Fluoridation: “debating” the science?

How the anti-fluoride activist envisages their debate challenge – their hero standing up against the might of the health authorities. Image credit: From the Coliseum to the Cage

New Zealand last week saw another “debate challenge” from anti-fluoride activists. But are their regular challenges serious? And do gladiatorial “debates” before partisan audiences have any value in science anyway?

These people often back away when their bluff is called. Their challenges have more to do with political tactics than any elaboration or clarification of the science. They appeal to the macho and combative attitudes of the intended audience.

One thing for sure, such “debates” do not advance scientific knowledge one iota – nor are they meant to.

The anti-fluoride hero is always victorious in the eyes of the partisan and faithful audience. Image credit: The Real Lives of the Gladiators of Rome – The Unfathomable Sport of Life and Death

Three Wise Men – the anti-fluoride activists Paul Connett, Declan Waugh and Vivyian Howard – visited New Zealand last week. Fluoride Free NZ (FFNZ) advertised these activists as “international experts . . .  “sharing the latest research.” Of course, the implications that these activists actually do any original research on fluoridation or what they were sharing was their own research were completely false.

 

This was just another one of those annual visits from Paul Connett (head of the US Fluoride Action Network) and his mates with the aim of misrepresenting and distorting the science so as to promote the political campaigns of the local anti-fluoridation brigade.

Anti-fluoride campaign puts all its eggs in the IQ basket

New Zealanders are rather tired of this sort of activism but the visit does represent an escalation. This year Three Wise Men, a few years back Two Wise men (Paul Connett and  Bill Hirzy) and before that just one wise man (Paul Connett). Is this a sign of increasing desperation as New Zealand moves ever so slowly to handing over decisions on community water fluoridation to District Health Boards? Or is it a sign of increased funding of the Fluoride Action Network and associated activist groups by the “natural”/alternative health industry? After all, it must cost a bit to send three spokespersons around the globe for just two meetings.

One thing I take from this activity is that the anti-fluoride movement has decided to put all its eggs in one basket – the IQ story. They won’t stop blaming fluoridation for all the ills of the world – from obesity to gender confusion. But they are deliberately making a determined effort to bring their IQ story onto centre stage.

The real experts and all the research indicate the main possible negative health effect which must be considered when planning introduction of fluoridation is mild forms of dental fluorosis. In contrast, anti-fluoride activists in the USA and NZ are attempting to present the main health effect that must be considered is a claimed decline in IQ.

The FFNZ advert shows this is the message the Three Wise Men were promoting in New Zealand. But the “latest research” they were “sharing” was not theirs but that of Basash et al., (2016). Or, rather, they were sharing a misrepresentaion and distortion of that research to fit their scarmongering claims.

I won’t repeat my analysis of the Bashash et al., (2016) paper and its misrepresentation here – readers can refer back to my articles:

A draft of my article critiquing the Bashash et al., (2016) paper, “Predictive accuracy of a model for child IQ based on maternal prenatal urinary fluoride concentration.” is also available online.

The predictable debate challenge

No visit by Paul Connett would be complete without a challenge to debate the science with him. He is frustrated with the fact that his audiences are almost completely faithful anti-fluoride activists. The academics, experts and health authorities did not turn up to his meeting at Otago University so he claims “they don’t feel any obligation whatsoever to debate the science” and ”to simply ignore us is unacceptable” (see Anti-fluoride campaigner invites university debate).

Similarly, he blamed others and claimed his anti-fluoride message was being ignored when only three MPs turned up for his meeting at the NZ Parliament Building last February. That was disingenuous as he had been given plenty of time for a presentation to the Health Committee during the consultations on the Fluoridation Bill last year. And MPs are regularly bombarded with huge amounts of propaganda from anti-fluoride activists. Obviously, MPs feel so inundated with such propaganda that they see no need to attend yet another meeting to hear the same old message.

Connett’s challenges to “debate the science” in front of a partisan audience have more to do with political propaganda and enthusing activists than with science. He knows scientific knowledge does not progress by holding gladiatorial circuses. It progresses by long, careful and detailed research, publication and peer review.

Neither of these Three Wise Men has performed any original research on community water fluoridation but they can still make their input via the peer review process – which include post-publication peer review via critiques of published papers.

To be fair, Connett and other members of the Fluoride Action network have occasionally presented such critiques. Two examples come to mind – the studies of  McLaren et al., (2016) and of Broadbent et al., (2015). These were critiqued in responses published in these same journals by a number of opponents of fluoridation. The original authors responded in the same journals. Arguments and extra data were presented in the responses and the science is better off for those critiques.

But science does not gain one iota from Connett’s attacks on the New Zealander Broadbent and other researchers in the media or in his meetings with the faithful. Such attacks and macho comments, often bordering on ad hominem, only discredit the attacker. They are not the way to discuss science and yet Paul Connett and his supporters challenge genuine scientists to participate in such “debates’ which are nothing more than testostorone-laden slanging matches.

A farcical example of a debate challenge

This time around I got personally involved because I called the bluff of activists making yet another debate challenge. It came out of an online discussion where I was attempting to correct some mistaken claims made by anti-fluoride activists. Here is the challenge:

Screenshot of my invite – just as well a have this as this Facebook page subsequently deleted the invitation and all comments I had made. I am officially a nonperson there.

A game of chicken followed where I attempted to get Fluoride Free NZ (FFNZ) and Paul Connett to formally stand behind the challenge. Chicken because I recognised it was a game. I had a scientific exchange (“debate”) with Paul four years ago – I think it was useful and I believe this is how good faith scientific discussions should take place (see Connett & Perrott, 2014: The Fluoride Debate for the full exchange). But Paul had made clear to me some time ago that he wanted no further contact with me.

Sure enough, FFNZ very quickly retreated from the possibility they had offered of a one on one debate. I emailed FFNZ:

“I think a one on one exchange would be best and as Paul and I have similar expertise he would be the logical discussion partner.”

