Tag Archives: Health

Fake weight-loss study example of wider problem

bad science

Click on image to enlarge

Another interesting article in the Conversation – Trolling our confirmation bias: one bite and we’re easily sucked in by Will Grant. It underlines a point  I have often made – that the sensible reader must approach the scientific literature intelligently and critically.
Grant describes a “scientific” prank which fooled many news outlets who reported the “scientific finding”, and, therefore, many readers.

“Last week science journalist John Bohannon revealed that the whole study was an elaborate prank, a piece of terrible science he and documentary film makers Peter Onneken and Diana Löbl – with general practitioner Gunter Frank and financial analyst Alex Droste-Haars – had set up to reveal the corruption at the heart of the “diet research-media complex”.”

The first trick

This was more than just planting a fictitious “science” story:

“To begin the study they recruited a tiny sample of 15 people willing to go on a diet for three weeks. They divided the sample into three groups: one followed a low carbohydrate diet; another followed that diet but also got a 42 gram bar of chocolate every day; and finally the control group were asked to make no changes to their regular diet.

Throughout the experiment the researchers measured the participants in 18 different ways, including their weight, cholesterol, sodium, blood protein levels, their sleep quality and their general well being.”

So – that was the first trick. “Measuring such a tiny sample in so many ways means you’re almost bound to find something vaguely reportable.” As Bohannon explained:

“Think of the measurements as lottery tickets. Each one has a small chance of paying off in the form of a “significant” result that we can spin a story around and sell to the media. The more tickets you buy, the more likely you are to win. We didn’t know exactly what would pan out — the headline could have been that chocolate improves sleep or lowers blood pressure — but we knew our chances of getting at least one “statistically significant” result were pretty good.”


Now to get credibility they needed to publish in a scientific journal:

“But again, Bohannon chose the path that led away from truth, picking a journal from his extensive list of open access academic journals (more on this below). Although the journal, (International Archives of Medicine), looks somewhat like a real academic journal, there was no peer review. It was accepted within 24 hours, and published two weeks later.”

Now for the publicity

Bohannon then whipped up a press release to bait the media :

“The key, Bohannon stated, was to “exploit journalists’ incredible laziness” – to write the press release so that reporters had the story laid out on a plate for them, as it were. As he later wrote, he “felt a queazy mixture of pride and disgust as our lure zinged out into the world”. And a great many swallowed it whole.

Headlines around the world screamed Has the world gone coco? Eating chocolate can help you LOSE weight, Need a ‘sweeter’ way to lose weight? Eat chocolates! and, perhaps more boringly, Study: Chocolate helps weight loss.”

We should be concerned at the way the news media and reporters handle such matters:

“None did the due diligence — such as looking at the journal, looking for details about the number of study participants, or even looking for the institute Bohannon claimed to work for (which exists only as a website) — that was necessary to find out if the study was legitimate.”

This criticism, unfortunately, applies to almost anything in our news media. it really is a matter of “reader beware.”

Grant summarises the process that leads to such devious “science’ stories in the media:

  • we’ve got researchers around the world who have taken to heart the dictum that the quantity of research outputs is more important than the quality
  • we’ve got journal publishers at the high quality end that care about media impact more than facts
  • we’ve got journal publishers at the no-quality end who exploit the desperation of researchers by offering the semblance of publication for a modest sum
  • we’ve got media outlets pushing their journalists ever harder to fill our eyeballs with clickbaity and sharebaity content, regardless of truth
  • and we’ve got us: simple creatures prone to click, read and share the things that appeal to our already existing biases and baser selves.

 Problem wider than the diet industry

Bohannon gives his prank as an example of a “diet research-media complex . . that’s almost rotten to the core.” I agree readers should be far more sceptical of such diet-related science stories. But the problem is far wider than that industry. I think is particularly relevant to any area where people are ideologically motivated, or their feelings of inadequacy or danger, can be manipulated.

Take, for example, the anti-fluoride movement. I have given many examples on this blog of science being misrepresented, or poor quality science being published and promoted by this movement. There are examples of anti-fluoride scientists doing poor quality research – often relying on “statistical fairy tales. Examples of using shonky journals to get poor quality work published. But also examples of such work making its way through inadequate journal peer-review processes.

These anti-fluoride researchers, and their allied activist groups, commonly use press releases to promote their shonky findings.  Social media like Facebook and Twitter are roped in to spread the message even more widely.

