Tag Archives: pseudoscience

“Do your own research!”

How many times have I had discussion partners on the internet say to me “Do your own research?”

Inevitably they are pushing some pseudoscientific or anti-scientific conspiracy theory – yet claiming science is their friend!

Here, one of the members of Paul Connett’s Fluoride Action Network team ( Carol Kopf, Media Director who uses the Twitter name @nyscof) tells critics to do their own research – internet research:

And if you type in fluoride adverse effects, you get 270 results

Well, I followed her advice and got this:

Fluoride adverse effects – PubMedScreenshot-fluoride

But unlike Carol Kopf I naturally didn’t stop there – I also typed in “water adverse effects” and got this:

Water adverse effects -PubMed

She has a really funny understanding of what the word research means.

Imagine if she followed her implied advice and refused to consume water because of all its adverse effects!

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Activist’s anti-science adverts found misleading – again

The activist Fluoride Free NZ (FFNZ) organisation have had a bad year with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). They have had half a dozen complaints against them for misleading advertising upheld.

The latest complaint referred to FFNZ’s adverts for a meeting they organised in Rotorua last July. This advert claimed

“Informed Doctors and Dentists say:
Keep Rotorua’s water safe. It’s our right to choose.
Swallowing Fluoride

Is unsafe for babies
Doesn’t protect teeth
Can cause harm.”

The complaint basically was that these claims were presented as matters of fact, rather than opinion. And the declarations of harm, danger to babies and lack of effectiveness protecting teeth were effectively claims implying scientific  substantiation. It also raised the issue of misrepresentation of the views of New Zealand doctors and dentists – implying that the claims are supported by a majority of these professional when they aren’t. Quite the opposite.

In fact, FFNZ can get only about half a dozen such professionals willing to promote their message. It is dishonest to then use these handful of mavericks to imply the whole profession supports the anti-fluoride claims.

The complainant also pointed out the advert was effectively indulging in scaremongering because it claimed there was harm, when there wasn’t any, and it appeared to be promoting the advice of professionals, when professionals weren’t saying what was claimed.

The ASA ruling concludes:

“The Complaints Board said the advertisement was likely to mislead as the claims were presented as facts, but were not substantiated by the Advertiser, in breach of Basic Principle 3 and Rule 2 and was not saved by advocacy, in breach of Rule 11 of the Code of Ethics. It said the advertisement unjustifiably played on fear, in breach of Rule 6 of the Code of Ethics and was socially irresponsible in breach Basic Principle 4 of the Code of Ethics and the Complaints Board ruled the matter was upheld.

It is good to see more people coming forward to make these sort of complaints. The anti-science lobby has been getting away with this sort of misrepresentation for years. Hopefully the experience of the ASA upholding such complaints will embarrass organisation like this to be more careful in their advertising.

In many cases all it takes is a simple sentence to clarify the advert is presenting the viewpoint or belief  of the advertiser, rather than scientifically established facts.

Don’t you get tired of this?

I have seen so much of this lately:


And this:


And in so many cases when we challenge this cherry-picking and confirmation bias we get this:


The irony of some peer-review and citation complaints


Anti-fluoridation propagandists and other promoters of pseudoscience have a sort of “love-hate” attitude towards science and the scientific literature.

On the one hand they love to cite scientific papers they claim support their message. Very often the citation is completely unwarranted, misrepresents the paper or even distorts the findings reported. Declan Waugh stands out as a repeat offender of such misrepresentation and distortion of the literature on the fluoride issue.

But, on the other hand they sort of recognise that they cannot rely on support from the scientific literature so will often denigrate the scientific process. Sort of having a bob each way.

A sordid affair

“Penelope Paisley” at Fluoride Free Hamilton NZ  is indulging in the latter by posting a link to a news report about exposure of a “peer review  and citation ring” at the Journal of Vibration and Control (JVC). This was reported at Retraction Watch in its article SAGE Publications busts “peer review and citation ring,” 60 papers retracted.

Besides retraction of the 60 papers this exposure led to the editor in chief of the journal resigning and a  professor in Taiwan who was responsible for the ring resigning from his employment.

A sordid affair which unfortunately does happen from time to time in the scientific community. We are, after all, human.

But it is ironic for local anti-fluoride propagandists to “point the finger” at this case. Periodically they promote “their own” peer-reviewed paper from a journal with a somewhat similar scandal. I wrote about this in Peer review, shonky journals and misrepresenting fluoride science.

The hypocrisy of the complaint

The paper is Peckham & Awofeso (2014), Water Fluoridation: A Critical Review of the Physiological Effects of Ingested Fluoride as a Public Health Intervention, The Scientific World Journal Volume 2014 (2014). It has been heavily promoted in the anti-fluoride social media –  “natural” health web sites, blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter.

