The danger of insisting on your own facts

This video is very relevant today – as it was 6 years ago when it was made.

The speaker is Michael Spector, author of the book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.

Learned a few new terms from this video – “Big Placebo” and “High Tech Colonialism”

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Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know?

MH 17 intelligence report

Despite claims of proof made by politicians like David Cameron, Barack Obama and Tony Abbott after the downing of flight MH17 in Ukraine in 2014 no intelligence agencies in their countries ever provided any evidence. I find that surprising as these intelligence agencies were obviously monitoring the area and should have been able to give evidence to back up the claims. In fact, rumours suggested the intelligence evidence didn’t back up the claims.

I am forced to conclude the claims owe more to politics, in particular, the geopolitical struggle, than they do to facts.

Perhaps it is in their (and their political masters) nature that intelligence agencies may not be forthcoming on this issue. But I recently came across a largely unpublicised  report which I think does give some idea of what the intelligence community did know at the time. The  Review Report arising from the crash of flight MH17 was prepared by the Dutch Review Committee on the Intelligence Services specifically to answer questions from the Dutch government on what the intelligence community knew, and what they could have done to avert the disaster.

The review covers the role and knowledge of the Netherlands’ Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) and the General Intelligence and Security Service of the Netherlands (AIVD).

No, it doesn’t give the intricate details. But it does summarise their knowledge at the time – a knowledge which was informed by material from allied intelligence agencies (The Netherlands is part of NATO) and which they would have passed on to those agencies. As such, I think it provides a valuable insight into what was known – an insight enabling us to judge the claims being made by the politicians at the time. Perhaps an insight helping us to decide for ourselves which party was likely responsible for the downing of the plane, and hence the killing of 283 passengers and 15 crew.

Possible culprits

The report says:

“there were three relevant actors with military capacities in the period prior to the crash:
• Russian armed forces
• Ukrainian armed forces and
• Pro-Russian separatists.”

I have made this point repeatedly in the discussion we have had on the issue here – also saying I did not commit to any conviction that either of these parties had yet been shown to be the real culprit.

However, I now think  the intelligence community probably rules out the “Pro-Russian separatists.” The report says that neither of these parties had the intention to destroy a civil aircraft and only the Russian and Ukrainian armed forces had the weapons required. It concluded:

“Prior to the crash of flight MH17, the AIVD and the MIVD possessed the following information regarding the security situation in Eastern Ukraine that was relevant for assessing a threat to civil aircraft flying over the area:
• The Russian and the Ukrainian armed forces did have the capacity and potential to hit a civil aircraft at cruising altitude. However, they did not have the intention. There were no indications that they were engaged in activities (such as preparations) targeting civil aviation.
• There were no indications that the Separatists had the capacity to hit civil air traffic at cruising altitude. Moreover, there were no indications that they would target civil air traffic or that they were engaged in activities with this objective in mind.”

What capabilities did the “pro-Russian separatists” have?

The report concluded:

“Even though there was information pointing to the fact that the Separatists had been supplied with heavy weapons by the Russian Federation, there were no indications that these were powerful anti-aircraft systems.”

Politicians may debate that. After all, the Ukrainian Armed forces were shelling and bombing the separatist cities and villages and the separatist armed forces were certainly shooting Ukrainian planes out of the sky. But it was the very fact that separatists had been successfully shooting down those planes (particularly an An-26 military cargo plane on July 14 (3 days before flight MH17 was hit) that led intelligence forces to look closely at their capabilities. Here’s how the report describes this:

“On 14 July 2014, an An-26 military cargo aeroplane (referred to hereafter as: the Antonov), belonging to the Ukrainian airforce, was shot down. The Ukrainian authorities reported the event the same day in a briefing with Ukraine’s presidential administration in Kiev. The MIVD also received a concise report of the briefing from the Dutch Defence attaché. The report revealed that the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Klimkin, declared that the situation in the east had reached a new and dangerous phase because the Russian Federation was now openly providing the Separatists with military support. As an example of the escalation, Klimkin cited the Antonov’s being shot down in the area of Lugansk. Klimkin reported that the Antonov was flying at an altitude of 6,200 metres and could only have been hit with Russian equipment, because the Separatists did not possess this kind of anti-aircraft systems.
According to a media report on 14 July 2014 (which the MIVD possessed), the Ukrainian authorities stated that the aeroplane was flying at 6,500 metres and was not shot down by a portable anti-aircraft system but by a more powerful system. This was probably carried out from Russian territory. In the media, the Separatists claimed that they had shot down the aeroplane and taken some of the crew prisoner.”