Their response:

“No we will only agree to two on two.”

Paul confirmed that he would not debate one on one with me. I accepted a two on two “debate” but pointed out it was their responsibility, not mine, to organise the speakers. If they were not prepared to do that I suggested a two on one “debate” (especially as being the only speaker on one side this would give me extra presentation time) but made clear that I would effectively ignore Vyvyan Howard because our expertise did not cross over. (Vivyan agree with me that as he is a pathologist “you are correct that a direct discussion between us would be unbalanced.”)

I also made clear I would not tolerate any attempt to use that format to argue that I was isolated and could not find anyone else in New Zealand to support my arguments (an implication Paul made in our email exchange, and, of course, a claim being parroted by his supporters on social media).

Paul then formally withdrew. A pity as I love Wellington and was looking forward to a visit at someone else’s cost.

So a farce, But wait. there is more. The Facebook page, Rethink Fluoride, deleted their invitation to this “debate.” They then followed by deleting all my comments on their posts. Rather ironic as I had a few days before congratulated them by allowing open comments, and in particular allowing scientific comments – something all other anti-fluoride Facebook pages refused to allow.

Conclusion

Debate challenges by anti-fluoride activists are never genuine. They do not wish to discuss the science – they are simply using the challenges to enthuse their true-believing supporters. It is a form of attack on genuine researchers and health experts.

There is a time and place for good faith scientific exchange – post-publication peer review, for example, can give a genuine avenue for any real critiques to appear and be considered. Testosterone-laden gladiatorial debates before partisan audiences do not.

Anti-fluoride activists are disingenuously using these “debate challenges” to imply that experts and researchers have no confidence in their science and are afraid. It’s simply a macho tactic which often descends into ad hominem attacks.

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Opportunities and problems for grassroots activism offered by the internet

Caitlin Johnstone is an amazing woman. Very literate and on the ball politically.

Her analysis of recent changes in information transfer offered by the internet and the reaction of mainstream media is important. This speech, “How to Win a Grassroots Media Rebellion,” is well worth watching.

It explains a lot of the recent history of the media, the control of information and the threats to media and internet access by ordinary people.

If you find her arguments interesting follow her on Facebook, Twitter, the Medium, and on Steemit.

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August ’18 – NZ blogs sitemeter ranking

Image credit: The Fine Line. Rob Cottingham.

I notice a few regulars no longer allow public access to the site counters. This may happen accidentally when the blog format is altered. If your blog is unexpectedly missing or the numbers seem very low please check this out. After correcting send me the URL for your site meter and I can correct the information in the database.

Similarly, if your blog data in this list seems out of whack, please check your site meter. Usually, the problem is that for some reason your site meter is no longer working.

Sitemeter is no longer working so the total number of NZ blogs in this list has been drastically reduced. I recommend anyone with Sitemeter consider transferring to one of the other meters. See  NZ Blog Rankings FAQ.

This list is compiled automatically from the data in the various site meters used. If you feel the data in this list is wrong could you check to make sure the problem is not with your own site meter? I am of course happy to correct any mistakes that occur in the automatic transfer of data to this list but cannot be responsible for the site meters themselves. They do play up.

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 August 2018. 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

Who is weaponising the vaccination debate?

Image credit: How To Win a Vaccination Debate

The  media are promoting a new scientific paper on the vaccination debate. Their interest is undoubtedly driven by the study’s conclusion that “Russian trolls” (and by implication the Russian state) are amplifying this debate to promote discord in the US. The title describes this as “Weaponization of Health Communication.”

I am very cynical. After all, the media loves to dramatise these matters – and scientists are not immune to the temptation of taking advantage of this and the current political environment. The data the authors present is weak and has a far more reasonable explanation than the one they assume.

Yes, I may well be called a “Russian troll” or one of “Putin’s Useful Idiots” (and it wouldn’t be the first time) for expressing these doubts. But I have read the paper and this was helpful as it provides sources enabling me to do my own checking.

The paper is:

Broniatowski, D. A., Jamison, A. M., Qi, S., AlKulaib, L., Chen, T., Benton, A., … Dredze, M. (2018). Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate. American Journal of Public Health.

That’s just the abstract but here is a link to the full text.

The paper summarises its main claim about “Russian trolls” as:

“Russian trolls and sophisticated Twitter bots post content about vaccination at significantly higher rates than does the average user. Content from these sources gives equal attention to pro- and antivaccination arguments. This is consistent with a strategy of promoting discord across a range of controversial topics—a known tactic employed by Russian troll accounts. Such strategies may undermine the public health: normalizing these debates may lead the public to question long-standing scientific consensus regarding vaccine efficacy.”

The sources

The analysis relies on subjective judgment for defining a twitter account as a bot, but it does use two publicly available lists of twitter accounts (and tweets from these accounts) defined as inauthentic or false “Russian trolls.”

These sources are:

  1. “Russian troll accounts identified by NBC news” which allegedly documented “Russian interference in the US political system” (see Twitter deleted 200,000 Russian troll tweets. Read them here), and
  2. “Accounts the US Congress identifies as Russian trolls” (see Twitter’s list of 2,752 Russian trolls).

The evidence supporting their main claim is given in their Figure 1: Bots’ Likelihood of Tweeting About Vaccines Compared With Average Twitter Users: July 14, 2014–September 26, 2017. See below:

Tweets from the “NBC Russian Trolls” contain a higher incidence of vaccination keywords than tweets from the average twitter user. To be clear – this is not evidence of promotion of an anti-vaccine message (“Content from these sources gives equal attention to pro- and antivaccination arguments”). It simply shows these collection of tweets contained a higher than average reference to this polarizing subject.

I suspect a similar analysis of this collection of tweets would also show a higher than average incidence for other polarizing subjects in this collection. It is the nature of the tweet selection not evidence of a specific motive.

