However, it will appeal to some people attracted to the idea of civil disobedience and “putting it to the man.”

This method is also discussed in the articles The scientists encouraging online piracy with a secret codeword and I can haz PDF: Academics tweet secret code word to get expensive research papers for free.

Using personal and online networks

One could always try a public library for a personal inter-loan – but that hardly appeals to the modern person who desires more immediate access.

I have found using Google Scholar to search for a title will often produce a link to a pdf copy already online, maybe already in violation of copyright. It’s amazing how many papers used by anti-fluoride activists are available from links on anti-fluoride web pages.

And, in the old days we used to request reprints from authors. Why not give that a go – send an email to the corresponding author asking if they could send you a pdf.

But what about considering your own personal and online networks.

Do you have a family member, friend or even an acquaintance (or several) who works in a scientific institution? It wouldn’t hurt to politely ask if they could get a pdf of the paper you are after and send it to you. Surely it is legally OK for staff in such institutes to discuss their work, and other aspects of science, with interested people via email. I can’t see that such communications, sometimes involving attached scientific papers, violate copyright – at least in spirit.

Then there are the online networks we seem to have these days – usually via Facebook groups. Most scientists would be cagey about attaching a link to a Facebook comment but sending a pdf via personal message or email would be OK. If you don’t already belong to a science or sceptical group then this is a good reason for joining. There will be people in these groups willing to help – and if the group is a closed one there is little risk.

Perhaps join several groups – after all if you have several people or networks to call on you will feel less guilty about asking others to spend time on your request.

Finally, it is not enough to acquire these pdfs – one should always read them before discussing them. And I mean read them critically and intelligently. This infographic gives you an idea of what can be involved.


Credit: Natalia Rodrigue –  Infographic: How to read a scientific paper

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The quackery of anti-fluoride internet trolls

pe-health-and-fitness-quackery-3-638The article How Quackery Sells from Quackwatch is ten years old but it still very relevant. Perhaps even more relevant than it used to be because of the increase in internet coverage. This has widened the possibilities for snake oil salespersons. But it has also widened the possibilities for propagandists who may not be selling something themselves but are promoting the ideologies that the snake oil salespeople rely on.

It is the last form of quackery that concerns me. I am one of the last persons to be attracted to “natural”/alternative health products and treatments. But I certainly have to battle the “natural”/alternative health propagandists in the comments section of this blog and elsewhere on the internet.

How Quackery Sells describes the ways quacks fool their customers and patients. But it is amazing that these same methods seem to come just as naturally to the internet commenter or troll who devotes so much time to attacking bloggers who promote or defend science. This could describe the troll:

“Modern health quacks are supersalesmen. They play on fear. They cater to hope. And once they have you, they’ll keep you coming back for more . . . and more . . . and more.”

“Most people think that quackery is easy to spot. Often it is not. Its promoters wear the cloak of science. They use scientific terms and quote (or misquote) scientific references.”

And these are methods common to quacks and trolls promoting quackery.

troll 6

Appeals to vanity

“A subtle appeal to your vanity underlies the message of the TV ad quack: Do it yourself—be your own doctor.”

Yes – and that is a common message of these internet trolls. Be your own doctor – don’t trust the professional!

Turning customers into salespeople

“Most people who think they have been helped by an unorthodox method enjoy sharing their success stories with their friends.”

And how many trolls have told us about their bad experiences with community water fluoridation (CWF)? All the aches and pains, irritable bowel syndrome, etc., that go away when they stop drinking fluoridated water – and reappear when they accidentally do drink it! They pretend to speak from authority even though it is “difficult to evaluate a “health” product on the basis of personal experience.”

Trouble is:

“Since we tend to believe what others tell us of personal experiences, testimonials can be powerful persuaders. Despite their unreliability, they are the cornerstone of the quack’s success.”

Perhaps that is why the anti-fluoride troll relies on such personal claims. Polite people are afraid to doubt them – yet when asked for specifics b y rude people like me they often run away.

The use of fear

The article says about this:

“Quackery’s most serious form of fear-mongering has been its attack on water fluoridation. Although fluoridation’s safety is established beyond scientific doubt, well-planned scare campaigns have persuaded thousands of communities not to adjust the fluoride content of their water to prevent cavities. Millions of innocent children have suffered as a result.”

Clinical tricks

“The most important characteristic to which the success of quacks can be attributed is probably their ability to exude confidence. Even when they admit that a method is unproven, they can attempt to minimize this by mentioning how difficult and expensive it is to get something proven to the satisfaction of the FDA these days. If they exude self-confidence and enthusiasm, it is likely to be contagious and spread to patients and their loved ones.”

Or, in the case of anti-fluoride campaigners, spread to local body politicians when these self-declared “experts” make submissions full of misinformation and distortion of the scientific articles they cite.

“Another potent technique is cultural association, in which promoters ally themselves with religious or other cultural beliefs by associating their product or service with an article of faith or prejudice of their target audience.”

Anti-fluoride campaigners are past masters at taking advantage of widespread concern for the environment, desire to support and return to nature and the sensible fear of contamination.

Handling the opposition

“Quacks are involved in a constant struggle with legitimate health care providers, mainstream scientists, government regulatory agencies and consumer protection groups. Despite the strength of this science-based opposition, quackery manages to flourish. To maintain their credibility, quacks use a variety of clever propaganda ploys.”

“They persecuted Galileo!” – “Today’s quack boldly asserts that he is another example of someone ahead of his time.”

The charge of “conspiracy.” “How can we be sure that the AMA, the FDA, the American Cancer Society, drug companies and others are not involved in some monstrous plot to withhold a cancer cure from the public?”

Anti-fluoride campaigners continually resort to conspiracy to explain the near unanimous support of health authorities for CWF.