So, spokesman for the Kiev regime were claiming (although probably didn’t really believe) that the Russian armed forces had directly entered the fray. Perhaps they were implying the Russians were effectively setting up a “no-fly zone” for Ukrainian military planes. At any rate, the possibility of direct involvement of Russian armed forces would explain the presence of Ukrainian anti-aircraft weapons in the area despite the separatists not using aeroplanes.

The intelligence community appears to reject claims of direct Russian involvement:

“If the Antonov had indeed been shot down by, or even from, the Russian Federation, this would have been a game changer. Direct Russian participation in the conflict would have become a fact.

That is why the MIVD immediately launched an investigation into the incident. In the morning of 17 July 2014, the MIVD communicated the results of this investigation in its daily intelligence summary (‘dagintsum’), which had a number of users, including the NCTV and the AIVD.”

This intelligence assessment was communicated on the very day Flight MH17 was shot down.

“The MIVD assessed it to be unlikely that the Antonov had been shot down by a powerful anti-aircraft system (separate from the question whether this had been carried out from Russian territory). From pictures of the wreckage and eyewitness accounts it was clear that the aeroplane’s right-hand engine had been hit and that 5 to 6 parachutes had subsequently appeared. The Antonov had allegedly crashed only then. On this basis, the MIVD concluded that the appearance of the damage was not consistent with a hit by a powerful anti-aircraft system. The aeroplane would in that case probably have been destroyed in the air.

The crew would probably not have survived if this had been the case. According to the MIVD, the wreckage and the eyewitnesses supported the fact that the aircraft was shot out of the air by a MANPADS from Ukrainian territory. This would only have been possible if the Antonov were flying substantially lower than 6,200 or 6,500 metres. Another possibility was that a short-range, vehicleborne anti-aircraft system”

And apparently the Ukrainian authorities, at least in their public statements, also did not believe that separatist armed forces had the capability of shooting down a civil airliner. I need to give the qualification because Ukrainian authorities are well known for providing inaccurate information for political purposes. It is likely they well knew the Antonov was not flying at the height they claim but wished to implicate the Russian federation.

What about the Buk missiles?

Although not completely ruling out an air-to-air missile the Final report of the Dutch safety board determined that MH17 was most probably hit by a missile from a Buk  system (see MH17: Final technical report).  But this review concluded that separatists just did not have such a weapon:

“The AIVD was aware that the Separatists, in addition to a broad range of artillery (eg machine guns), light anti-aircraft artillery (e.g. rocket launchers), anti-tank weapons and tanks, also possessed MANPADS and possibly short-range vehicle-borne anti-aircraft systems. Both types of systems are considered surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Due to their limited range, the aforementioned weapons do not constitute a danger to civil aviation at cruising altitude.

“On 16 July [the day before MH17 crashed], the AIVD received a report from a reliable source that stated that there was no information that indicated that the Separatists possessed a medium-range SAM system. This comment was made in view of the circumstances related to the Ukrainian armed forces’ Antonov being shot down on 14 July 2014 in Eastern Ukraine.”

“The AIVD did not have any information that indicated that the Separatists possessed an operational, powerful anti-aircraft system such as a Buk system, also called an SA-11, prior to the crash of flight MH17.”

But what about a Buk system the separatists had captured from the Ukrainian armed forces?:

“On 29 June 2014, the Separatists captured a Ukrainian armed forces military base in Donetsk. At this base, there were Buk missile systems. These are powerful anti-aircraft systems. This development was reported extensively in the media prior to the crash. The MIVD also received intelligence information on the subject, on 30 June and 3 July 2014 as well as on other dates. During the course of July, several reliable sources indicated that the systems that were at the military base were not operational. Therefore, they could not be used by the Separatists.”

I had always considered the separatists could have been the culprit because of the availability of a captured Buk system but the intelligence community seems to have confidently ruled out that possibility.

What about a Russian Buk system?

Some motivated sources have promoted on social media a story that flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian Buk system specifically brought into eastern Ukraine for the job and removed directly after the crash. Of course, investigators must look into such stories but there does not appear to be any intelligence evidence to back them up.The review describes the relevant tasks of the Dutch intelligence bodies as investigation focused of the Russian Federation and the possible risk of an incursion into Eastern Ukraine (MIVD) and investigation of the politico-strategic aspect of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and on the Russian Federation’s political influence on Ukraine.