In fact this claim of “promoting discord” is so commonly used nowadays that it seems to have lost any meaning. Politicians now attribute this motive to much of the Russian social media – and to Russian mainstream media (eg., RT and Sputnik) news reports.

We should note that the authors did not attempt to justify the highly political allegation. They simply aligned themselves with the political message, but the senior author Broniatoski admits “we cannot say that with 100% certainty, because we’re not inside their head.”

Unfortunately, they did not consider for one moment other possible explanations for their results (that is highly unscientific and reveals a bias). I think this illustrates the power of the controlling or prominent political narrative. Anti-Russian hysteria is widespread in the US at the moment.

But there are more innocent motives for such tweets which a more objective analysis would have considered (see below).

The “guilty” tweets

I have looked through the database listing the tweets identified as from“Russian troll accounts identified by NBC news.” The incidence of reference to vaccination in the tweets from“Accounts the US Congress identifies as Russian trolls” was not much different to that for the “average user” so I did not consider them.

There were 203,451 tweets in this collection and I found about 100 (about 0.05%) included a vaccine keyword (vacc*). The paper gives examples of both pro and anti-vaccine tweets from this collection and mine were similar. These were hardly remarkable – indeed most of them were retweets. For example:

  • RT @HealthRanger: Don’t miss this: #autism-vaccine link explained by doctors!   https://t.co/L9ziemow6o  #antivax #vaccines #adhd
  • RT @ActivistPost: States are rushing to pass vaccine mandates before everyone realizes that they’re completely unnecessary at best, harmful…
  • RT @HealthRanger: Danish #documentary exposes widespread damage caused by HPV vaccine https://t.co/nuQqQ1u0XZ  #health #vaccines #antivax #…
  • RT @HealthRanger: Never inject them. #antivax #vaccines #natural #health https://t.co/oY0XLqRkdH
  • RT @pakalert: The Scary TRUTH About Vaccines (Satanic illuminati Vaccines Agenda Exposed Full Documentary) https://t.co/fxs8zOwVnV
  • RT @WorldTruthTV: Robert De Niro To Produce Film Proving Vaccines Cause Autism | World https://t.co/telXZBWPRi https://t.co/VrApvqn62s
  • RT @CobraCommans: Canadian scientists to test promising HIV vaccine on 600 volunteers @ANCParliament @My_AfricanUnion @AfricaHealthFor
  • RT @GStein269: Perry talking about Drugs and Vaccines? https://t.co/lsxJN2Udcy
  • RT @SanJosePost: #politics California’s vaccine bill passes Assembly, next hurdle: Gov. Jerry Brown
  • RT @varadmehta: Having a vaccine truther chair a commission on vaccine safety is something that merits actual outrage. But media only has o…
  • RT @blicqer: Major HIV Vaccine Trial Set to Begin in South Africa  https://t.co/fPkW3XYV32 @TheRoot https://t.co/I5iRgU42Yn

The #VaccinateUS hashtag

The paper describes the #VaccinateUS hashtag as:

“designed to promote discord using vaccination as a political wedge issue. #VaccinateUS tweets were uniquely identified with Russian troll accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency—a company backed by the Russian government specializing in online influence operations.”

Again, it did not provide any evidence to support this allegation.

The authors claim these tweets “contain a combination of grammatical errors, unnatural word choices, and irregular phrasing.” I did not see this myself – the grammar in these tweets appeared to me to be far better than the average tweets I see. The authors did acknowledge that these “messages contain fewer spelling and punctuation errors than do comparable tweets from the general vaccine stream.”

Tweets with this hashtag are about evenly divided between pro- and anti-vaccination potions (“43% were provaccine, 38% were anti vaccine, and the remaining 19% were neutral”). It occurred rarely in the quarter million tweets.

While they appear to have been specifically written by the account holders or staff at the organisation behind them, rather than simple retweets, they hardly provide evidence for a motive of “sowing discord.”

Here are some examples:

  • what will you fill when you get a disease that you could’ve been protected from? #VaccinateUS
  • if we don’t have regular chek ups and get #vaccines-what’s the point of doctors’ work? #VaccinateUS
  • open your eyes, people! It’s all government conspiracy plan  #VaccinateUS
  • our government cares only about money so it’s profitable for them to say that #vaccination is necessary #VaccinateUS
  • the production of a #vaccine is disgusting #VaccinateUS
  • #VaccinateUS FDA  state that #vaccines are safe
  • #VaccinateUS For sure #vaccines work!
  • God bless big pharma. You fools #VaccinateUS

Amplification of the anti-Russian hysteria

Ironically the charge laid at the supposed “Russian trolls” (that they seek to sow discord by amplifying existing electoral or polarizing debates) is actually typical of much of the reaction in our media to stories like this. In fact these media reports are aimed at sowing discord and promoting Russophobia. And, unfortunately, such anti-Russian amplification, or weaponization to use the language of the paper, comes from people I would have thought should know better.

This example from March for Science – a social media group formed after Trump’s election and aimed at mobilising scientists against anti-science policies of the new administration.

They are reposting an article from the Guardian (which these days leaps onto any anti-Russian argument they find). But in doing so they add their own claim:
” Study finds that 93% of tweets about vaccines between 2014 and 2017 were planted by bots and Russian trolls with the aim of sowing division.”

The 93% is the invention of March for Science as neither the paper or The Guardian provided this figure. And the study did not “find” that Russian trolls were sowing divisions – that was the prevailing assumption they started with. March for Science is simply crudely (very crudely considering their invention of 93%) amplifying the anti-Russian narrative and contributing to weaponization of social media against the Russian Federation.

Bringing this home, the NZ Facebook page Science Community New Zealand reposted the March for Science claim. Here we have social media accounts claiming to be pro-science amplifying an outright lie on social media.

Update: Science Community New Zealand has now removed the offending post – a good sign perhaps.