There is also a link with big business interests – in this case an active anti-fluoride “natural” health business-research-media complex.

So readers beware – there are people, businesses and ideological interests out there attempting to fool you. And they are not averse to using shonky or false science, biased press releases and lazy journalists to do this.

 See also: A rough guide to spotting bad science from Compound Interest (Click to enlarge).


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Is fluoridated water a medicine?

One of the predictable claims made by anti-fluoridationists is that fluoridated water is a medicine and therefore should not be imposed on the public.

It’s all semantics, of course, but some anti-fluoridationist get pretty dogmatic about it. So the people who run the Fluoride in Water* Facebook page decided to check it out with Medsafe – the New Zealand Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Authority.


Here’s the guts of the reply they got from the Medsafe Pharmacovigilance Team:

“A medicine is defined in S3 of the Medicines Act as:

a substance or article, other than a medical device, that is manufactured, imported, sold, or supplied wholly or principally for

a) administering to one or more human beings for a therapeutic purpose

b) use as an ingredient in the preparation of any substance or article that is to be administered to one or more human beings for a therapeutic purpose,

  • where it is so used- in a pharmacy or a hospital; or
  • by a practitioner, or registered midwife or designated prescriber, or in accordance with a standing order; or
  • in the course of any business that consists of or includes the retail sale, or supply in circumstances corresponding to retail sale, of herbal remedies;

c) use as a pregnancy test.

S4 defines the term therapeutic purpose as:

  • treating or preventing disease
  • diagnosing disease or ascertaining the existence, degree, or extent of a physiological condition
  • and several other non-pertinent activities.

“However, Medsafe has never considered the fluoridation of water to lead to the creation of a medicine. Fluoride is found naturally in water at varying concentrations and water is not supplied for a therapeutic purpose. We consider that the principal use of water and foodstuffs (which contain minerals or fluoride) is dietary and not therapeutic. We therefore do not consider the addition of substances such as chlorine or fluoride, or alum to water to be under the remit of the Medicines Act but rather under the control of other public health and water quality legislation. A similar argument can be used in relation to quinine. While quinine is a medicinal substance, the quinine contained in a gin and tonic, no matter how therapeutic we might think consuming one may be, does not make tonic water (or gin) a medicine. This pragmatic approach to the legislation is clearly what was intended by parliament. Too rigid an interpretation quickly makes everything a potential medicine. After all we drink water to prevent dehydration which is a symptom of a disease state. This kind of over-interpretation of the wording of the legislation is not, and has never been the intention of parliament.

“Finally while we must accept that fluoride in certain concentrations and formulations is scheduled as a medicine in several schedules within the Medicines Act, the concentrations of fluoride in drinking water are well below the threshold for consideration as a medicine and so would be considered to fall within the controls of other legislation, such as water quality control etc. Fluoride is also an element and it is naturally found in a great many places, the presence of fluoride, or any other element or mineral in an item does not make the item a medicine. After all, lithium can be used as a medicine, but its presence in a lithium battery, or a paint, does not make that product a medicine.”

via Why fluoride water is not classed as a medicine under the Medicines Act – Medsafe.

* Follow that Facebook page if fluoridation interests you – it’s one of the few trying to give good scientific information and counter the misinformation that seems to be common on social communication sites like Facebook and Twitter.

For further articles on fluoridation look at the links on the Fluoridation page.
See also: Fluoridation

Will Hamiltonians finally get a voice on fluoridation?

Well, I am not surprised this has happened but am surprised it’s happened so quickly.

Disaffection with the Hamilton City Council decision to stop fluoridation has resulted in an attempt by at least one councillor to get the decision reversed and submitted to a referendum. The Waikato Times is reporting:

The notice of motion from Mr Wilson being circulated today among city councillors today would force the council to debate when it meets in three weeks whether it should hold a referendum.

Mr Wilson said the controversial decision had been hijacked by the anti-fluoride lobby and was not what the majority of Hamiltonians wanted.

“The anti-fluoride position are mostly well-meaning individuals that have misinterpreted the science. And then there’s a group of nutters who are convinced this is mass-medication. There is considerable good science that shows fluoridation is a good base for public health. I believe the majority of people in Hamilton want fluoridation, and they should have the final say.”

Seems to me this would be the best outcome. Hamiltonians have shown in the previous referendum and recent polls they support fluoridation and there has been a lot of criticism of the Council’s recent decision.

