Tag Archives: Harvard University

Fluoridation – the IQ myth

fluoride_kills_test (1)Some of the myths promoted by anti-fluoridation activists really are of the “unsinkable rubber duck” variety. No matter how many times they are debunked they keep being repeated.

If you follow the fluoridation debate at all you will have come across the “Harvard Study” “proving” fluoride makes you dumb. It is often associated with the claim that the Nazis used fluoridated water supplies in their concentration camps to distract the inmates. Some will even claim that this is the purpose for fluoridation in the US!

I haven’t dealt with this particular myth yet, but really can’t do better than repeat this post from the US Life is Better with Teeth web site. (By the way, this is an excellent source of information on the fluoridation issue). The article is Fluoride and IQs


In July 2012, anti-fluoride activists circulated an article from a journal called Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) to support their claim that fluoride lowers IQ scores in children. There are several reasons why the claim being made by opponents lacks credibility.

  • The EHP article reviewed studies on IQ scores for children living in areas of China, Mongolia and Iran where the water supplies have unusually high, natural fluoride levels. In many cases, the high-fluoride areas were significantly higher than the levels used to fluoridate public water systems in the U.S. In fact, the high-fluoride areas in these countries reached levels as high as 11.5 mg/L — more than 10 times higher than the optimal level used in the U.S.
  • This article offers a meta-analysis, and its credibility hinges on whether good-quality studies are reviewed. Yet the article’s co-authors admit that “each of the [studies] reviewed had deficiencies, in some cases rather serious, which limit the conclusions that can be drawn.” Although the studies compared high-fluoride with low-fluoride areas, the authors acknowledge that “the actual exposures of the individual children are not known.”
  • The two Harvard researchers who reviewed these studies have distanced themselves from the way in which anti-fluoride activists have misrepresented their article. After contacting these researchers, the Wichita Eagle newspaper reported, “While the studies the Harvard team reviewed did indicate that very high levels of fluoride could be linked to lower IQs among schoolchildren, the data is not particularly applicable here because it came from foreign sources where fluoride levels are multiple times higher than they are in American tap water.”
  • The Harvard researchers wrote in their article that the average standardized mean difference (0.45) in IQ scores “may be within the measurement error of IQ testing.” Despite web pages claiming that the article ”confirms” that fluoride reduces IQ scores, the Harvard co-authors did not reach a firm conclusion, writing instead that “our results support the possibility of adverse effects …” Indeed, their article called for more and better-quality research, including more “precise” data on the children involved and assurances that other factors have been ruled out as reasons for the IQ differences.
  • Given the small difference in IQ scores, it’s possible that arsenic levels, school quality, nutrition, parents’ educational levels or other factors could have shaped the results. The authors also added that “reports of lead concentrations in the study villages in China were not available”— another factor that could not be ruled out. A Britishresearch team reviewed similar Chinese studies, found “basic errors” in them, and reported that “water supplies may be contaminated with other chemicals such as arsenic, which may affect IQ.”
  • Between the 1940s and the 1990s, the average IQ scores of Americans improved 15 points.  This gain (approximately 3 IQ points per decade) came during the same period when fluoridation steadily expanded to serve millions and millions of additional Americans.

See also:

Similar articles on fluoridation
Making sense of fluoride Facebook page
Fluoridate our water Facebook page
New Zealanders for fluoridation Facebook page

Waking up to morality

I have come to the conclusion that a lot of what is said and written about morality is rubbish. So I am pleased to see that, at last, science is opening up to the idea that it can investigate this area of human interest.

Part of that rubbish has been the idea that morality is “off limits to science.” That it is ring-fenced. I think this attitude partly explains the hostility we see expressed towards the scientific study of morality and scientists speaking out on the topic. And this hostility is coming from some scientists, as well as theologians and philosophers.

So I am looking forward to any debate resulting from the recent New Scientist opinion special “Science Wakes up to Morality.” (See October 16 issue No 2782).

This includes short articles by eight scientists, philosophers and journalists. Well worth reading.

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Fallout from Hauser affair spreads

For background to the scientific misconduct charges circulating around Marc D Hauser have a look at A paper by Marc Hauser retracted – Harvard Magazine, A sympathetic take on Marc Hauser and the “scientific misconduct” issue, Hauser misconduct investigation – Full text of Dean’s statement, Marc Hauser replies – acknowledges mistakes and The myth of the noble scientist.

While Hauser’s acknowledgment confirms the eight misconduct charges mentioned by Harvard University’s Dean of the Faculty of Arts Sciences there is concern that the misconduct will taint the rest of Hauser’s work and publications.

It’s probably understandable that full clarity must await the final conclusions of US federal investigative agencies but inevitably there will be speculation. Gerry Altmann, the editor of the journal Cognition, posted a statement on his blog saying that his own review of information provided to him by Harvard has convinced him that fabrication is the most plausible explanation for data in a 2002 Cognition paper. This is the paper that is being retracted. (Two other published papers are being corrected and the other five incidents did not result in publications or were corrected before publication).

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Marc Hauser replies – acknowledges mistakes

Here is Marc Hauser’s response to the charge of scientific misconduct (from USA Today Updated: Harvard says Marc Hauser guilty of science misconduct). Hopefully we are seeing an example of science correcting itself.

I am deeply sorry for the problems this case has caused to my students, my colleagues, and my university..

I acknowledge that I made some significant mistakes and I am deeply disappointed that this has led to a retraction and two corrections. I also feel terrible about the concerns regarding the other five cases, which involved either unpublished work or studies in which the record was corrected before submission for publication.

I hope that the scientific community will now wait for the federal investigative agencies to make their final conclusions based on the material that they have available.