I am disappointed at such a naively political falsification from organisations which is meant to be promoting science. It does show how persuasive the current anti-Russian hysteria is – but it is especially disappointing to see people who should know better succumbing to it. Or, perhaps, I have been fooled and the real motives of March for Science and Science Community New Zealand have been far more questionable right from the start.

A more realistic motive for these tweets

The motive given by the study’s authors, and usually promoted in the current mainstream media narrative (sowing discord to weaken US society), really does not hold water. That strategy could more legitimately be attributed to ordinary US twitter users who indulge in tweeting on controversial subjects in far larger numbers. Anything  added by these Russian trolls is minuscule. If the Kremlin genuinely has such a strategy it should be judged a pitiful failure.

But what about this shady company Internet Research Agency based in St Petersburg? I have no doubt it exists and that it is planting material in social media like Facebook and Twitter. Presumably it is also setting up non-authentic or fake accounts for this purpose.

However, the paper’s claim that it is “a company backed by the Russian government” is not supported by any evidence at all and is typical of the way our media continually falsely claims that Russian individuals and entities are connected to the Kremlin or “close to Putin” – simply because of their ethnicity.

While the company (and many similar companies indulged in similar activity) have no credible results in “sowing discord” (compared with the ordinary, authenticated users of Twitter and Facebook in the US) they do seem to be doing this for commercial purposes. These appear to be similar to the activity of the Cambridge Analytica company which acquired personal data from social media users which they then marketed to political users.

Using fake or inauthentic accounts to retweet messages, or plant original messages, in a polarizing political or health debates is one way of mining personal data. Authentic users who retweet, “like” or repost such messages reveal a preference or bias which is of interest to companies involved in marketing products and ideas. Even seeding social media with pictures and videos of cats and dogs which attract likes, retweets and reposts can help obtain information of use to commercial and political entities.

Hell, Google, Facebook and Twitter themselves are involved in mining account holder’s personal information and selling it to advertisers.

How else do we end up getting social media messages related to topics we have searched for information on, or have commented  on in social media. On the surface this appears harmless, even useful (although the continual  messages I still get offering travel insurance just because I researched the topic several months ago are rather tiring – and counter-productive as they turn me off the advertiser).

Conclusions

My main objection to this paper is its uncritical and unthinking acceptance of the prevailing political narrative. I think it shocking that a scientific study makes no attempt to question or validate the narrative it relies on.

The data is extremely weak – only someone intoxicated by the political narrative will seriously see the extremely small number of tweets and retweets they found as evidence of a “strategy of sowing discord.”

Finally, the authors make no effort to consider other more reasonable explanations for their data. That is a pity as mining personal data by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Cambridge Analytica, the Internet Research Agency and other commercial companies should concern us all. Targeted advertising is very intrusive and annoying. Targeted political influence is also no doubt occurring and should concern us.

But the old trick of blaming the Russians for these problems is diverting our attention away from the real culprits.

I guess this shows how a bad political climate and destructive prevailing narrative can influence even the most scientific researcher.

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Another BUK accident in Ukraine

Ukrainian BUK transport misses corner and ploughs into a building in the centre of Kiev. Image credit: Hromadske

It seems the Ukrainians do have problems with some of their military equipment. In particular their BUK missile systems (A BUK missile was implicated in the Malaysian MH17 tragedy in July 14 – see But will it stand up in court?).

A Ukrainian BUK missile destroyed a passenger airline (Siberia Airlines Flight 1812) in 2001 with the loss of 78 passengers and crew. Apparently as a result of an accidental firing during military exercises in the Black Sea. Now one of these systems has had an accident in the heart of Kiev during rehearsals for an independence day parade due August 24th.

‘Vlad Vash’, an eyewitness, wrote on Facebook:

“Well, there is your parade for you! First a tank nearly mowed me down, but stopped just in time. Then the very next vehicle drove into a wall.”

This just illustrates to me a huge flaw in the official investigation of the MH17 tragedy. The Joint Investigation Team seemed to start with a preconceived scenario (“the Russians did it”) and were sufficiently blinkered not to investigate alternative scenarios (see But will it stand up in court?). I have always been amazed that the investigation did not look at the BUK missiles systems held in the conflict area by both the Ukrainian army and the Donbass rebels (see my article Political interference prevents investigators from considering the “bleeding obvious”).

Accidents do happen and the Ukrainian army has a recoird of such accidents. There were also reports of poor maintenance and drunkenness among military personnel at the time. In fact, the situation in the Ukraineian army was so bad theat many soldiers defected to the rebels and the Kiev regime set up National Guard brigades manned by ultranationalist and neo-fascist groups involved in the February 24 coup. These brigades have been responsible for most of the fighting against the Donbass forces since.

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Policing social media – who is coming next and who is behind it?

Free speech and the problems of deplatforming and censorship are in the public mind at the moment. The banning of the conspiracy theorist outlet Infowars by a number of social media networks is just the latest example concerning many people – most of who, like me, do not support Infowars or Alex Jones in any way. Mind you, that does not stop supporters of this censoring claiming that we do – a claim Glen Greenwald described as “utterly obnoxious & disingenuous”

A slippery slope

The Real News video discussion with Max Blumenthal above warns that this censorship is a slippery slope – a slope along which we have already slipped well past Infowars. Blumenthal gives examples where his own media presence has been censored.

Blumenthal also warns that those doing this policing of social media are hardly humanitarians attempting to prevent hate speech. They have deep political and military origins which are driving this activity.

I find very disturbing that Facebook and the Atlantic Council are now cooperating in policing of Facebook content and in directing social media users to “approved” and “official” news sources (see Atlantic Council press release: Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab Partners with Facebook to Combat Disinformation in Democratic Elections). So we will now have a NATO-aligned “think tank” controlling information US voters, and the rest of us, get via social media. An organisation which is also strongly linked to outfits like the terrorist aligned White Helmets in Syria, the nationalist regime in Ukraine and conspiracy theorist “open sources” like Bellingcat.