The review describes the relevant tasks of the Dutch intelligence bodies as investigation focused of the Russian Federation and the possible risk of an incursion into Eastern Ukraine (MIVD) and investigation of the politico-strategic aspect of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and on the Russian Federation’s political influence on Ukraine (AIVD).

Given the size of the Buk systems and the associated vehicles, it is hardly likely intelligence forces could have missed the movement of such a system in and out of eastern Ukraine, crossing the international border in two directions.

My conclusions

This may be the only direct public information about intelligence assessments of the situation in eastern Ukraine at the time of the MH17 crash the public will ever see. It is not detailed but is meant as a reliable summary for governments. And given the degree of cooperation and exchange of information among western intelligence agencies, I think it is probably an indication of the conclusions from all these agencies, not just the Dutch.

Intelligence agencies in the Russian Federation may have different or alternative information. Some, but probably not all, of this has already been released by the Russian government.

In the past, I had considered that it was highly probable Flight MH17 was accidentally shot down by separatist forces using a captured MH17 system and operators who had defected from the Ukrainian armed forces. But I now think that scenario is very unlikely. I had also thought that it was equally probable that the culprits were a unit of the Ukrainian armed forces making a mistake during a training exercise with a Buk system. I thought a scenario involving armed forces of the Russian Federation was far less likely.

Currently, I think the most likely scenario is that MH17 was mistakenly shot down by a unit of the Ukrainian armed forces – maybe in a training exercise or in an act of defense. While there is no evidence of direct involvement by air forces of the Russian Federation it is very likely that story was believed by forces on the ground, if not the politicians in Kiev promoting the story. Fear of a Russian aerial attack would also have been promoted by a series of losses of Ukrainian aircraft in the days before the MH17 crash – especially as the authorities in Kiev were claiming these could only have been shot down by Russian forces.

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Iron and fluoride in human milk

baby_and_mother_QAThe other day I came across the article Why Is Breast Milk So Low in Iron? It’s a fairly brief but sensible article discussing the problem of  the risk of iron deficiency in breastfed babies written by a research scientist with a PhD in nutrition – Alice Callahan.

She asks the question – Why would breast milk have evolved to be deficient in iron, putting babies at risk for iron deficiency? And provides some sensible answers from an evolutionary perspective.

These answers include the suggestion most babies are born with enough iron stores to last them the first few months of life and perhaps breastfeeding was originally less extended than it sometime is today. In the past, the umbilical cord was probably not cut as rapidly as it is today thus allowing for the increased transfer of iron from the mother. Babies also probably ingested iron from soil.

As she said:

“We must remember that breast milk evolved over the last 2-2.5 million years to enhance infant survival (and also not put the mother at risk) in the context of the conditions of the time.  In the developed world, there have been major changes in living conditions over just the last several hundred years, and evolution simply doesn’t happen that quickly.”

“Thinking about breast milk from an evolutionary perspective helped me to realize that my breastfed baby, who is not raised in the dirt and had her cord clamped immediately after birth (not the plan, but that’s a story for another day), might need a little help getting enough iron in her diet.”

I note she did not draw the superficial conclusion that the low concentration of iron in breast milk is proof that iron is not necessary for human nutrition – or even that it is toxic to humans. In fact, it seems silly that I should even mention this as a possible reaction. I only do so because this is the conclusion Paul Connett, a well-known anti-fluoride campaigner, has drawn from the relatively low concentration of fluoride in human milk.

In fact, that motivated reasoning is a central argument that Connett has been repeating for years. As he wrote recently:

“But what struck me most was that through all the twists and turns of evolution, starting in the sea where the level of fluoride is 1.4 parts per million, very little fluoride has ended up in mothers’ milk (0.004 ppm). Why on Earth — if dentists were correct that babies needed fluoride for healthy teeth — did nature provide so little to the new-born baby? It seems reasonable that nature is protecting the baby from this toxic substance during its early development.”

Leaving aside the fallacious appeal to nature, and the perception of “nature” as an “intelligent designer,” Connett’s argument is wrong because it is naive – a naivety surely derived from his confirmation bias. An objective person with a scientific doctorate would surely recognise the world is far more complex than his argument implies.