I have learned a great deal from this process and have made many changes in my own approach to research and in my lab’s research practices.

Research and teaching are my passion. After taking some time off, I look forward to getting back to my work, mindful of what I have learned in this case. This has been painful for me and those who have been associated with the work.

See also:
Hauser misconduct investigation – Full text of Dean’s statement
Harvard Finds Scientist Guilty of Misconduct

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Hauser misconduct investigation – Full text of Dean’s statement

Well, we now have an official statement from Michael Smith, the Harvard dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, on the Hauser “misconduct” affair. It’s an email sent to Harvard University faculty members. It was also sent to New Scientist by Harvard’s press office (see Harvard Dean Confirms Misconduct in Hauser Investigation). I have quoted the full text of the email below the fold.

The email confirms that Marc Hauser “was found solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty member investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS standards.” As a result three papers are either being retracted or corrected. The five other issue did not result in publications or the ropblems were corrected before publication.

Harvard has now completed its investigation. However, the email is unclear what disciplinary action will be taken against Hauser. In fact, its description of options (involuntary leave, oversight of research labs, restriction on applying for research grants and supervising student research) seem rather mild. To me this is an indication that the “misconduct” in querstion relates to poor scientific method, subjectivity in collecting data, over-riding fellow researchers, etc., rather than outright fraud.

Marc Hauser has apparently made a comment to the New York Times which has yet to be published. It will be his first comment on the events.

So all rather sad, but perhaps not a case of outright fraud.

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A sympathetic take on Marc Hauser and the “scientific misconduct” issue

Marc Hauser

Greg Laden has provided a sympathetic take on the news of the scientific misconduct investigation of Marc Hauser (see What I know about Marc Hauser, the recently ‘investigated’ Harvard primatologist). He doesn’t have any more specific information on the alleged misconduct than the rest of us, unfortunately. However, he has worked with Hauser.

Greg says: “I know Marc Hauser, and I trust him.”

But then he is forced to speculate. He discusses what he calls “The Hauser Effect.” This refers to Hauser’s ability to discover certain capacities in New World monkeys which had previously only been found in Old World primates like chimpanzees, baboons and macaques. This may result from Hauser’s acknowledged experimental skills But one also could imagine effects due to the subjects picking up cues from the experimenter.

Laden has speculated on the “Hauser effect” in the past. But, he says: “Fraud or misconduct never crossed my mind.”

“I’m like the neighbor who is interviewed after the spectacular arrest of the guy down the street for some over the top crime.

‘Marc kept to himself, in his lab. He produced his papers, got on with his job. Nobody ever thought he would carry out misconduct. He wasn’t the type. I can’t believe this is happening.’

That’s what I think.”

Harvard really should provide more information about their inquiry and its findings. Uninformed speculation could undermine the credibility of really good science.

My interest in Hauser’s work relate to the science of morality. He is author of the book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. And currently he is working on a new book to be published by Viking Penguin. It has the intriguing title  Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad .

See also:
The new science of morality
Is and ought
Misconduct found in Harvard animal morality prof’s lab: New Scientist
Inquiry on Harvard Lab Threatens Ripple Effect

UPDATE: Harvard has responded (see Harvard Confirms ‘Hausergate’) to reporters inquiries with “carefully worded statement to a few reporters:”

“Harvard has always taken seriously its obligation to maintain the integrity of the scientific record.  The University has rigorous systems in place to evaluate concerns about scientific work by Harvard faculty members.  Those procedures were employed in Dr. Hauser’s situation.  As a result of that process, and in accordance with standard practice, Harvard has taken steps to ensure that the scientific record is corrected in relation to three articles co-authored by Dr. Hauser.

While Dr. Hauser (or in one instance, his colleague) were directed to explain the issues with these articles to the academic journals that published those papers, the University has also welcomed specific questions from the editors involved. We will continue to assist the editors in this process.  In these types of cases, Harvard follows federal requirements for investigating alleged research misconduct and reports its findings, as required, to the appropriate federal funding agencies, which conduct their own review.   At the conclusion of the federal investigatory process, in cases where the government concludes scientific misconduct occurred, the federal agency makes those findings publicly available.”

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A paper by Marc Hauser retracted – Harvard Magazine

Well, this could be embarrassing. But I hope not.

Marc Hauser, who was one of the participants in the New Science of Morality” seminar (see The new science of morality and Is and ought) is under a cloud. His Harvard laboratory has been investigated for the last three years because of charges of scientific misconduct. (See Psychologist and author Marc Hauser takes leave of absence as paper is retracted.)

Information is still rather vague and there is no indication yet of his own degree of culpability. However, as research leader he has had to take responsibility and one of the papers he is a joint author of is being retracted (Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins). Two other papers are also being questioned- one because of incomplete video records and field note taking by a co-author of Hauser.
Retraction Watch has some details, inclkuding an email response from Gerry Altmann, the editor of the journal concerned, Cognition. (See Monkey business? 2002 Cognition paper retracted as prominent psychologist Marc Hauser takes leave from Harvard). The play on the word monkey abviously relates to Hausers work with monkeys and other primates.

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No gods required

Book Review: Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein

Price: US$17.15
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: William Morrow (October 27, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0061670111
ISBN-13: 978-0061670114

With this title the book is obviously going to discuss morality. Fortunately it quickly disposes of the question of “whether we can be good without God” early in the introduction. As the author, Greg Epstein, says the empirical evidence is irrefutable “Millions and millions of people are, every day. The answer is yes. Period.”

But, of course, he devotes the rest of the book to explaining and recommending how the one billion “non-believers” of the planet are, and can be, good. On how they do and can deal with social organisation in suitable ways.

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