Hopefully, readers will watch this video and its follow-up. I know some readers will see this as just another conspiracy theory. Apparently, they believe I am prone to such theories and urge me to wear blinkers and restrict my news sources to just the approved “official” sources.

Perhaps, instead of their outright rejection of the video above, they should critically consider the conspiracy theories they adhere to. The “official” conspiracy theories promoted by their “approved,” “official,” mainstream media sources. The conspiracy theories that get the blessing of outfits like The Atlantic Council, the Ukrainian regime and Bellingcat.

The “official” conspiracy theory promoted by the mainstream media

The video below is satirical – but really – how different is its content to the “official” “Russiagate,” conspiracy theory our mainstream media is bombarding us with every day.

Apparently, US society is really utopian – it has no problems. All the conflicts we read about are caused by those pesky Russians and their president, Putin.

Also, the video below from Syriana Analysis raises warnings about the slippery slope organisations like the Atlantic Council, are moving us down. Many people like me rely on multiple sources for information. The mainstream media (which never seems to be censored by these social media or the Atlantic Council) inevitably follows the official narrative on many issues (consider Syria, Russia, etc.). They often give fake news or misrepresent information (see, for example, Blatant misreporting of latest OPCW report on chemical weapons in Syria and The “heart of the Syrian chemical weapons programme” destroyed?). A wise person uses multiple sources, including independent or alternative media, to avoid this sort of control on information.

Hassling alternative and independent media

Syriana Analysis is one of the many sources I often check out for information on Syria. Independent sources like this rely heavily on social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to get out their message and to get financial support for their work.

Its spokesperson describes some of the hassles his organisation faces from social media bans and censorship. Many other independent or alternative media sources describe similar problems.

Some people object to using the word “censorship” to describe this problem. They point out that even big corporations like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have a perfect right to decide how their businesses operate. That the government is not involved.

However, this is naive.

Politicians driving the censorship

Let’s not forget that the US Senate Judiciary Committee subjected these corporations to strong pressure aimed at forcing them into the role of censors. This is how Caitlan Johnson, a very wise woman, described this in her article Social Media Censorship Is Vastly More Dangerous Than The Censored Material:

“A few months ago the Senate Judiciary Committee spoke with top legal and security officials for Facebook, Twitter and Google in a very disturbing way about the need to silence dissenting voices. Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii demanded that the companies adopt a “mission statement” declaring their commitment “to prevent the fomenting of discord.” Former FBI agent and deep state lackey Clint Watts kicked it up even further, saying, “Civil wars don’t start with gunshots, they start with words. America’s war with itself has already begun. We all must act now on the social media battlefield to quell information rebellions that can quickly lead to violent confrontations and easily transform us into the Divided States of America.”

This happened on the Senate floor, right out in the open.”

I don’t think attempts to censor social media and close down independent and alternative media sources are going to succeed, at least permanently. The internet has let the genie out of the bottle. Official mainstream media and the political establishment can no longer control the information available to those who look for it.

At least I hope that genie is out of the bottle.

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Political interference prevents investigators from considering the “bleeding obvious”

Official investigations contaminated by political pressure are hardly likely to be transparent or give reasonable and rational answers to problems. Once politics is in the driving seat the political aims become the driving force behind any conclusions.

The “novichok” poisonings

Many people see this as the basic problem with the investigation of the nerve agent poisonings in Salisbury and Amesbury, UK. Political forces took this over in the very early days and used the incidents to precipitate a very serious international crisis. Claims were made without evidence – and now it is hard to see how the investigation can ever recover from such a high-level interference.

Right at the beginning, many people drew attention to the fact that these accidents occurred only kilometres away from a government defence laboratory which holds stocks of nerve agents. I did myself – see Where could you get a nerve agent in Salisbury? and Time for a serious auditing of Porton Down’s nerve agent stocks?

Surely one of the first lines of enquiry in these investigations should have been an audit of nerve agent stocks held at the Porton Down Laboratory and investigation of possible scenarios for their accidental loss or even purposeful stealing. Not to do so, and instead launch an international crisis could at best be interpreted as missing the “bleeding obvious.” At worst it could be seen as an intentional promotion of an international crisis.

Yes, I know, there will be people who claim there was no need for such an audit. That we should just trust the professionalism of the staff and security procedures in force.

Well, I am not that easily fooled. People who use this argument should read the latest Annual Report and Accounts (2017/208) from this Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. Here is a pdf copy for you.

On Page 55 a section Incident investigations  reports (my emphasis):

“We actively promote the reporting of near misses and incidents. We investigate incidents proportionately based on the potential the incident could have had as well as in balance with the actual harm or damage caused. The responsible business unit investigates all incidents classified as ‘medium’. Incidents classified as ‘high’ are subject to an independent, corporate investigation.

During the year, we had 53 incidents reported of which 42 were investigated as high potential/actual incidents19 safety, seven business, 12 HR, two whistle-blowing and two security. Six of the safety incidents were reportable to the Health and Safety Executive under RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations). Of the 11 incidents not investigated: eight were reclassified as ‘medium’ and investigated within the Division or Function; two HR allegations were dropped as on review there was no case to answer; and, the final incident was investigated by an external partner.”

Of course, such annual reports are hardly transparent. They are more likely to cover up problems than be honest about them, And the bureaucratic language helps such cover-ups.

But, if nothing else, this report shows that serious”incidents” are possible, even likely, for such a laboratory. Only a fool, or a politically directed investigator would miss out this obvious first step – checking out a local source.

Mind you, I have not seen anything official (who has?) and a final report may actually detail such an audit. Maybe investigators have been able to resist the political pressure to the extent that they did not miss this obvious first step.