“Claims of “suppression” are used to market publications as well as treatments. Many authors and publishers purport to offer information that your doctor, the AMA, and/or government agencies “don’t want you to know about.””

So often the troll claims that their doctor refuses to recognise the symptoms they claim CWF cause. And as far as the scientific and science publication establishment is concerned – of course they suppress any data supporting the anti-fluoride claims.

“Another diversionary tactic is to charge that quackery’s critics are biased or have been bought off by drug companies.”

“Shill” must be the most common term of abuse used by the anti-fluoride troll against anyone attempting to communicate the science behind CWF.

“Quacks like to charge that, “Science doesn’t have all the answers.” That’s true, but it doesn’t claim to have them. Rather, it is a rational and responsible process that can answer many questions—including whether procedures are safe and effective for their intended purpose. It is quackery that constantly claims to have answers for incurable diseases. The idea that people should turn to quack remedies when frustrated by science’s inability to control a disease is irrational. Science may not have all the answers, but quackery has no answers at all! It will take your money and break your heart.”

That seems obvious to me but how often do we get trolls effectively rejecting, or disparaging, science as a way of understanding reality? How often do the “failures” and mistakes of science – usually more imaginary than real – get trundled out. Anti-fluoride campaigners seem unable to understand that recognition of the problems due to smoking, lead in petrol or prescription of thalidomide to pregnant women are an argument for science, not an argument to ignore science.

How to Avoid Being Tricked

“The best way to avoid being tricked is to stay away from tricksters. Unfortunately, in health matters, this is no simple task.”

“Sad to say, in most contests between quacks and ordinary people, the quacks still are likely to win.”

Well, I guess health experts and scientifically informed sceptics are not fooled. Trouble is, when the information peddled by trolls is presented unchallenged to local body politicians or decision makers these “ordinary people” are often fooled.

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Our beautiful planet: Astronaut art works

Sahara-1 small

This photo is a real work of art – the sort of thing I would love to have displayed on my wall.

But there is plenty where that came from. It is one of the photo’s taken by astronaut Scott Kelly from the International Space Station. He lifted off from Kazakhstan on March 27 and is scheduled to return to Earth on March 3, 2016, after spending a total of 522 days in space, according to NASA (this is his 4th mission).

Scott Kelly

Scott Kelly aboard the ISS

The photos here are from a series Scott took of the Sahara desert. Really beautiful works of art.

Shara-5 small Sahar-4 small Sahara-3 small Sahara-2 small

These photos are from: Earth Art: NASA ‘artist’ stuns Twitter with Sahara Desert pics taken from space (PHOTOS) — RT News

Follow Scott Kelly on Twitter (@StationCDRKellyfor more of his brilliant photography from space.

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Christian co-option of karakia

In my post, European and Māori major non-believers in NZI posed the question:

“I wonder if these non-religious Māori feel as offended as I do when a Christian prayer, disguised as a karakia, is imposed on them?”

Ngaire McCarthy

Ngaire McCarthy

So, I was pleased to get this article from a reader. It has just been posted on ON LINE  opinion  – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate.

Ngaire reveals how karakia have been co-opted by Christians. As she says: “The word karakia then became just another tool of colonization.” She also goes on to argue against religious instruction on our secular school system.

Maori ritual and Christian indoctrination in New Zealand

By Ngaire McCarthy

I am a life member, past president, and now Trustee of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists in Auckland. I am a member of The Maori Women’s Welfare League. I am a Justice of the Peace.

MyIwi (tribal heritage) is Ngapuhi, Ngati Hako, and Ngati Tamatera.

I believe that there should be no ‘school prayer’ no ‘religious dogma’ or ‘creed’ taught in our state schools. Our state sponsored schools should be run on strictly secular, ‘separation of church and state’, non-sectarian principles.

Before the missionaries introduced Christianity into Aotearoa New Zealand, we Maori had karakia. These are customary, mostly secular, ritual chants. These traditions and customs continue to be an innate and important part of our culture. We still open and close numerous ceremonies with karakia.

There are hundreds of different karakia that are used for different occasions, but the majority of New Zealanders think there is only one.

The traditional karakia that is used to open and close ceremonies is not a Christian prayer, it is a ritual chant, a set form of words to state or make effective a ritual activity. Karakia are recited rapidly using traditional language, symbols and structures.

The early missionaries saw Maori traditions through a Biblical framework and believed that karakia was always a prayer, so they took the word and reinterpreted it to mean Christian prayer. The word karakia then became just another tool of colonization.

If the few kaumatua (elderly Maori) who articulate the karakia, are Christian, they will continue to misrepresent our customary karakia. This puts them into direct conflict with our pre-colonization customary traditions.

This is not to say that our customs and traditions cannot evolve to meet the changing times. They have and they do. We, the indigenous first nation people of Aotearoa, have a Treaty partnership with the New Zealand government. Our social customs are an important part of the cultural diversity of this country, recognised in the Treaty of Waitangi, and as such, are inviolable.

Returning to the case for the removal of religious instruction and prayers from our state schools, I argue we must focus on religion itself. The language, nationality or race of the religious people involved in instruction and prayer in state schools is irrelevant. It all has to go.

In New Zealand, the religions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and others, have the privilege of state funding for their private schools and buildings of worship, but it seems that those privileges are not enough for them.

We atheists, freethinkers, or indeed, open religiously-minded parents who believe in the separation of church and state, enrol our children into a state school, believing that the school will be free from any form of religious prayers, hymns or instruction.

Children are susceptible and suggestible, and will, without question, believe anything an adult tells them. To take the mind of a child and teach them about religion as if it were an established fact, is tantamount to child abuse and the state should not be encouraging it.

In some of our state schools the practice of segregating/separating religious and non-religious children into groups for religious instruction is unprincipled, and encourages discrimination between the two groups in the playground.