In fact, some of the arguments Dr Callahan provides for an evolutionary perspective on the low concentration of iron in human milk could be just as valid for fluoride. As she says:

“It is not surprising in our modern world that humans, and especially babies, sometimes need some nutritional assistance  to make up for the fact we no longer live in the environment we evolved in.”

So much for Connett’s naive fallacious appeal to nature, and his perception of “nature” as an “intelligent designer.”

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Hubris of the google researcher

racecartrain

Credit: It is not that easy from xkcd

Saw this on The Complexity of Modern Science at the Physic Forum Websites. It really does illustrate problems with some of the commenters here who wish to throw away scientific consensus – or replace it with a pet or ideologically driven “theory” of their own.

As the article implies these comments often use arguments like those below which are “frequently seen as response to scientific arguments against various crackpottery:”

““I listened to some science TV show, now I came up with my own theory.” This could have a chance if the TV show would fully cover the topic. It does not.

“Scientists don’t know detail X, therefore they know nothing.”

“Scientists were once wrong in point Y, therefore we cannot trust any result.” .

Sound familiar?

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The Harvard study and the Lancet paper

There is so much rubbish written about “The Harvard Study” and “The Lancet Paper” by anti-fluoride campaigners. I have written several detailed articles about that here.

But the video above provides a short description of why these claims are wrong. Only requires a few minutes of your time.

Thanks to the Campaign for Dental health: Debunking Unreliable Claims: The “Harvard study”

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Cultural and ideological bias in scientific literature reviews

 

The scientific community is international but it is surely dominated, and influenced by, something less international – the overwhelming predominance of  the use of the English language.

In the past when that dominance was less extreme scientists were more aware of the need to use non-English sources. Scientific degree courses often had a requirement for a degree of scientific fluency in an alternative language. I learned German and Russian and have often needed to translate scientific papers in both these languages. In fact, several times I can trace a breakthrough in my research to a Russian or German paper I translated.

So, I was often disappointed when searching the literature to come across papers in a less dominant language like Mongolian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Arabic, etc. Very often these were published in unattainable obscure journals or periodicals. While I was aware that such papers were perhaps of poor quality I still lamented my inability to check that out for myself. I felt I  might be missing something useful.

I can’t help thinking that scientific reviews, even systematic ones, may suffer from such omissions. After all the problems of expense and the probably poor quality of obscure papers usually mean that even systematic reviewers will not be able to obtain obscure papers and their translations.

But there is the other side. What happens if ideologically motivated groups able to make the financial investment obtain and translate obscure papers which fit their political or commercial biases? Can that not result in the “skewing” of readily available literature? Could it result ion the wider availability and influence of poor quality research?

One would hope scientific reviewers critically and intelligently appraise the papers they review. This would help prevent promotion of poor science. But not all scientific reviewers may be that objective. And certainly, such poor quality science can be promoted in the popular literature and used for political and ideological campaigns.

Bad science promoting the fluoridation/IQ myth

This is what has happened with the promotion of the fluoride/IQ myth by anti-fluoride campaigners. Several years ago the Fluoride Action Network (the main activist group campaigning against community water fluoridation internationally) paid for the searching out, and translation into English, obscure articles (mainly Chinese) suggesting a link between fluoride in drinking water and child IQ. These articles represented in almost all cases poor quality research mostly published in obscure journals, newsletters and conferences. Given the bias of FAN, preference was clearly given to articles supporting their party line.

The result is that these articles have now entered into English language scientific literature – via publication of the translations in the journal Fluoride – a poor quality, English language journal, linked organisationally and financially to FAN. This has introduced an ideologically promoted skewing of the available literature – on top of the well-understood publication bias (negative results are rarely published). Such skewing is important for reviewers such as those in the US  National Toxicology Program considering a new systematic review on (see Fluoride and IQ – another study coming up).

Don’t get me wrong. Despite the biases of this translation process I like to see such obscure studies, even poor quality one, made available to researchers. And sensible, conscientious reviewers will take the poor quality into account. But less objective researchers can opportunistically use such material to support their preferred hypothesis. This has happened with the fluoridation issue, for example, with the paper of Grandjean & Landrigan (2014) which is continually used by anti-fluoride campaigners (see Repeating bad science on fluoride). This is a secondary effect where the poor quality research that is selected, translated and published in a poor quality journal like Fluoride can then make its way into more reputable journals (like The Lancet) without any further evidence. Adding to the skewing of the available scientific literature.