Mind you, the anti-fluoridationists are not happy:

the co-ordinator of Fluoride Free Hamilton, Pat McNair, said a referendum was not necessary.

“A tribunal is a robust process where reasoned evidence from both sides can be given. A referendum is just peoples’ opinion in the street.

“The others [Councillors who voted against water Fluoridation] in their summary gave very good reasons why a referendum would not work.”

Ms McNair said she would only accept a referendum if lobbies from both sides of the argument had equal amount of money to campaign with, as education costs “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Ms McNair really seems to not like a democratic and full discussion. She preferred a almost behind-doors tribunal dominated by 90% anti-fluoridation submission when the city itself had voted 70% support for fluoridation. The real problem is not money to campaign with – but the presence of activist groups to do the campaigning. She had everything her own way with the tribunal, no wonder she doesn’t want a referendum and the associated public discussion

A referendum will give opportunities for supporters of fluoridation to organise and get their case across. Hopefully they will do so. If not they will only have themselves to blame.

See  Hamilton City Council | Referendum On Fluoride |… | Stuff.co.nz.

See also: Fluoridation

Tactics and common arguments of the anti-fluoridationists

Anti-fluoridation activists have celebrated their recent win in Hamilton (see Hamilton City Council reverses referendum fluoridation decision) and are moving on with their plans for similar victories in other New Zealand communities. While most of the newspaper and TV polls show a clear majority support for fluoridation these activists managed to achieve a victory in Hamilton by relying on a raft of arguments which misrepresent or distort the science. They used the facade of science to attack the reality of science.

In essence this is the same as the “sciency” sounding tactics of the climate change and evolution science denial movements. These tactics of the anti-fluoridationists were analysed by Jason M Armfield in his 2007 paper When public action undermines public health: a critical examination of  antifluoridationist literature. Tactics like:

  • Selective reporting of studies and results,
  • Downplaying or ignoring the evidence,
  • Ignoring ecological factors in comparing communities,
  • Fear mongering,
  • Misrepresentation of evidence,
  • Using half-truths and “The Big Lie,”
  • Innuendo,
  • Follow the leader arguments.

In short – bamboozling with science.

The paper provides a clear and well documented description of the anti-fluoridationist tactics. It does briefly give examples and citations to show how the science gets distorted, although detailed discussion of the science is not the main purpose of the paper. It’s a useful resource for anyone trying to come to grips with the “Gish galloping” claims made by these activists.

One of the tables in the paper provides a handy list of common arguments used together with brief rejoinders. It’s a handy summary and I have reproduced the content below – the fluoridationist claim, followed by the real situation:

Water fluoridation confers no oral health benefit:

Numerous systematic literature reviews from a number of countries have found water fluoridation to provide a significant caries preventive effect.

Water fluoridation causes hip fractures, cancers, Alzheimer’s, reduced intelligence in children, etc.:

Research finding associations between water fluoridation and various diseases offer no proof, as causality cannot be established in these studies. Water fluoridation opponents handpick studies and may misrepresent the results so as to support their views. Large-scale systematic reviews have not confirmed any associations between water fluoridation and the large list of diseases linked to it by opponents of water fluoridation.

Fluoride is a toxic poison:

Fluorine is a naturally occurring element that, like many other natural substances, can be toxic if consumed in excess. Water fluoridation ensures ingestion of fluoride well below any toxic level, both for adults and children. Fluoride is used in rat poison and other dangerous substances. It is dose that determines the level of toxicity. Many essential and commonly occurring elements form poisonous or toxic substances.

Numerous other countries have rejected water fluoridation:

Some other countries have elected not to introduce water fluoridation because they prefer, or already have, other approaches to improving dental health. Nonetheless, many countries do have water fluoridation and benefits are conferred to all people, including those at high risk who may not effectively use individual fluoride exposures.

Water fluoridation is supported only by ‘shoddy’ science:

Decades of research and hundreds of scientific articles published in peer-reviewed journals support water fluoridation. This research is so convincing that almost all major dental and health authorities support it.

There should be a public plebiscite. It is undemocratic to have water fluoridation forced upon us:

In almost all democratic systems representatives of a population are elected to make decisions on behalf of the population. Plebiscites or public referendums are not required to pass legislation that is compatible with the constitution or charter under which the country operates. Water fluoridation fits within a government’s duty of care to the country’s citizens.