However, The Scientific World Journal was described as a” bottom feeding” journal because of its approach to peer review and citation.  It relies on author fees, and not subscriptions, and is therefore open to the charge that it provides an easy way for unscrupulous authors to buy space for their articles. It was banned from lists of impact ratings because it allowed the unethical practice of self-citation.

So there is one irony in anti-fluoride propagandists’ exposure of  a shoddy incident in science publishing – they happy to use it to attack the scientific publishing process in general while on the other hand giving support to a similar shoddy case because it supports their word-view.

But there is another irony. “Penelope” is the on-line name used by Lynn Jordan – the  Fluoride Free NZ Committee member for Wellington. She also practices as a  cranio-sacral therapist in Wellington. Cranial-sacral therapy is an alternative or “natural” therapy which Edzard Ernst  described as more or less bogus (see Up the garden path: craniosacral therapy). I imagine that “Penelope” consults very few peer-reviewed scientific journals as part of her job. More likely she relies on “natural” health and pseudoscientific publications and on-line sites.

The irony here is that the “natural” health and pseudoscience publication industry will never have a scandal involving peer review and citation. Peer review and responsible citation is completely outside the ethos that guides them.

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Pandering to anti-fluoridation campaigners


Twitter time-line from an anti-fluoride propagandist – Click to enlarge

Social media can be bloody frustrating at times.

I do find Twitter useful for identifying interesting newspaper reports, scientific articles and videos – often long before I would see them myself on other sources. But, boy, there is loads of rubbish – especially when following a search term rather than people you trust.

Take search terms like #fluoride and #fluoridation – most of the time these are a complete waste because they are dominated by crazies who are using Twitter as a political propaganda tool. Click on the image to the left to see just a small part of the timeline from one of these propagandists.

But there are exceptions. Over the weekend these search terms went crazy with links to a great article in the Guardian by David Robert Grimes –  Politicians should stop pandering to anti-fluoridation campaigners. I recommend you read this if you haven’t already.

Sound and fury of opposing ideology


David Robert Grimes

Grimes is commenting on the irrational backlash against fluoridation in the Republic of Ireland – and expecting a similar backlash to last week’s report from Public Health England urging more councils to consider fluoridating their water supplies. He said “as with so many public health interventions, the sound and fury of opposing ideology often trumps rational analysis.”

“Fluoride has been added to water in Ireland since the 1960s and has substantially improved the nation’s dental health, even in the era of fluoridated toothpaste. Despite this, a small but highly vocal opposition repeatedly pops up to claim fluoridation is harmful to health. These claims have been debunked time and time again.

The current incarnation of the opposition relies heavily on a report by self-proclaimed “fluoridation scientist” Declan Waugh, who blames fluoride for a range of illnesses. The report has been roundly dismissed by the Irish Expert Board on Fluoridation and Health, its chairman Dr Seamus O’Hickey concluding that … in spite of its presentation, its content is decidedly unscientific … the allegations of ill-health effects are based on a misreading of laboratory experiments and human health studies, and also on an unfounded personal theory of the author’s.”

Despite this, clever use of social media and strong lobbying has gained fluoridation naysayers considerable political traction, prompting the Irish government to promise yet another full review of the practice.”

Appeasing politicians

And this is his concern –  appeasement by politicians:

“perhaps the ugliest facet of the Irish debate is how elected representatives have given such outlandish fringe assertions a sense of legitimacy. One Irish politician has claimed that fluoridation causes cancer and Down’s syndrome; others have demanded an end to the practice, parroting claims that would have taken all of three minutes on Wikipedia to expose as utter nonsense.

The Irish government’s response is appeasement, and a waste of time and public money. Not only is there already an Irish body that routinely reviews the safety of fluoridation, this is a Sisyphean task because anti-fluoride groups have already reached their conclusion, and will trust no expert body unless it agrees with their assertions. Almost certainly fluoride will get yet another clean bill of health, campaigners will reject the findings and the same tedious cycle will repeat again, in much the same way parents who oppose vaccination are impervious to the scientific literature undermining their position.

It is irresponsible for politicians to show such contempt for science that they’re willing to take the lead from pseudoscientists and conspiracy theorists rather than experts. Leadership should be about making the best decisions based on the data available, even on emotive issues such as fluoridation and vaccination.”

Hear, hear – that is exactly how I felt about the Hamilton City Council politicians who gave far more weight to “pseudoscientists and conspiracy theorists rather than experts” in their deliberations on fluoridation last year.

A quirk of human psychology?

Grimes makes an interesting observation that the sort of irrationality, conformation bias, motivated reasoning and conspiracy theories we see in the anti-fluoridation and similar movements is really just part of human nature.

“That such beliefs persist in the face of strong evidence may be a quirk of human psychology. Campaigners may see themselves as enlightened crusaders, so when their assertions are questioned or contradicted by the data, this is viewed not as a useful correction of error but rather an attack on their identity and narrative. Conspiratorial thinking is endemic in such groups with critics being regarded as agents of some ominous interest group – big pharma is a common bogeyman – that wants to conceal the truth. This becomes a defence mechanism to protect beliefs that are incompatible with the evidence.