There is also a real danger that non-religious children will be judged/evaluated negatively by religious teachers. That can undermine performance, cognitive flexibility and will power. Teachers at state schools should not be cognizant to the religious belief or the non-religious belief of the children in their care.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 permits religious instruction and observance in schools as long as it is done in a way that does not ‘discriminate’ against anyone who does not share that belief. But as long as religion in any form is enabled by government to allow instructions/prayer in our state schools, then discrimination is an inevitable fact.

It is not a question of equal access to children’s minds for all, it is a question of allowing innocent children the right to come to a belief in their own good time.

The 2013 New Zealand Census found that the population of indigenous Maori stood at 598,605. Of that, 263,517 of us Maori ticked the ‘no religion’ box. That was 46.3 per cent of Maori, almost the same percentage of New Zealanders of European descent, at 46.9 per cent, with no religion.

These figures show that in spite of two centuries of pressure from the dominant Christian religious culture of New Zealand, Maori are rapidly breaking free from dogmatic religion.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief, including the right to adopt and to hold opinions without interference.

As one of the 263,517 Maori who have no religion, I believe that our conscience, our freedom of thought, our freedom from religion, are, with the aid of the state, being jeopardized through the prejudice of privileging religion through our taxes and our schools..

Since colonization, the arrival of other religious traditions on our shores have compromised Maori karakia, as I discussed above, and entrenched mainly Christian indoctrination in our state schools.

If we fail to remove all religion from our state schools we will be sacrificing our future well-being merely in order to appease imposed religious belief systems that show little, or no tolerance, toward those who disagree with them.

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Combatting anti-fluoride Gish gallopers

gishWe have all experienced this problem. Claims made on the internet which rely on nothing more than constant assertion – and moving on, when challenged, to new claims, similarly relying only on assertion. The old Gish gallop.

truth boots

The conscientious defender of science is often loaded down with the task of checking out claims, finding the literature – and reading it to find what it actually says. So it is useful, when there is a debate on a specific subject, to have access to a source where all the claims are considered together.

Community water fluoridation is one subject where all sorts of weird and wonderful (and unscientific) claims are peddled. Now we have a document which critically analyses many of these claims in one place. What’s more – it is in a peer-reviewed publication. And it is local – dealing with common claims made by anti-fluoridation campaigners in New Zealand.

The paper is:

Broadbent, J., Wills, R., McMillan, J., Drummond, B., & Whyman, R. (2015). Evaluation of evidence behind some recent claims against community water fluoridation in New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 6758(October), 1–18.

Unfortunately, it is behind a pay wall – but many readers may have institutional access – or know someone who has.

I am not going to go through the whole paper here – nor present the analysis of each claim ( I have already done this for many common anti-fluoride claims – interested readers can do a topic search here, or browse the fluoridation list of articles). Instead, I list below all the claims considered in the paper below

Chemistry of fluoride

Claim: ‘[F]luorine is an inherently toxic element’ (Gross 1956; Atkin 2013).

Claim: ‘Fluorine naturally presents as calcium fluoride in water supplies’ (Guha 2011; Atkin 2013).

Claim: ‘Water fluoridation systems use either hydrofluorosilicic acid or derivative hexafluorosilicate. These compounds have never been tested for human health safety’ (Waugh 2012; Atkin 2013).

Claim: ‘Silicofluorides do not fully dissociate to form free fluoride ions in aqueous solution and revert to the silicofluoride ion in acid stomach conditions’ (Atkin 2013; Sauerheber 2013).

Claim: ‘Silicofluorides do not completely dissociate to form free fluoride ions, as proved by Crosby (1969)’ (Royal 2010).

Claim: ‘The World Health Organization states that 40% of ingested fluoride is absorbed through the stomach wall as molecular hydrofluoric acid (a known mutagen). This negates the “all fluoride ions are the same” deception’ (Atkin 2013).

Health and safety

Claim: ‘In 2000, the US National Sanitation Foundation released test results showing fluoridation chemicals typically add 0.43 parts per billion (ppb) arsenic to the finished water’ (Connett 2001; Atkin 2013; Hirzy et al. 2013).

Claim: ‘Adjusting for NZ parameters, applying the EPA’s risk factor (3.5 × 10–5 deaths per 70 year lifetime per microgram arsenic per day), we would expect 1.1 extra lung and bladder cancer deaths per year in NZ due to the contaminated fluoridation chemicals used’ (Atkin 2013).

Claim: ‘A report by environmental risk consultant, Declan Waugh, showed that across all major health conditions, the 70%-fluoridated Republic of Ireland had significantly higher disease rates than never-fluoridated Northern Ireland, often by several 100%’ (Atkin 2013; Waugh 2013).

Claim: ‘The recent Harvard review of IQ studies found that there was a genuine concern about developmental neurotoxicity’ (Atkin 2013).

Claim: ‘In the US court case of Aitkenhead v Borough of West View it was found proven that fluoridation increased cancer rates by 5%. This finding has never been  overturned’ (Atkin 2013).

Claim: ‘In 2006, Dr Elise Bassin published high quality research showing that boys (but not girls) exposed to fluoridated water between the ages of 5 and 10 had 500% more osteosarcoma in their teens (Bassin et al. 2006). No study has ever refuted Bassin’s findings, as they look at total lifetime exposure or exposure at time of diagnosis, both of which are irrelevant. This equates to two osteosarcoma deaths per year in New Zealand (NZ)’ (Atkin 2013).

Claim: ‘In 2006 Dr Elise Bassin published research in Cancer Causes and Control, demonstrating that it is likely that males exposed to fluoride, including fluoridated water, between the ages of 6 and 8 years inclusive, had at least a five-fold increased risk in developing osteosarcoma (bone cancer) in their teens’ (Atkin 2011).

Claim: ‘A range of studies, using different modalities, has shown a correlation between fluoride and heart disease’ (Takamori et al. 1956; Singh et al. 1961; Atkin 2013).