Tooth decay has declined in countries with and those without water fluoridation. Water fluoridation makes no difference:

Declines in tooth decay have occurred as a result of changing exposures to fluoride and dietary changes. Regardless, water fluoridation reduces tooth decay above and beyond these other effects. Ecological comparisons of some countries with others offer no support for or against water fluoridation as many other factors may account for differences in disease experience from one country to the next. Water fluoridation does make a difference.

Most people do not want water fluoridation:

Independent research in most places where water fluoridation is being considered shows that people support water fluoridation. Generally, the more knowledge people have the more likely they are to support it.

Water fluoridation is costly and not economically viable:

Research has previously found water fluoridation to be cost-effective. Newer technologies have made water fluoridation cost-effective for increasingly smaller populations. In addition to being cost-effective, it is also necessary to keep in mind the reduction in dental disease and therefore the pain and suffering reduced as a result of water fluoridation.

Water fluoridation infringes freedom of choice and individual rights and is unconstitutional:

Adding fluoride to water is just one of many instances where a chemical or nutrient is added to a food or beverage for public health benefits. It already occurs in water with the addition of chlorine, which aids greatly in eliminating water borne disease, as well as in several foodstuffs. Water fluoridation sets no precedent.

Water fluoridation is being pushed on us as a result of ‘big business’ interests:

The scientists researching the effectiveness of water fluoridation as well as health officials and dentists do not receive money from sugar, aluminium or any other companies for their research or opinions.

There is more caries in fluoridated X than in non-fluoridated Y. This proves water fluoridation does not work:

Ecological comparisons involving the arbitrary selection of fluoridated and non-fluoridated communities or areas do not provide credible evidence of the effectiveness or otherwise of water fluoridation as any differences may be the result of other factors which are linked to tooth decay but differ across the areas. Scientific research has found water fluoridation to be effective.

We should wait until water fluoridation is proved to be safe:

Water fluoridation has been implemented in some places for more than half a century – long enough that any dangers would be apparent if they existed. The weight of evidence strongly indicates that water fluoridation is safe.

I think this list provides a good starting point for sensible discussion.

Thanks to Jason M Armfield (2007): When public action undermines public health: a critical examination of  antifluoridationist literature. Australia and New Zealand Health Policy 2007, 4:25

See also: Fluoridation

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Four signs of a stroke

Here’s some important information which could save lives.

Four simple indicators of a stoke.

I received this short story by email recently. It illustrates the importance of rapid stroke identification:

During a BBQ, a friend stumbled and took a little fall – she assured everyone that she was fine (they offered to call paramedics) .she said she had just tripped over a brick because of her new shoes.

They got her cleaned up and got her a new plate of food. While she appeared a bit shaken up, Ingrid went about enjoying herself the rest of the evening

Ingrid’s husband called later telling everyone that his wife had been taken to the hospital – (at 6:00 PM Ingrid passed away.) She had suffered a stroke at the BBQ. Had they known how to identify the signs of a stroke, perhaps Ingrid would be with us today. Some don’t die. They end up in a helpless, hopeless condition instead.

Neurologists say if they can get to a stroke victim within 3 hours they can totally reverse the effects of a stroke…totally. The trick is getting a stroke recognized, diagnosed, and then getting the patient medically cared for within 3 hours, which is tough.

The stroke victim may suffer severe brain damage when people nearby fail to recognize the symptoms of a stroke.

Recognise the symptoms

STROKE: Remember the 1st Four Letters….S.T.R.O.

Bystanders can recognize a stroke by asking four simple questions:

S *
Ask the individual to SMILE.
T *Ask the person to TALK and SPEAK A SIMPLE SENTENCE (Coherently)
(I.e. It is sunny out today.)
R*Ask him or her to RAISE BOTH ARMS.
If he or she has trouble with ANY ONE of the first three tasks, call emergency number immediately and describe the symptoms to the dispatcher.

O* Ask him to stick O*UT HIS TONGUE.

If the tongue is ‘crooked’, if it goes to one side or the other,that is also an indication of a stroke.


Smile – Talk – Arms – Tongue

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The heart of PZ Myers

Sounds like PZ Myers’ health problems are more serious than he first thought. He is currently in hospital for more tests – and from the sounds of it – an operation (see That’s not a heart! It’s a flailing Engine of Destruction!)