If all else fails, attacking the messenger may be easier than accepting that your whole raison d’être is misguided.

Motivated rejection of evidence is often a symptom of cognitive dissonance, a psychological phenomenon that occurs when individuals are challenged by information inconsistent with their beliefs. They may reject unwelcome information, seek confirmation from those who already share their beleaguered viewpoint, and try to convince others of the veracity of their world view. This may explain why some people proselytise even more vigorously after their beliefs have been debunked.”

So, perhaps we can understand the psychological motivations of people promoting pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. But, as Grimes says,” this does note excuse the fact that “elected representatives have given such outlandish fringe assertions a sense of legitimacy.” That goes for Hamilton as well as Ireland.

Grimes finishes with a message to the politicians:

“what is crucial is that decisions are based on scientific research, not misinformation and fear. The cost of such folly is clear to anyone who remembers the human suffering in the wake of the misinformed panic over the MMR vaccine just a decade ago.”

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Pseudoscience in your supermarket


Image credit: Blueollie

This article by Michael Schulson in the Daily Beast struck a chord with me – Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience. Possibly because I have spent far too much time debating  anti-fluoride activists. But the experience has certainly made me very aware the pseudoscience  extends a lot further than creationism and climate change denial. That’s the point Michael makes:

“you don’t have to schlep all the way to Kentucky in order to visit America’s greatest shrine to pseudoscience. In fact, that shrine is a 15-minute trip away from most American urbanites.

I’m talking, of course, about Whole Foods Market. From the probiotics aisle to the vaguely ridiculous Organic Integrity outreach effort (more on that later), Whole Foods has all the ingredients necessary to give Richard Dawkins nightmares. And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there’s really no better place to go. Because anti-science isn’t just a religious, conservative phenomenon—and the way in which it crosses cultural lines can tell us a lot about why places like the Creation Museum inspire so much rage, while places like Whole Foods don’t.”

I have found that in very many cases if you scratch an anti-fluoridationist or anti-vaccinationists you will find a food faddist. Often a dogmatic food faddist.

Schulson makes the point that a lot of food faddism is pseudoscience – but it is a pseudoscience which seems far more acceptable, even to intelligent people, than what we usually think of as pseudoscience:

“there’s a lot in your average Whole Foods that’s resolutely pseudoscientific. The homeopathy section has plenty of Latin words and mathematical terms, but many of its remedies are so diluted that, statistically speaking, they may not contain a single molecule of the substance they purport to deliver. The book section—yep, Whole Foods sells books—boasts many M.D.’s among its authors, along with titles like The Coconut Oil Miracle and Herbal Medicine, Healing, and Cancer, which was written by a theologian and based on what the author calls the Eclectic Triphasic Medical System.”

We all know people who get sucked in by this talk – maybe many of us get sucked in a bit ourselves. Perhaps there is a bit of food faddism in all of us. And isn’t this sort of thing harmless – if it makes you happy and doesn’t hurt anyone else, why bother?

But I think Schulson has a point when he writes:

“The danger is when these ideas get tied up with other, more politically muscular ideologies. Creationism often does, of course—that’s when we should worry. But as vaccine skeptics start to prompt public health crises, and GMO opponents block projects that could save lives in the developing world, it’s fair to ask how much we can disentangle Whole Foods’ pseudoscientific wares from very real, very worrying antiscientific outbursts.”

For some people it is not far from a food fad to chemo-phobia. Start buying sea salt because it is advertised as “chemical free” and it is easy to get sucked into ideas that anything is bad because it contains “chemicals.” “Chemical” becomes a bad word – and “natural” a good one.

In my article Who is funding anti-fluoridation High Court action?  I described how the NZ Health Trust, the organisation behind the recent High Court action attempting to rule fluoridation illegal, is a lobby group for the natural supplement and health practitioner industry. I described their court action as that of a corporate lobby group attempting to stop a public health policy.

One of my critics actually made the point that I was wrong. An industry selling “natural” health products could not be described as corporate because of the word “natural!”

Words like “chemical” and “natural’ can be emotionally laden for many people and this can make them susceptible to other pseudoscientific ideas.

That is what I have found with many people I have debated. Their emotional or ideological committment to food fads like “organic” food and coconut oil treatments often goes together with opposition to fluoridation and vaccination. With many of them it seems to lead to conspiracy theories like depopulation and chemtrails.

To me, that is the message of the poster above.

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Higgs and homeopathy

With all the news lately about the Large Hadron Collider and evidence for the Higg’s field I had to laugh at this little twitter exchange I saw this morning. It was apparently sparked by an advocate providing a quantum proof of homeopathy.