And all of this provides ammunition to the unscrupulous ideologically motivated campaigners. Critical assessment of the research is the last thing on their minds and they are certainly not in  the habit of even reading, let alone critically understanding, the papers they promote in  their arguments.

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Facts, beliefs and delusions

beliefs

Here are some memes I have come across lately.

It’s amazing how people will fight to protect dearly held beliefs against obvious evidence.

perception

And it is amazing how strong beliefs can actually influence what we see – or what we think we see.

know I am right

I guess we all suffer from delusions from time to time. Confirmation bias comes easily to humans.

But we shouldn’t make a habit of it!

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Science – a method of investigation, not a belief system

clees

Love this tweet from John Cleese.

There is the obvious point about “belief.” Many people seem to think the scientific knowledge is a matter of belief and, in their eyes, something that can be subjectively chosen. That is ridiculous.

But also the wise stress on science as a method of investigation and not just a body of knowledge. Scientific knowledge is always imperfect and is dynamic changing with new data – but not in  an arbitrary or chaotic way.

However imperfect our current knowledge the scientific method holds out possibilities for its improvement. And however may “mistakes” the cynic can find in our scientific knowledge they are always unable to suggest a way of correcting these mistakes except more science.

Science as a method of investigation remains by far the best way we have of understanding objective reality.

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Yet another misrepresentation of a dental health study

You should not trust what you read on the web – especially if you read it on a site like Free Thought Project.com. And if the article is citing a scientific paper to give it authority you can be certain it misrepresents the paper.

Here is yet another example of this. An article citing a research paper as “proof” that fluoridation does not work – yet the paper doesn’t even include the word fluoride or fluoridation!

The Free Thought Project.com article is Study Shows Brits Have Way Better Teeth than Americans – And Far Less Fluoride in the Water
and it cites, but misrepresent this paper:

What did the paper report?

This is the paper:

CC Guarnizo-Herreño, G Tsakos, A Sheiham et al. Austin Powers bites back: a cross sectional comparison of US and English national oral health surveys.

It’s available in full text so you can check for yourself.

It examines “the longstanding belief in the United States that the British have horrible teeth, much worse than US citizens.” And it concludes:

“The oral health of US citizens is not better than the English, and there are consistently wider educational and income oral health inequalities in the US compared with England.”

So – nothing about fluoride, but information on social inequalities which are known to be a factor in oral health. But this will not stop anti-fluoride campaigners using this in their campaigns – while ignoring the important conclusions about the role of socioeconomic inequalities in oral health.

What was measured?

The study considered only one clinical measure of oral health status – the number of missing teeth. The other two outcomes considered were “self-rated oral health” and “oral impacts on daily life.” Only participants 25 years and older were selected. The study used data from the English Adult Dental Health Survey and the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The influence of dietary fluoride intake was NOT considered, but socioeconomic factors were. In particular educational attainment and household income.

What was found?

In summary:

  • The number of missing teeth were significantly higher in the US than in England.
  • Self-rated negative oral impacts on daily life were more prevalent int England than the US
  • Self-rated less than good oral health was not significantly different between the two countries.

There was an interesting difference with age. The number of missing teeth and the numbers with no teeth were higher in the US for the age group 25-64. Yet the number of missing teeth were higher in England for the over 65 age group.

Socioeconomic factors showed statistically significant effects on all three outcomes as illustrated in this figure from the paper. The “relative index of inequality” was effectively a measure of how the outcome increased as inequality in education or income increased in each country.

Austin Powers

Conclusions

Given the prevailing beliefs in the US it may be a little surprising that the study found English oral health better than in the US – at least for measurements related to missing teeth. However, it is not suprising that socioeconomic inequalities influence the oral health of a nation – with, of course, those at the bottom of the heap having the poorer oral health.

I guess it is also not surprising to find that there are “consistently wider educational and income related oral health inequalities in the US compared with England.”

So, there is probably an argument there for improved welfare policies and better access to, and provision of, dental treatment systems. But it its misleading to use this study as “evidence ” against community water fluoridation.

Don’t believe everything you read on the web – especially on sites like Free Thought Project.com.

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December ’15 – NZ blogs sitemeter ranking

2016 HNY

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 December 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

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