Claim: ‘[A] direct correlation [exists] between the fluoride level in arteries, including coronary arteries, and atherosclerosis’ (Li et al. 2012; Atkin 2013).

Claim: ‘Perhaps one of the most alarming potential consequences of water fluoridation, as highlighted in recent research, is that a significant correlation exists between fluoride uptake and calcification of the major arteries, including coronary arteries’ (Li et al. 2012; Waugh 2012).

Claim: ‘Following fluoridation’s introduction into the US, deaths from heart attacks sky-rocketed in the fluoridated communities, compared with non-fluoridated ones’ (Miller 1952; Atkin 2013).

Claim: ‘Between 1% and 3% of the population have a chemical intolerance to fluoride. This manifests in a range of conditions, including gastrointestinal problems and debilitating chronic fatigue’ (Feltman & Kosel 1961; Moolenberg 1987; Atkin 2013).

Claim: ‘In one study, which lasted 13 years, Feltman & Kosel (1961) showed that about 1% of patients given 1 mg of fluoride each day developed negative reactions, (Connett 2012).

Claim: ‘Research by the State University of New York in 2009 showed women in fluoridated communities had a 15% higher incidence of preterm births, and that this rate was greater for poor non-white mothers. Further research also shows higher preterm birth rates and lower birth weights connected with fluoride (Susheela et al. 2010). Based on NZ statistics, we would expect at least 3.3 extra neonatal deaths per year just from extra extreme preterm births caused by fluoridation, disproportionately affecting Maori and Pacific’ (Atkin 2013).

Claim: ‘Those whom fluoridation is claimed to most benefit, poor non-whites, not only receive little if any such benefit, as found by the York Review, but are most at risk from fluoride’s toxicity’ (Atkin 2013).

Research and mechanisms

Claim:‘The biggest reason [for reduction of dental caries] in New Zealand is that the Ministry of Health directed school dental nurses to stop filling teeth unnecessarily. They stopped filling tiny surface enamel defects during the Hastings experiment, producing an overnight 25% reduction in ‘decay’, attributed to fluoridation in the report (Colquhoun & Mann 1986). In 1976, they stopped drilling and filling perfectly healthy molars—a 64% reduction over five years’ (de Liefde 1998; Atkin 2013).

Claim: ‘The claimed reductions in decay [in the Hastings fluoridation trial], which were greatest for the younger children, were brought about partly if not mainly by a local change in diagnostic procedure following introduction of fluoridation’ (Colquhoun & Mann 1986).

Claim: ‘The original belief was that fluoride had to be ingested to harden teeth during enamel formation. This was discredited in 1999 (Featherstone 1999). Any significant effect from fluoride is topical, not systemic, through high fluoride concentrations (such as toothpaste), not through fluoridated water washing over the teeth during the day’ (Atkin 2013).

Note: Many of the claims considered are sourced from an article by Mark Atkins – formerly the “science and legal advisor” for Fluoride Free NZ. That article is:

Atkin, G. M. (2013). New Zealand drinking water should be fluoridated: No. Journal of Primary Healthcare, 5(4), 332–334.

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MH17: Final technical report


The final technical report from the Dutch safety Board on the crash of Malaysian flight MH17 in Eastern Ukraine has just been released. You can download your copy here or go to the Final report page which also provides links to the appendices. (Warning – I don’t think this URL is permanent).

Having discussed the previous preliminary report here, and got into a debate on responsibility for the crash, I feel the need to make at least some comment on the final report. My comments will be brief – I have so far not read the complete document. The report is 280 pages long, and there are extra, important, appendices (I think about 26 in total) which are also quite lengthy. Very few people will invest the time to get their head around all these.

So, my observations:

1: Its very technical

Well – it could be worse. The report itself does leave the details to appendices – and doesn’t give even appendices for some of the evidence. This video of a recent press conference by the Russian Arms manufacturer gives an idea if the complexity of the issue (made worse in this case by having to rely on an oral English translation). Skip through to the middle if you want to avoid the formal introductions.

2: Blame

This technical investigation did not have the task of apportioning blame – that is the subject of a later report (probably next year) from the criminal investigation group. However, the Ukrainian Government does get the obvious blame for allowing commercial flights  over a war zone – moreover a zone where planes were regularly being shot down. The lessons about this are probably the most important, and of most interest to potential airline passengers. The report makes some recommendations on this

3: The most likely scenario involves a surface-to-air missile

While the report is definitive about this it effectively relies on two assumptions:

  • Most of the likely air-to-air missiles stationed in the area do not contain the “pre-formed elements” (shrapnel) of the shapes found in the crash debris and the bodies of the flight crew.
  • There were no other aircraft in the area at the time. I couldn’t find any mention of the Russian primary radar data released soon after the crash which did suggest two other aircraft were present (these would not necessarily have shown up on the secondary air-traffic control radar if they were military). This was referred to in the preliminary report (see MH17 – Preliminary report leaves most conspiracy theories intact).

So, I don’t think the air-air missile scenario is definitely excluded but the surface-to-air missile scenario seems most likely and that is what was tested in computer simulations.

4: A Buk missile with a specific warhead was most likely used.

This was based on the recovery of “preformed elements” from bodies of the crew and the aircraft debris. Bow-tie, and square elements were found. The 9N314M warhead contains such elements.

Interestingly the missiles on the Buk-1 system (used by the Ukrainian armed forces use this warhead, but not the missiles on the Buk-2 system (used by the Russian federation armed forces).

The manufacture of the Buk systems, Almaz-Antey, claim the preformed elements found show an even earlier warhead was used, rather than the 9N314M. These warheads are no longer used in the Russian Federation as they are past their use-by date. But the manufacturer had reported servicing the older Buk systems own by Ukraine in the last 10 years.