Malaysian airline MH17 tragedy report

The same provision cannot be made for the “official” investigation of the Malaysian MH17 tragedy in eastern Ukraine where a commercial airliner was shot down in July 2014 with the death of all 298 crew and passengers on board. The “official” reports have been published.

I have written about the Final Technical Report in the article  MH17: Final technical report.

Readers are no doubt aware of the scenario the investigators have “gone with.” In my view, they “went with ” this scenario form early on – to the extent they put all their efforts into “proving” their favourite scenario and not objectively considering all the evidence. This for political reasons.

Investigators in the Russian Federation have complained that the official investigation team have refused to consider the information they provided on raw radar data and declassified data on the possible missile used. However, I think the negligence of the investigators was even more fundamental.

They missed completely the first obvious step, the “bleeding obvious” step of actually auditing and checking the BUK missile systems known to be on the ground in eastern Ukraine at the time. I do not argue they should not have considered other scenarios, even one as wild as a system being purposely brought across the border and returned after the tragedy all within a day. But the negligence in making the first obvious checks is so blatant one can only assume political interference.

The fact is that BUK missile systems were in the hands of both sides in this conflict at the time. The “rebel” forces had acquired these from the Ukrainian army because of capture of equipment and personnel defections (Ukrainian President Poroshenko claimed a 30% defection rate and his estimate will be low). The missiles on these systems were of an older style still in use in Ukraine but which had been replaced by modern versions in the Russian Federation.

So, an obvious first step – audit the existing BUK systems (yes, I know this would mean the investigation team would need to interact with rebel forces – but come on. This is basic – how could an independent investigator object?). Rebel territory was being mercilessly bombed from the air at the time so those forces certainly had a motive to use such a weapon. (Although the fact that Dutch intelligence had already determined the BUK system in rebel hands was inoperative may explain some of this negligence see Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know?)

The Ukrainian armed forces had more of these systems and it is likely that at least some of these were operative. Given that the Kiev government was promoting an argument that the Russian armed forces may have been attempting to operate a “no-fly zone” in eastern Ukraine at the time it is easy to see how the pro-Kiev military could also have mistakenly identified a high-flying commercial airliner as a Russian military plane.

But a big problem with this investigation is that the Ukraine government was part of the investigation team. They had veto rights on the publication of findings and could easily have prevented investigation of any scenario which implicated their forces.

We should all learn to be sceptical about politically driven investigations. At least critically read the reports and not rely on media coverage – well-known for distortion and political agendas. And especially look for examples where investigators purposely ignore the “bleeding obvious.”

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July ’18 – NZ blogs sitemeter ranking

I notice a few regulars no longer allow public access to the site counters. This may happen accidentally when the blog format is altered. If your blog is unexpectedly missing or the numbers seem very low please check this out. After correcting send me the URL for your site meter and I can correct the information in the database.

Similarly, if your blog data in this list seems out of whack, please check your site meter. Usually, the problem is that for some reason your site meter is no longer working.

Sitemeter is no longer working so the total number of NZ blogs in this list has been drastically reduced. I recommend anyone with Sitemeter consider transferring to one of the other meters. See  NZ Blog Rankings FAQ.

This list is compiled automatically from the data in the various site meters used. If you feel the data in this list is wrong could you check to make sure the problem is not with your own site meter? I am of course happy to correct any mistakes that occur in the automatic transfer of data to this list but cannot be responsible for the site meters themselves. They do play up.

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 July 2018. 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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Mainstream media “mob violence” over Helsinki summit

Professor Cohen is always good value and we should take these comments of his seriously. After all, there is nothing more serious today than the threat of war between the US and the Russian Federation. Yet we have politicians and the mainstream media preferring to promote this threat. They seem to want to prevent any step towards relaxing international tension and divert attention by waving their dirty domestic laundry on the international scene.

Yes I know, I will probably be attacked (again) for using a clip from Tucker Carlson and Fox. There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to ignore or reject serious arguments because they appear on a “non-approved,” “non-official,” or alternative media. But be honest – that reaction, and the fact it is a knee-jerk one, simply demonstrates the self-censorship which people have had imposed on them.

Particularly in this case where Professor Cohen is not given any space on the “liberal-approved” mainstream media to present his highly sensible views.

The worst aspect of all this is the diversion of public opinion from what should be the substance of such summits.

What is this media hysteria and bullying, and self-censorship, doing? It is preventing consideration of the real content of this important international summit.

No discussion of real issues

Where is the media discussion on questions (and possible moves towards agreement on these questions) like a return to the Start Nuclear Treaty, the danger presented by stationing anti-ballistic missile systems in Europe, problems created by US withdrawal from the Iran Treaty and the Paris climate change agreements, provision of security for Israel, settlement of the war in Syria, humanitarian aid to the victims of that war, the fight against terrorism, a treaty on cyberwar, etc., etc? Things that really matter and affect the future of this planet and its people.

Why is it that US journalists at the Summit press conference showed absolutely no interest in these substantive issues? They were simply there to fight out their non-acceptance of the 2016 election result.

I think this is disgusting. Instead of attempting to prevent war and to do something substantial to reduce international tension the US establishment is carrying out their dirty domestic partisan warfare in public. We have a media-intelligence agency coalition fighting with a President who (maybe wisely) refuses to take the fight head on. A strong president might be expected to take on an intelligence establishment which has become partisan and is actively constricting his actions. Instead, he appears to mumble and backtrack like a coward.

No sensible person would ever claim to have full confidence in the US intelligence establishment – come on, look at their record.

A media created smokescreen

But meanwhile the real interests of people in the US, and indeed the world, get ignored by a compliant media.

And groups and commenters on social media get sucked in by this circus like easy fools.

Come on, there are real problems in the world – the Trump circus is a diversion imposed on you by the US media-political-intelligence establishment. An establishment which still works, behind the smokescreen they have created, to impose their diktat on the world.