Hopefully things will go well. He will get the necessary repairs, a well-deserved rest and return renewed to his blogging. I try to read his blog, Pharyngula, daily and I know others do as well. I enjoy his daily dose of humour and common sense.

PZ Myers answers questions at the Melbourne Convention. Photo: Geoff Cowan

PZ is an excellent communicator and we need more people like PZ to defend science and reason. I am personally amazed at the time and effort he puts into this communication. During the last year he has been on sabbatical leave. While he has been writing a book I know this is disrupted by the traveling and large number of meetings he has been speaking at. In the USA and internationally.

I met him last March at the World Atheist Convention in Melbourne and was impressed at how eager he was to meet everyone. This willingness to make himself so available has resulted in a hectic round of speaking engagements and public appearances in this last year. While this has been great for the communication of science and reason it must have had a toll on his health.

So, hopefully, PZ will take this health alarm as a warning. Recognise that he needs to consider his own needs more and turn down some of the requests for public appearances. Hopefully Myers will return to blogging soon. And I hope to see his book published. I will be satisfied with that and I am sure most of his regular readers will be too.

PZ has appealed to his readers not to “waste your time with prayers.” After all he is getting some real help from medical experts. I wish him well and look forward to his successful recovery. Many of his readers are doing the same. One of these well wishers was Richard Dawkins, who commented: “How noble, how typical of the man and of everything he stands for, to use humour in making such an announcement.”

Which brings me to another of my concerns. Dawkins is also someone who gives his time extremely readily. His life must also be very hectic. I was aware that at the time of the World Atheist convention he was traveling around New Zealand and Australia and speaking to sell out audiences. It amazed me that he spoke in Auckland on the Saturday night and in Melbourne on the Sunday afternoon. Those who went along to hear him certainly appreciate his willingness to make himself so available. But perhaps he should also be taking a lesson from PZs current health problems.

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Natural selection or domestication?

A photograph of hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) in S...
Image via Wikipedia

Apparently scientists from Environmental Science and Research (ESR) have established that cannabis grown in New Zealand is four times stronger than when they last tested 14 years ago ( see Cannabis grown in NZ stronger than ever, study finds).

I wonder if this is just an example of evolution by natural selection.

Or is it domestication?

Conscious selection?

Maybe even intelligent design?

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Overdosing on water

This from the NZ Skeptics:

A public mass overdose of homeopathic remedies has forced the New Zealand Council of Homeopaths to admit openly that their products do not contain any “material substances”. Council spokeswoman Mary Glaisyer admitted publicly that “there´s not one molecule of the original substance remaining” in the diluted remedies that form the basis of this multi-million-dollar industry.

The NZ Skeptics, in conjunction with 10:23, Skeptics in the Pub and other groups nationally and around the world, held the mass overdose in Christchurch on Saturday to highlight the fact that homeopathic products are simply very expensive water drops or sugar/lactose pills. A further aim was to question the ethical issues of pharmacies, in particular, stocking and promoting sham products and services.

“You´re paying $10 for a teaspoon of water that even the homeopaths say has no material substance in it,” says Skeptics Chair Vicki Hyde.
“Yet a recent survey showed that 94% of New Zealanders using homeopathic products aren´t aware of this basic fact – their homeopath or health professional hasn´t disclosed this. The customers believe they are paying for the substances listed on the box, but those were only in the water once upon a time before the massive dilution process began – along with everything else that the water once had in it — the chlorine, the beer, the urine….”

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BCA libels Simon Singh?

Update to A victory for Simon Singh.

Apparently the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) have given way to emotion in a public commen on Simon Singh’s small legal victory. In a press release (see BCAStatement 14 10 09) they claim that “the BSA was maliciously attacked by Dr Singh in the Guardian article.” Jack of Kent comments that this amounts to defamation and Singh could now counter sue (see BCA Defame Simon Singh). The BCA obviously realised this because they quietly withdrew and rewrote their press release (see BCA Statement 15 10 09).

This development could mean the BCA has drastically weakened their case.


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A victory for Simon Singh

Simon-Singh-002Science writer Simon Singh has won a victory in his chiropractic libel battle!

I initially discussed his case in Suppressing science. Briefly, Singh was being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) because of an article of his in the Guardian. In this he referred to the chiropractic profession happily promoting “bogus treatments.” See Beware the Spinal Trap for the text of Singh’s article.

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