5: Aircraft damage used to find possible missile trajectory

Simulation modelling was used to find the likely missile trajectory and launch region. The modelling was done by two Dutch groups (NLR & TNO), a forensic group in the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice and the Almaz-Antey company (the manufacturer). While all groups produced similar results  using the NLR/TNO data the Almaz-Antey group found a different missile orientation and locality on detonation using their own collected data.

This difference is immaterial for the purposes of this report but will be important for the criminal investigation.

Incidentally, Almaz-Antey have tested their computer simulations using field experiments involving detonation of a missile near typical material used in construction of the plane and, more recently, the front section of a decommissioned plane very similar to the Boeing. They reported in the press conference in the above video that the experiments vindicated their simulation results. However, the last experiment came too late to influence the Dutch safety Board Report.


No one expected identification of the forces responsible for shooting down flight MH17 in this report – and this is not the task of the Dutch Safety Board. More information apportioning blame should appear in the report from the Criminal investigation Team next year.

The report drew some conclusions about how authorities and airlines should handle the problem of flights over areas of conflict. Hopefully, this will make airline travel safer in future.

In my mind, a scenario involving an air-to-air missile was not completely ruled out (and perhaps the report should have been more qualified about this). However, a surface-to-air missile appears most likely.

So, two of the scenarios (involving attack aircraft) I suggested in my article on the preliminary report, MH17 – Preliminary report leaves most conspiracy theories intact, are most likely ruled out. The remaining scenario I mentioned was that the plane was downed by a surface-to-air missile launched by armed forces of the Kiev government, the Russian Federation or the opposition pro-autonomy militias.

The old warhead suggests that armed forces of the Russian federation were not involved and most probably rules out the social media story of a Russian Buk system being brought in specifically for the attack and then quickly removed.

I think this leaves either the armed forces of the Kiev government (Ukrainian army) or the Donetsk and Luhansk regions fighting for autonomy. The Ukrainian army is known to have weapons of this sort while both Kiev and the rebels claimed the rebels did not.

However, there is evidence that the rebels had either captured one or more Buk systems, or had obtained them via defection of military from the Ukrainian army (on the other hand reports from both the rebels and the Ukrainian side have claimed that at least one captured system was not operational).

So, still too early to claim we know who shot down MH17.

But, of course, that won’t stop the politically motivated blame game that has been going on in the international media (and promoted by some governments) ever since the plane hit the ground.

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Responding to Tracey Brown on fluoridation

CWFwaterI appreciate Tracey Brown, Director of Sense About Science, taking the time to respond to some of the comments in my article The ugly truth about critics of “the ugly truth” in science (see “The ugly truth” – Tracey Brown ticks me off). Despite apparent differences I think Tracey and I are singing from the same hymn sheet regarding the need to confront assumptions and check the evidence supporting common claims. That was the message from her lecture and I simply expanded this to include claims of the sort Tracey herself was making.

An apology

First, I must apologise for implying Tracey relied only on the reading of the two papers that were cited to me. I of course have no idea what other reading she has done on the subject – although some of her comments did reflect the views of Peckham, a well-known anti-fluoride activist, as expressed in his misleading paper Peckham (2012).

I also did not know for sure she had based her comments on “inadequate knowledge – claims from anti-fluoride campaigners she uncritically accepted.” That should have been expressed as my view, my conclusion, drawn from her lecture – rather than a statement of fact.

I did say “even scientists, and pro-science people, can suffer from confirmation bias – just like anyone else. They can sometimes adopt a partisan position which restricts them to considering only the misinformation and distortions peddled by anti-science campaigners.” However, I was simply presenting that as  a general problem – not accusing her specifically of this. We should be able to raise these possibilities without being accused of “rudeness” or “brittleness.” This oversensitivity can be an obstacle to the necessary tasks of demanding evidence for the claims being made by anyone.

The fluoridation issue

I don’t, for a minute, think Tracey has jumped on the anti-fluoride bandwagon. But I am concerned that she seems, at this stage, to have uncritically accepted some of the claims made by people like Peckham and Connett.

Tracey’s understanding of community water fluoridation (CWF) is important. A she said in her lecture, “members of the public have asked “Sense About Science” about it.” Her organisation needs to be able to correct misunderstandings and provide an objective summary of CWF. (In this respect Sense About Science is a similar position to Making Sense of Fluoride, a group I belong to). I think, at the moment, Tracey’s comments indicate her organisation’s advice on CWF could be misleading.

Tracey’s response struck me a being largely defensive – objecting to the style of some of my specific comments rather discussing the evidence for or against CWF or its handling by health authorities and decision makers. As it stands she still appears to adhere to the claims made in her lecture which, I think, are just wrong. So, it is worth expanding on some of the comments I have already made.

Is there really no critical assessment of the evidence for CWF?

It is ironic that Tracey uses CWF as an example where evidence has not been questioned. She even says that “governments went about fluoridation in the 50s by stealth, without discussion which caused a backlash.”

But the facts are that in most jurisdictions the decisions on CWF are usually made by local bodies and water companies, not governments. These decisions usually involve consultations and often very contentious debates.  Unlike many other health measures, CWF has been countered from its very beginnings by protests and representations. Although this has usually been ideologically driven and sometimes, but not always, extreme, such opposition has guaranteed a high level of discussion, consultation and scrutiny of the evidence.

That continues to the present day. In my own city (Hamilton, New Zealand) pressure from activists to cease CWF lead to a limited consultation by the council in 2013, and a decision to stop fluoridating. Citizens, many of them quite knowledgeable on the subject, reacted because they felt they had not been properly consulted or listened to and the council had ignored previous referendums and their own polling data. A new referendum showed overwhelming support and subsequently  the council reversed their decision and CWF returned to our city in 2014.

Actually, this illustrates two features which must be taken into account in our defence or criticism of social health policies.

