How does anti-science communication stand up to analysis?

In the post, Anti-science communication: It does not deserve to be place with non-fiction, I discussed the three distinct levels to science communication:

    • Science journals within the expert community who are able to critique methodology and data to assign appropriate certainty to a given conclusion; ie. the peer-review process; that is, “define it?”
    • Specific science communication which comes from writers with some level of understanding of the given topic and are able to translate that so that the basics are understood by a wider audience, without opinion; that is, “what is it?”
    • Lastly general science communication which tends to attract communicators with understanding in other fields who provide commentary and opinion on this knowledge into a broader context; that is, “how does it understanding affect me?”

Anti-science can only fit on the third level, because they 1) focus on opinion and values, 2) by their sheer nature, challenge the science (so clearly cannot be translating it) and, 3) do not present their “evidence” within the peer-review process (so obviously not at the top level).

Yet every single one of them pretend to sit in the middle level and try to suggest they in fact challenge to upper level! If you doubt me, just read the posts and comments on such blogs as WUWT, where you will find over-confident assertions regarding the science and how it actually competes with the expert based certainty the public is provided from scientific methodology.

So here, I wish to present an actual example of this behaviour within anti-science communication, from the sub-species, Chemica m. fluoride, to show not only that it is focused on values and opinions, but also how it differs from pro-science communication on the third level of science communication.

Luckily the creators of Fire Water have provided a transcript of the Merilyn Haines interview, which I have previously discussed.

This, I downloaded to analyse.

Results

There were roughly 250 sentences spoken in reply to the interviewer by Ms Haines which I was able to separate into the following three categories; neutral, opinion and scientific.

Neutral

These were sentences that in themselves presented no real arguments for or against fluoridation. These include her own background information, the story of her sister’s experience in Townsville (excluding the conclusions Ms Haines drew to this story), her discussion of the production process of fluoridation chemicals and fumigation of foods with fluoride.

The latter two may initially seem part of her case, however, how the chemicals are produced does not question whether or not fluoridation is effective or safe to use, nor does the fumigation process. They are provided to “poison the well” and so could be placed into the opinion category, but due to the fact they are really do not add anything to the core argument they must be considered neutral.

Equally, the story of her sister’s experience may seem part of her argument, but it is in fact irrelevant. It is dressed up as anecdotal evidence, which does not in itself provide a case at all, however it proves nothing other than her sister experiences a skin irritation when she moved to a different city / climate and seeing as she has been exposed to fluoride throughout her life through other sources, it is unlikely to be the cause. Therefore it is neutral.

Opinion

These sentences covered a broad range, including;

  • Begging the question; eg. “What is it doing in the rest of the body?”
  • Argumentum ad populum; eg. “I think there are so many people out there who are now becoming aware of the harm of water fluoridation.”
  • Fallacy of the single cause; eg. “there is a tiny amount of fluoride in breast milk. So, nature’s actually trying to keep babies away from fluoride.”
  • Conspiracy theory ideation; eg. “…what the government was trying to do to us…” “…the Australian public have been deliberately misled…” and “…I wonder what the real agenda is…”
  • As well as relevant incidents of poisoning the well; eg. beginning with, “I very quickly realised what a con it was. It didn’t work, it’s a poison.”

Apart from these fallacies, conclusions, statements and suggestions based on the belief that the argument is sounds must also be placed as opinion, as the argument is not actually made. Thus stating that fluoridation is ineffective repeatedly and suggesting actions that people should take to avoid it must be considered opinion based.

Equally, the sentences criticizing the NHMRC report must also be opinion as she offers no faults in the findings of the report, only what she felt it lacked.

Scientific

This covered sentences where Ms Haines discussed genuine scientific material and surveys; Bassin et al. (2006), Australian adult and children dental health surveys and a statement from ADA in 2006 regarding infants and fluoridated water.

Which found her presentation to consist of;

anti-science-graph

More importantly, of the roughly 7% that was dedicated to the science, it represented the science poorly.

As I have discussed previously, Bassin et al (2006) found an interesting result in one test group and suggested that it would be worth further exploration to tease out whether or not this was the result of the various noted biases mentioned the study or a real result… 7 years later and we’re still waiting…

As for the surveys, the 2007 NSW children dental health survey in fact found that an additional 13% of children were completely free from caries in fluoridated areas as opposed to non-fluoridated areas and on adult cases of osteosarcoma, the reason as to why there were such large grouping was due to the very low rates of this form of cancer. I know first hand in my attempts to acquire state level data that it could only be provided where values were above 5 people to protect against identification. One needs to group age, or gender, to analyse this data.

Obtaining the coarse, but easily accessible data, I explored this data and found that Queensland was not on the lower end of osteosarcoma rates in Australia in 2000 (with <5% having access to fluoridated water) but in fact slightly above average.

Lastly, while the advice provided by ADA in 2006 regarding reconstituted baby formula is now only available in paraphrases on anti-fluoridation websites, looking at up-to-date information from ADA, the advice does not seem as strict as is implied in this interview. They recommend exclusive breast-feeding until 6 months and if this is not possible, being mindful of the potential for developing mild fluorosis, which they state “does not affect the health of your child or the health of your child’s teeth.” (see here and here).

Of course, as the goal of anti-science media is to challenge standing scientific understanding, it can never accurately translate the body of scientific knowledge.

Conclusion

Pure scientific communication within the peer-review process is obviously as close to 100% within the scientific category as is humanly possible, with expert critics reviewing this media.

Equally, the second level in specific scientific communication must also aspire to close to 100% within the scientific category, yet allowing for some expert opinion where suitable (clearly identifiable in the report).

Yet, the general scientific communication is far more relaxed and with the focus on “what does it mean to me?” it allows for far greater room to be assigned to opinion and values.

Anti-science communication is restricted to this classification as it attempts to assess the third level question, typically by misinterpreting what science it refers to and expressing fear of what the alternative to their given conclusion will lead to.

In the case of the analysed interview, fear included claims of disease and disorder that are not supported by the scientific literature as well as fear of suppression of a supposed “truth” which would counter the standing scientific understanding, yet this latter fear was based entirely upon begging the question fallacies (ie. how do we know it’s bad if they won’t test it – yet what testing has been done is rejected because it did not find the desired result).

Here, I have attempted to explain why such media does not actually challenge the science and is a few steps removed from the level of scientific investigation that critically analyses data. I have done this to illuminate as to why anti-science can be rightly ignored unless it presents evidence for critical investigation within the peer-review process, and this stands up to cross-examination and that it is then translated into the second and third steps accordingly.

Otherwise, it has completely avoided the best process we have for quality control of information and ought to be weighted with appropriate, that is, little, credibility.

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