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Blatant misreporting of latest OPCW report on chemical weapons in Syria

BBC caught out promoting fake news about OPCW report

The Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reports no evidence of banned chemical weapons use by the Syrian government in Douma last April. This conflicts with the strong claims of NATO states and most of the mainstream media at the time. It also shows that the illegal missile attacks by France, UK and USA (FUKUS) on Syria at the time (see The “heart of the Syrian chemical weapons programme” destroyed?) were completely unjustified.

While the NATO governments involved have yet to respond to the OPCW report (let alone make apologies for their actions) many mainstream media outlets seem determined to continue promoting fake news when it comes to Syria. Some major news outlets have completely misrepresented the OPCW findings.

OPCW has problems but got this one right

I have commented on some earlier OPCW reports on Syria and have found them unconvincing, biased or relying only on terrorist sources (see Another shonky OPCW chemical incident report on Syria and Chemical weapons use in Syria UN report flawed by political bias).

However, this one is a bit different. It is an interim report on the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria, last April. This incident got a lot of publicity with France, UK and USA declaring they had evidence which proved there had been an attack using sarin. This alliance (FUKUS) was sufficiently confident with their “intelligence” to order an illegal missile attack on several sites in Syria. (see The “heart of the Syrian chemical weapons programme” destroyed?)

This interim report is also different because the area of alleged attack was soon liberated by Syria and Syria, together with Russian Military Police and the UN Office for Project Services, was able to stabilise the area and enable inspectors from the OPCW to take samples and interview people in the buildings which had allegedly been attacked. A big difference to earlier reports which had relied only on “open sources,” and the testimony and samples provided by the White Helmets – a group affiliated with the jihadists and which actively campaigns against the Syrian states and has a history of false reporting.

While this is only an interim report some conclusions are clear (paragraph 2.5 in Summary):

“No organophosphorus nerve agents or their degradation products were detected, either in the environmental samples or in plasma samples from the alleged casualties.”

Media coverage

I have yet to see any response from NATO governments, particularly those comprising the FUKUS attack group. A sharp contrast to their vociferous accusations at the time of the alleged incident.

However, it appears that much of the mainstream media, and some of the sources it relies on, will draw unwarranted conclusions from this interim report to support their narrative.  For example, Al Jazeera claims Interim OPCW report finds proof of chlorine used in Syria’s Douma.

That is an outright lie. It did not give any such proof or even make that claim.

There is also this from the BBC:

Again an outright lie – the report found nothing of the sort.

Reuters are going with Chemical weapons agency finds ‘chlorinated’ chemicals in Syria’s Douma. Mind you this headline is a “correction” – “(Corrects to “various chlorinated organic chemicals” instead of chlorine).” Technically correct but misleading.

Sky news is claiming Chemical attack confirmed in deadly Douma strikes, but OPCW finds no evidence of sarin. Again wrong. No evidence of sarin but also no evidence presented of any chemical attack at all.

ABC also misrepresented the OPCW report claiming Chlorine used in Syria’s Douma, no trace of nerve agent, Interim OPCW report finds.

The NZ Herald was more neutral in their report Watchdog reports on alleged Syria attack behind airstrikes.

On the other hand the Xinhua Chinese news agency correctly reported Various chlorinated organic chemicals found in samples from Douma attack sites: OPCW, and RT correctly reported Nerve agents not found in samples from Syria’s Douma – interim OPCW report saying (in its second sentence ““Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples” from two locations in the Damascus suburb of Douma.”

And I get the impression most of the “alternative” media sources I see on social media are reporting the OPCW findings correctly. So what was that about “Fake News” and the strong recommendations we get to wear blinkers so that we do not see alternative news sources?

Bellingcat also misrepresents findings

Eliot Higgins, who runs the Bellingcat organisation which provides “open source” information often used by western governments and media, also misrepresents the OPCW report. His organisation is responsible for initiating the story that the MH17 flight was shot down in eastern Ukraine by a Russian BUK unit especially imported for the occasion (and exported immediately afterwards).  Bellingcat is also responsible for many of the claims of chemical weapons used by the Syrian government.

Higgins tweeted:

What is the basis for misleading reports of chlorine use

The OPCW report mentions chlorine only twice – in this paragraph describing the original open source and media reporting of the alleged incident (paragraph 3.1 in Background):

So, no evidence of chlorine use found by the OPCW team. Those making this claim will point, in justification, to the fact that “chlorinated organic chemicals” were found at a few of the examined sites (paragraph 2.5 in Summary):

“Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples from Locations 2 and 4, along with residues of explosive.”

Many of the commenters I have seen on social media who resort to this to prove their claims of chlorine use seem not to understand the chemical differences involved or to argue that traces of any chlorinated organic chemicals must mean chlorine had been present.

Surprisingly, the OPCW did not draw any conclusions from the presence of these chemicals and are still attempting to establish their significance. I would have thought their job was to show if the trace levels found were at all unusual for environmental samples.

As a chemist I do not find the OPCW detection of traces of these chemicals at all surprising. For example, the report mentions the presence of “dichloroacetic acid, trichloroacetic acid” in samples of concrete debris, wood fragments, a water tank wood support, and some clothing.  But these chemicals are common in drinking water and even groundwater (see the Background document for development of WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality, Dichloroacetic Acid in Drinking-water ). Some of the chemicals found are common chlorinated compounds in treated wood (e.g. bornyl chloride and 2,4,6-trichlorophenol as mentioned in a footnote to Annex 3 of the OPCW interim report).

So, in fact, the identified chlorinated organic chemicals are what one may expect from such samples or especially samples taken from areas where explosives have been used.

This OPCW report is still of dubious scientific quality

I find a lot wrong with this OPCW report – but first the positive.