  1. Often the central issue is one of values – even the conflict between a social approach or a libertarian one. Decision-makers should take account of such values in their community as they may be more relevant than the science.
  2. Decision-makers often just do not have the skills to judge scientific evidence. This was particularly true for the Hamilton City Council which was effectively swamped by anti-fluoride activists promoting misinformation and distortion.

For many people involved in this process, and many citizens, CWF has been revisited so many times, the evidence scrutinised and criticised so many times, there is indeed a backlash. Citizens are not happy about their local bodies spending so much time and money on repetitive consultation and even react negatively to new referenda. New Zealand local bodies now wish to unload the whole issue onto Central government arguing, quite legitimately, they do not have the expertise to make such decisions. They have had a gutsful of the issue.

Benefits of opposition

This continual consultation and rehashing of the evidence has produced some positive outcomes – the anti-fluoride activity has a silver lining. The Royal Society of NZ, together with the Office of the PM’s Chief Scientific advisor produced a review updating the evidence relevant to the efficacy and safety of CWF to the middle of 2014. The citation is:

Eason, C., & Elwood, JM. Seymour, Thomson, WM. Wilson, N. Prendergast, K. (2014). Health effects of water fluoridation: A review of the scientific evidence.

This was partly financed by local bodies who felt thoroughly confused by the competing claims. I suggest Sense About Science people read this document, and others, in their efforts to get up to speed on CWF.

Not only does NZ now have an up-to-date review of CWF we also have several High Court decisions which put to rest some of the claims made by activists. Poetic justice perhaps – as funding  from the “natural”/alternative health industry has actually produced scientific and legal judgements supporting CWF! The opposite of what they intended.

Setting “optimum” levels

Tracey said in her response:

“I stated, briefly, that the one part per million figure originates from those old studies. Other parts of the world have rejected it in favour of different concentrations. My reading of the subsequent research on concentrations was that it was not possible to come up with a clear case for one part per million, as opposed to say 0.7 as used elsewhere, and that although the need for controls is better understood and sometimes applied, the multiple and variable sources of other contributors to dental health have made it harder to get a signal from the noise. In the lecture, I pointed out that it’s very difficult to control and measure the dose that people actually get from water. It’s not clear whether you disagree with this.”

Her original comment on “old studies” still stands. As I said before, standards are set according to the studies available at the time – this does not mean they are not revisited or changes as new studies become available. This has, in fact, happened with CWF and it is misleading to imply otherwise.

I don’t think it is a matter of “rejecting” the research. Health authorities and decision makers in each country make decisions about “optimum” levels taking into account their own specific situations, dietary intake, drinking water consumption, etc. Counties don’t “reject” decisions of other countries.

Of course it is hard to control and measure the “dose”, or intake – but that is true for any beneficial element – most of which have upper and lower bounds for recommended intake. Dietary consumption is hardly an exact science – one should not be concerned about the 0.7 or 1 ppm difference. Why should fluoride present a special problem?

Personally, I see talk about “dose” as another misleading argument promoted by anti-fluoride campaigners. Firstly, because of the implication such accuracy is required and secondly because it is painting fluoride out to be in the same class as a very active and possibly toxic drug requiring accurate control – which it isn’t. Really, fluoride is in the same class as sodium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and selenium. It is not a drug.

Trends of declining dental decay

No one claims CWF is a magic bullet, or that it is the only factor behind improving oral health. Yet the graphic Tracey used is promoted constantly by campaigners to “prove” CWF is ineffective by implying health authorities see fluoride as the only factor involved.  The graphic “proves” nothing except that oral health has improved over the years.

In my article I assumed Tracey used the image from Cheng et al (2007). In fact, her comments on Austria introducing gobstoppers suggest she probably used the one below from Peckham (2012). There are warning signs there as the citation was a personal communication from Chris Neurath – an activist and “research director” in the management of Paul Connett’s Fluoride Action Network. Even the journal citation should ring bells as Fluoride is a poor quality journal effectively managed by the anti-fluoride community.

Peckham image

And, as I pointed out in my original article, these images avoid showing the WHO data within countries – which do show that CWF is effective. It is extremely naive, and misleading, to suggest that the WHO data shows that it is not effective.

I am seriously concerned that inadequate review of the scientific literature will lead to Sense About Science promoting this misleading graphic in its response to public requests for information.

Real world problems for public discussion of evidence

Institutional cultures often restrict the ability of staff to comment publicly. This may be expressed as a condition of employment or it may just be informal discouragement. On the fluoridation issue, it may just be a matter of institutions preventing staff from participating in the “street-fighting” nature of many of the public discussions. In fact, some local institutions have said they are not ready to expose their staff to the threats and abuse which are often part of these public discussions. It is a health and safety issue for them.

Consequently, these discussions are often handled better by non-institutional “activist” groups like Sense About Science. The group Making Sense of Fluoride (MSoF)is effectively a sister group to Sense About Science, but concentrating on the scientific and ethical issues around community water fluoridation. It was formed precisely because institutions like District Health Boards are not able to take part fully in the public debate. Many MSoF people are not limited by institutional requirements.

Incidentally, institutional restrictions are another reason many people who discuss scientific issues publicly are retired. Such retirees often have the background knowledge and research skills necessary for this discussion but no restriction on what they can say, and where.

Tactical approaches are also important. Very often the public is not interested in the scientific details and qualifications which should be attached to evidential claims. They are often happy to leave such discussion to the “boffins.” Scientific debates may be suitable for some fora but can be a real turn off in referendums. Institutional decisions to forgo scientific debate and detailed qualifications may be completely correct in such situations.

The issue of making disagreements like this public (in the same way Tracey suggests health authorities may not be completely open about the contradictory evidence) is a real one for me with this and my previous post. I had to consider tactical questions. Tracey’s comments on CWF may have been buried within her lecture and not noticed by anti-fluoride activists who just love to publicise and promote such statements. My criticism has now brought them to the attention of the anti-fluoride community. I have handed them a bit of juicy propaganda.

