Paul Connett, director of the Fluoride Action Network (FAN), claims “You only have to read four studies…” to come to the conclusion that community water fluoridation (CWF) is bad for your health. One of the studies he refers to is that of Riddell et al (2019) and Connett claimed that this study found “a staggering 284% increase in the prevalence of ADHD among children in fluoridated communities in Canada compared to non-fluoridated ones.”
I commented on this claim in my article Anti-fluoridation propaganda now relies on only four studies. 3: Riddell et al (2019) saying:
“This is just so wrong – Connett has misinterpreted the findings in this paper and completely covered up the fact that the results were dependent on age. He may well be “staggered” but he has made a bad mistake.”
Now, the senior author of this paper has confirmed that Connett was mistaken. She has confirmed that Connett is misrepresenting her work.
I emailed Julia Riddell to check if the Table 4 in her paper was mislabeled because some of the results were from linear regression analyses rather than logical regression analyses (see Anti-fluoridation propaganda now relies on only four studies. 3: Riddell et al (2019)). I also took the opportunity to ask her about Connett’s claim.
In her response she writes:
“I agree with you that the statement “a staggering 284% increase in the prevalence of ADHD among children in fluoridated communities in Canada” is a misinterpretation of our results, . . “
Riddell gives two reasons for saying this:
“First, a percentage should only be used to calculate values that are part of a whole, and thus a percentage is not an appropriate descriptive statistic to discuss these results. Further, and more importantly, I believe this interpretation of the odds ratio is incorrect. Odds is not probability nor is it likelihood of a ADHD diagnosis. Instead, odds = probability(ADHD dx) / probability(no ADHD dx).
In order to calculate a percent increase in the prevalence of ADHD, we would need to know the base rate probability of an ADHD diagnosis in the absence of water fluoridation (that is, what is the prevalence of ADHD ONLY in non-fluoridated communities).”
She writes: “To my knowledge, there has never been a national prevalence rate of ADHD calculated only for non-fluoridated regions, which is why we didn’t interpret the results in this way in our paper.” However, she provides an estimate using a postulated ADHD base rate of 0.08 (8% prevalence). According to her the Odds Ratios she reported in her paper would mean fluoridation would increase ADHD prevalence from 8% to 10%.
This is very different from Paul Connett’s claim. He should withdraw his claim and apologise for his mistake.
Paul Connett’s little fiasco raises two questions for me:
1: Will Paul Connett now withdraw his claim and apologise for his mistake/misrepresentation?
I guess the answer is “when Hell freezes over.” He is not known for such apologies – neither is the anti-fluoride movement he leads. It continually misrepresents scientific findings and has never, in my experience, apologised for that misrepresentation when it has been exposed.
In fact, the anti-fluoride movement’s main propaganda thrust relies on citing any scientific work it can present, or misrepresent, as harmful to the case for community water fluoridation. This way it pretends to have the backing of science while relying on the unwillingness or inability of policymakers they bombard with the propaganda to factually check out these claims.
2: Why are researchers not more proactive in countering misrepresentation of their findings like this?
Yes, I know, researchers and especially their institutions do not like to enter into public debates with activists. There is some logic in this – after all, there is the old adage that it is not worth wrestling a pig because the pig enjoys it and both sides end up covered in dirt.
But this particular case is an example of misrepresentation which is being promoted to health policymakers who mainly do not have the scientific skills to check out the claims. It’s not a matter of entering into an unsavoury fight – but of correctly informing these policymakers when such misrepresentation occurs.
The other concern I have is that some anti-fluoride activists, including some well-known members (sometimes paid members) of Paul Connett’s FAN, have developed links with researchers and appear to be influencing publications through the journal peer-review process. In my article Anti-fluoridation propaganda now relies on only four studies. 6: Incestuous relationship of these studies I show how incestuous the publication and peer review process is for some of the scientific papers currently being promoted by anti-fluoride activists. Perhaps this is not too uncommon in science publication (many scientists complain about this sort of thing happening). But the participation of FAN members in the journal peer-review process is worrying as it suggests a relationship which FAN can use to get information about upcoming papers and prepared their propaganda and misinformation claims accordingly.
On the one hand, this may mean authors are hesitant to criticism FAN members and their claims because this could rebound on them during the publication process. On the other hand, it surely means that these people should be treated as valid science commentators and therefore open to challenge by researcher without the stigma of entering into an activist debate.