It followed (mostly) the OPCW guidelines for on-site inspection and sampling. This is a sharp contrast with the earlier OPCW reports on Syria where investigators relied on samples and testimony from jihadi affiliated groups like the White Helmets and their associates. This was possible because Douma had just been liberated and the Syrian Government and Russian Armed Forces made an immediate request for the OPCW to send their own observers to check media claims. (Although, given their willingness to trust jihadi-linked groups based in a terrorist-controlled area it does seem strange that the OPCW was unwilling to send their investigators to those areas and rely on terrorist guarantees for security in past investigations. Although, I am being sarcastic. Even in the case of Douma the OPCW team, was concerned about attacks from suicide bombers which seem to operate freely in the terrorist-held areas).

But have they learned?

In paragraph 5.1 describing their activities and timeline the OPCW say:

“Following reports in the media of the alleged incident on 7 April 2018, the Information Cell of the Secretariat immediately informed the FFM team and initiated a search of open-source information to assess the credibility of the allegation. The major sources comprised news media, blogs, and the websites of various non-governmental organisations. The assessment by the Information Cell was that the credibility of the allegation was high. Based on this information, the Director-General initiated an on-site investigation.”

Will the OPCW learn from this specific incident. In  previous reports they stopped at “The assessment by the Information Cell was that the credibility of the allegation was high” – and they would have this time of the Syrian, Russian and UN military had not provided them the security they required for onsite inspections.

The OPCW assessment was that the credibility of the jihadi-connected groups was “high.” Their own inspections showed they were mistaken. Will they be more careful with such claims in the future?

This question is important as NATO countries at the UN Security Council earlier this year effectively prevented adoption of mandatory on site inspections for UN-related chemical weapons investigations. At the OPCW the NATO countries have also pushed through a policy enabling the OPCW to go beyond its investigatory role and carry out a political role of apportioning blame.

The science is shonky

I find it incredible that the report should simply list identification of traces of chlorinated organic chemicals without either providing some sort of indication of the concentrations involved or comparing levels with measurements from  control samples – taken from areas outside the alleged attack area. This is a basic scientific mistake.

Those who wish to claim that the presence of chlorinated organics “proves” chlorine was used in this area could well be right. But only if the concentrations of these chemicals was much higher than normal for environmental samples.

I really can’t help thinking that this shoddy reporting of the science is a political trick enabling the report to be misrepresented. The OPCW is, after all, an international body and subject to the same sort of political manoeuvring we have come to expect from all such international bodies.

Interviews in country X!

The report states (paragraph 8.17:

“The FFM team interviewed a total of 34 individuals; 13 of these interviews were
conducted in Damascus and the remainder in Country X. Analysis of the testimonies is ongoing.”

Two issues for me here:

1: 13 interviews in Damascus – where most witness could have been found and 21 interviews in “Country x?” What this means is that more people from the defeated jihadi groups and their families were interviewed than those remaining in Douma who may have been less motivated to lie.

2: Country X! really? This is meant to be an intelligent report – not a spy thriller. There is absolutely no reason to be so coy about the location of the people interviewed. This is just childish.

I should note that the defeated “rebels”/terrorists and their families were given the opportunity to be transported to Idlib (still in terrorist hands). This has been a common feature of settlement agreements as areas are liberated. Of course, many choose to stay – even those who had been actively fighting with the militants. There is usually a provision for fighters to formalise their citizenship and even join the Syrian Army.

Many of the “rebel” fighters and members of affiliated organisations travel from Idlib into neighbouring Turkey – and further on. Why is the OPCW afraid to reveal the location of their interviewees in Turkey or other countries? Are they concerned this might reflect on the reliability of their testimony?

The warehouse and chemical production facility.

The Syrian government also asked the OPCW to investigate a chemical production facility and warehouse they had found deign liberation of East Ghouta and Douma. They believe these had been sued by terrorists to manufacture chemical contain weapons. (Similar facilities had been found in East Aleppo where terorists appeared to be adding chemicals to projectiles used in their “hell cannons.”

Only one paragraph was devoted to this inspection – paragraph 8.16: Warehouse and facility suspected of producing chemical weapons:

“At the warehouse and the facility suspected by the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic of producing chemical weapons in Douma, information was gathered to assess whether these facilities were associated with the production of chemical weapons or toxic chemicals that could be used as weapons. From the information gathered during the two on-site visits to these locations, there was no indication of either facility being involved in the production of chemical warfare agents or toxic chemicals for use as weapons.”

That is all – no details. No inventory of chemicals held at the sites. No sign of what the warehouse and production facility was actually used for.

Now, I can accost the Syrians may have been completely wrong in their suspicions about these sites – after all that assessment was made by military officers on the ground in the heat of battle, not chemical weapons experts. But I find the lack of information frustrating, even suspicious.

Were any cylinders of chlorine present at these sites. After all, if politically motivated commenters and media wish to misinterpret the presence of normal traces of chlorinated organic chemicals in collected samples why should they not also be forced to consider stocks of chlorine held in terrorist controlled areas -even if their declared use was innocent.

Conclusions

At last, and OPCW report on Syria actually based on factual evidence, the samples and interviews collected by the OPCW on site. A great advance over earlier reports based on “evidence” from terrorist-connected sources and social media or “open sources.”

But I wish the OPCW was more serious in reporting their scientific findings. Reporting traces of chlorinated organic chemicals without any indication of concentrations and comparison with normal environmental samples is shoddy work laying their information wide open for misrepresentation and distortion. Given the current geopolitical struggles and the way international organisations can be manipulated, I can’t help feeling this shoddy reporting was possibly intentional.

Despite these weaknesses, I think this report shows what is possible. It does show that the military action taken by FUKUS last April was not only illegal it was either based on poor intelligence and, more likely, based on claims these governments knew to be false. It is always good to see such blatant political and military hypocrisy exposed.

However, the weaknesses in the report show that more must be done to improve the scientific quality of OPCW work and reduce political influence on that work. This aspect is important because the recent changes giving OPCW a role in apportioning blame for alleged attacks open up that organisation to being so politicised it will lose all credibility.

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