However, my motive is promotion of integrity in science and the need to back up claims with evidence. This is more important to me than a specific campaign of support for CWF. Tracey provided an example which illustrates my concern – so why should I not comment on it?

The public discussion of science, which was the subject of Tracey’s lecture, is not simple and we should not neglect the social and psychological research about public opinion and the way to communicate with the public.


I am grateful to Tracey for responding to my article and wish her and Sense About Science the best in updating their knowledge on CWF.

I am a little disappointed her response was defensive and did not involve an in-depth discussion of CWF. This is probably natural, but it is important that groups like Sense About Science and Making Sense of Fluoride not ignore such challenges. It is also important for such groups to be ready to update their knowledge and opinions on issues when required.

In her article Can you handle the truth? Some ugly facts in science and sensibility introducing her lecture Tracey said:

“The ugly truth is that all of us – however informed, however good our intentions – end up letting things slide once in a while. We overlook, overstate or understate the evidence behind research, claims, or policies, for a number of reasons.”

So true – and something we should continually come back to.

I think Tracey was guilty of this in her claims about CWF. Granted, these were only a small part of her lecture. But to anyone with sufficient knowledge to see her mistakes the claims about CWF did detract from the authenticity of the other claims she made.

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“The ugly truth” – Tracey Brown ticks me off

SAS evidenceDara O’Briain holds a Sense About Science logo

Tracey Brown, Director of Sense About Science, has responded to my article which criticised part of her recent lecture (see The ugly truth about critics of “the ugly truth” in science). Her response is in the form of notes inserted into my article at the points she disagrees with.

Here I include those sections of my article she responded to – with her responses in red.  Hopefully, this will give readers the context required – and if anyone wants more they can refer to my original article.

I answer Tracey’s comment in the next post Responding to Tracey Brown on fluoridation.

She made these points – and claimed that some of our social policies are based on insufficient information. My point was actually that we sometimes assume that there’s a stronger body of evidence than there is because we forget to question. I didn’t touch the question of what is sufficient. Or that we sometimes exaggerate the amount and quality of information we have to support these policies. That is the “ugly truth” she highlighted in her lecture.

Unfortunately though, her lecture was a practical example of another “ugly truth” – simple declarations are not enough. One’s criticisms of accepted knowledge are not necessarily correct or justified just because one is being critical. No, really? There is still the responsibility to base one’s criticism on facts – and to properly research the area before making critical claims. She based her criticism of at least one social health policy, community water fluoridation, on inadequate knowledge – claims from anti-fluoride campaigners she uncritically accepted. There is nothing in the relevant 4 minutes of my lecture to tell you this.

Tracey claimed that community water fluoridation (CWF) has very little empirical justification. She gave two reasons:

  1. The social health policy is based only on the original research which is over 70 years old and does not measure up to current scientific standards. This is different from what I said. I said that the US and UK’s adoption of 1 part per million as the level at which fluoride’s benefits are achieved and fluorosis avoided is based on studies conducted in the 1930s. I said that these studies did not have the controls in place that we usually expect today of evidence in public health.
  2. Data shows that the oral health of both fluoridated and unfluoridated countries has improved over recent decades and this has more to do with the use fluoridated toothpaste and improved health care than CWF. This is what I actually said: This near universal fall has been attributed to fluoride in toothpaste and improvement in dental hygiene and dentistry. Some argue that this masks residual problems for a socially deprived sub-population, and fluoridation is needed for them. That is a good argument and more generally an issue in public health – it is administered to everyone to produce benefits only for some.

These are, of course, two claims made again and again by anti-fluoride propagandists and campaigners. She could have taken her critique directly from one of Paul Connett’s political submissions to councils considering fluoridation. If she did so, she was irresponsible as there are plenty of experts who could have provided information of far better quality. But as I didn’t, this is irrelevant ad hominem.

I contacted Sense About Science and found out that Tracey used the following papers to “formulate” her comment on fluoride. A colleague sent you two papers, saying ‘that helped formulate’. It wouldn’t have been my description but it is clear that these were not all.

Peckham, S. (2012). Slaying sacred cows: is it time to pull the plug on water fluoridation? Critical Public Health, 22(2), 159–177.

Cheng, K. K., Chalmers, I., & Sheldon, T. a. (2007). Adding fluoride to water supplies. BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.), 335(7622), 699–702.

So, let’s consider Tracey’s claims about CWF

  1. The first claim is just silly. Of course, decision makers use the information available at the time – 70 years ago they used the information that was available then. But fluoridation decisions have been made again and again  over the years and it is perfectly natural that decision makers will use the current information for thoseThe efficacy and safety of CWF have been investigated many times since it was first introduced. Science does not stop after a single study. If Brown had made a simple literature search she would have realised that (see Water fluoridation effective – new studyfor just one recent example – there are many others).  Or, given that none of us have the time and expertise to be well informed about a wide variety of subjects, she could have consulted somebody with up-to-date knowledge and expertise on the subject. She certainly should not have relied solely on the very one-sided papers by Peckham (a well-known UK anti-fluoride activist) and Cheng et al. Solely? You’ve made that up. This also sets up a straw man to knock down. As above, I stated, briefly, that the one part per million figure originates from those old studies. Other parts of the world have rejected it in favour of different concentrations. My reading of the subsequent research on concentrations was that it was not possible to come up with a clear case for one part per million, as opposed to say 0.7 as used elsewhere, and that although the need for controls is better understood and sometimes applied, the multiple and variable sources of other contributors to dental health have made it harder to get a signal from the noise. In the lecture, I pointed out that it’s very difficult to control and measure the dose that people actually get from water. It’s not clear whether you disagree with this.
  2. From the audio Brown appeared to use this graphic (below – left image) from Cheng et al., (2007) which is very similar to the one promoted by the anti-fluoride propagandist organisation Fluoride Action  Network. I have discussed this graphic in several articles and in my debate with Paul Connett (download the pdf) It is based on extremely limited WHO data (hence the straight lines), makes comparisons which ignore the multiple factors influencing oral health, and ignores the within-country data which show the efficacy of CWF (such as  for Ireland in my second figure). Yes, I hope you don’t mean that we shouldn’t show WHO data if they have been used by a campaign we disagree with. As my point was simply to show that the data for countries with and without fluoridation is a fairly similar downward trajectory, which is surprising to people, including me, who expected to see greater variation, I can’t understand what is objectionable here. Whether it ignores in-country differences is irrelevant. National data ignore in-country differences in natural fluoridation, access to dentistry, use of toothpaste too. As I went on to say, these data may mask problems for socially deprived populations.
    You’re responding as though I’m campaigning against fluoridation, when I am simply showing that the case for it is not as clear cut as many of us might expect. I pasted above and paste again here, my actual words:  This near universal fall has been attributed to fluoride in toothpaste and improvement in dental hygiene and dentistry. Some argue that this masks residual problems for a socially deprived sub-population, and fluoridation is needed for them. That is a good argument and more generally an issue in public health – it is administered to everyone to produce benefits only for some.

Unfortunately, the “ugly truth” Tracey Brown demonstrated was that even scientists, and supporters of science, can be fooled by the claims of anti-science campaigners if they are too lazy to do their own checking. Perhaps she also demonstrated that even scientists, and pro-science people, can suffer from confirmation bias – just like anyone else. They can sometimes adopt a partisan position which restricts them to considering only the misinformation and distortions peddled by anti-science campaigners. This is rude. It is also immensely brittle on your part, despite the grand statements at the start of your piece about not being defensive. My overall point was that this is surprisingly not as clear cut and well-established as we might expect, as indeed I expected. And you’ve drawn from this that I have adopted a partisan position which restricts me to considering only the information and distortions of the anti-science campaigners. Even based on the papers you know I looked at, never mind the many others, do you consider Iain Chalmers, a founder of the Cochrane Collaboration, to be an anti-science campaigner?

The dilemma is that we, as individuals, can not be experts in everything. We are not capable, individually, of making a well-informed critical and objective judgement on all the issues we may have to face in  preparing a lecture like Tracey’s. We have to be careful about relying on our own biases or poorly informed memories. We have to recognise our limitations and not be afraid to consult experts for clarification, updating knowledge or even just getting one’s head around complex issues. I didn’t actually have such memories: as I said clearly in my lecture, I recently looked into it and was surprised. If I had a bias it was that the evidence was surely stronger and clearer than it turned out to be. My observation that it is weaker does not mean there is no case for fluoridation. I used this example to show that we tend not to question things that have been around a long time. I went on to say, especially when the madcap arguments appear to be on the other side. Throughout this piece you seem to refer to anti-fluoride campaigner statements (I’m assuming you’re accurate about them – I’ve not read them) in precisely that way: as an indicator of what is most likely to be correct.

In this example, I have sufficient knowledge about the science behind CWF to judge this aspect of Tracey’s lecture and see she was mistaken. But what about the other subjects she covered? For example, she claimed that current health advice on cholesterol relies on inadequate research and could be wrong. Do I take her word for it? No! Of course not! That is the whole point of my lecture. I certainly don’t feel I should – if she is wrong about CWF she may be just as mistaken about cholesterol.

That also makes me wonder if the Sense About Science organisation is as credible in its pronouncements as I used to think it was.

I respond to Tracey’s comments in my next post Responding to Tracey Brown on fluoridation.

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MH17 – another Boeing sacrificed for investigation.



Image credit: All World Wars

In a few days, the Dutch Safety Board releases its final report on the shooting down of Malaysian airliner MH17.

Hopefully, it will contain something conclusive – at least about the nature of the weapon used. This should enable a decision between the two scenarios – an air-to-air missile or a ground-air-missile.

But I don’t hold out hope for much else. After all, the preliminary report was very disappointing (see MH17 – Preliminary report leaves most conspiracy theories intact. Since then there have been so many conflicting stories, leaks of information and vague statements  followed by denials. Many people, and some governments, have lost confidence in the objectivity of the investigators.

Still, there should be at least some facts revealed in the final report. And if easily available material – such as the radar, satellite and air-traffic-control data – are not presented, there will be pressure for a more thorough investigation.

Meanwhile, there are reports a Russian arms manufacturer has carried out the ultimate experiment to determine if any of their missiles was involved in the MH17 incident. In my article MH17 tragedy: 1 year on I presented this video report of their investigation to that date.

The company, Almaz-Antey, offered to carry out a controlled explosion of a missile below a decommissioned Boeing plane to test their theoretical analyses. Now they seem to have gone ahead at their own expense.

This is a very expensive experiment – but I guess that have strong commercial motives as they are challenging sanctions taken against them in a European court. So it is probably a sensible investment from their point of view. And there is big profits in arms sales.

They claim:

“Preliminary analysis of the results of the field experiment confirmed the version of event announced at a press conference in Moscow on June 2, 2015.”

This version was presented in the above video and suggests that if a Buk missile was used it was of the type used by the Ukrainian armed forces, not by the Russian Federation.

This report indicates that the “full results of field experiment will be announced at a press conference in Moscow” on Tuesday 13th, October – the same day the final report of the Dutch Safety Committee is released.

So, an interesting week ahead for those interested in international politics, the geopolitical struggle and aircraft crashes. There should be plenty of new, or at least more substantial, information to debate.

See also:
Russian rocket maker blows up plane to prove it didn’t blow up MH17
Russian Missile Maker Blows Up Decommissioned Boeing in MH17 Probe

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