NewAthro Comic: Anti-Science Logic

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Coffs Harbour City Councillors: tilling the soil for northern anti-science propaganda

Cr Nan Cowling

Reviewing the recent fluoride media in Australia, I’ve found that Coffs Harbour city councillors, noted in the article, Nan Cowling, have decided to raise the question of whether to continue water fluoridation to be discussed at the 2013 Local Government Association annual conference in October.

The three noted justifications for this were; cost; “Well, Queensland are doing it”; and a large population of elderly people.

Cost

It’s $65,000 a year, or $1.43 per person per year (with a population of 45,580 according to the 2011 Census for Coffes Harbour, Code UCL112004). Councillor Nan Cowling believes that tooth decay had more to do with access to dentistry, but can we access dentistry for less than $2 a year?

Even if you looked at Code SSC10553 (SSC) instead, the population is only 24,581 and yet the cost is still only $2.64 per person a year.

As I don’t know how much of the Coffs Harbour community is provided the water in question, we have a cost somewhere between $1.43 and and $2.64… Hardly bank busting.

Good in Queensland

In the words of mothers everywhere; “now, if Queensland were to jump of a cliff, would you jump as well?”

Firstly, Queensland has a problem of a very invasive memebase, more commonly known as “The Queenslanders for Safe Water, Air and Food” (QAWF), which has enjoyed success largely because Queenslanders have not had much exposure to fluoride – something new in their waters is scary… especially for their hydrangeas.

Most people in capital cities outside of Queensland don’t give fluoride much thought. They’ve lived with it for decades – including Sydney and Coffs Harbour – without concern.

QAWF is an anti-science movement that repeats debunked claims with complete disregard for counter-arguments and strong scientific evidence to the contrary. You really don’t want to encourage such thinking to propagate or else, before you know it, the Earth is 6000 years old and flat.

How Old is the Coffs Harbour Community?

The point that Coffs Harbour community is mainly elderly is utterly untrue. Again turning to the same 2011 Census data we find the following (very similar regardless of which of the two codes used);

coffs harbour pop

You get a fairly even distribution across the ages, admittedly, but would you expect a far higher group for what is only the first quarter of an expected life span? Nan Cowling herself is on the aging end of the spectrum, which may do better to explain why she disregards more than 25% of the Coffs Harbour community (0-19 yo).

Moreover, fluoride assists with the remineralisation of teeth – a process which is not age discriminant. The entire Coffs Harbour community benefit from drinking water fluoridation – a process that costs them less than $3 each a year!

In essence, the Coffs Harbour city councillors have fallen prey to fear mongering propaganda, with no cost benefits and complete disregard not only for their younger community, but everyone within their region.

Quotation marks, a credible counter-argument? A glimpse at future Australian politics

I was convinced to watch the first episode of a new series on ABC 2 called “Shitsville Express”, which sees a group of young Australian’s witness first hand a number of social problems and then asks them to provide what they would see as a solution.

The first episode was about a problem I’ve witnessed a number of times myself; alcohol fuelled assault. I enjoyed the night life with my mates for many years, but the changing scene in Adelaide eventually drew me to prefer inviting people over to my house instead. Having been surrounded on a number of occasions by thugs looking for blood or seeing a group chase after others along the street wears on one’s interest. And this doesn’t even compare to the typical events of Sydney and Melbourne on the weekend nights.

It was an interesting, if pointless, episode with no real outcomes eventuating. However, the youngest of the “budding pollies,” the libertarian, Soibhan Harris, gave me the shits.

The worst of what she had to say got on my nerves because it represented so much of what I attempt to counter on NewAnthro. In her around-up, she demonstrated no change from the event (in truth, no-one was changed, hence the sense of meaninglessness from the show). Soibhan went as far as say, “the academics are wrong. Public health experts are wrong.”

She signalled quotations around the word expert.

Ms Harris, the health "experts" are wrong...
Ms Harris, the health “experts” are wrong…

What on Earth does that even mean and how is that an argument? Her alternative to the premium source of quality data was; “I think it’s up to individuals who make poor decisions and they should be held responsible and that’s what I believe…” [my emphasis]

Ms Harris rejects hard evidence on circular personal opinion. It is the same approach taken by many of the anti-science movements to simply disregard the evidence that counters their position.

I could equally state, “The academics are wrong about the age of the universe. The “geologists” and “physicists” are wrong. The bible tells us the Earth is six thousand years old and that’s what I believe.”

I know Ms Harris is only 21 and we should take her comments lightly, yet statements like this are common, regardless of age, in favour of positions that are simply not backed up by hard evidence on a wide range of topics.

We hear it on evolution, climate science, fluoridation, medical science / alternative medicines, vaccination etc.

What should be instinctive to an audience is to reply with, “why are the experts wrong? What findings do you have that throws the standing conclusions into disarray? Why aren’t these findings written up within academic peer review so that we can improve our understanding of societal health / the natural universe?”

That they will not be able to answer these questions decisively isn’t the point here, but rather that such questions do not instantly come to mind – the vast majority of an audience seems to simply accept a personal belief as a counter-weight to reason.

That does not cut it and is a slap in the face of every technological advancement and death avoided due to expertise academic research. It is an insult to the modern age.

If this is the future of Australian politics, I guess the indefensible Abbott policies no longer seem so bad in comparison.

Eugenie Scott: Frustrations, distortions and teaching bad ideas in schools

Eugenie Scott is always an interesting and thoughtful communicator. In her recent interview with Inside Climate News, she provided a number of gems, including;

“The thing that frustrates me, and is a constant annoyance, is when you see science distorted. As a scientist, I know the process that scientists go through to come up with the conclusions. It is not like we wake up one morning and say, ‘I think it is getting warmer.’ There is a long process of data collection and analysis, constant questioning from your colleagues, and the back and forth of disputes, and presentations of more data and more models. Finally you reach a consensus. That is the way it was with evolution. That is the way it was with climate change.

But people just show up with an ideological agenda, whether political or religious or something else, and distort the conclusions that have been so hard won. This is the sort of thing that really pisses off scientists, and me.”

and;

“Creationists certainly have a right to challenge the science and present their own views to the public for consideration. And the climate change deniers can do the same thing. It is free speech.

However, you really need to think about the goal of education. We are trying to teach kids the basics of the scientific fields. You barely have time to teach them these basics, so why would you argue that students should be learning information that the scientific community has looked at and rejected as being not valid?

Geographers have concluded that the earth is not flat… just as they’ve concluded that species have common ancestors and that climate change is happening. But you don’t see anyone still arguing that we should teach that the earth is flat.”

Read the full interview here.

Sourced from the current issue of Nature, 'Evolution makes the grade'
Sourced from the current issue of Nature, ‘Evolution makes the grade’ by Lauren Morello

In short, she is ever calling for the fair weight of opposing ideas, not equal weight. Interest groups are entitled to their opinions, but this does not instantly elevate the credibility of their ideas. Such credibility is “hard won” and earned through the scientific process.

Mt Isa to vote on fluoridation: unfortunately the media is doing a poor job

The North West Star gives us an example of poor reporting, although this isn’t their shame alone; looking at the reporting on serious science-policy topics over the past four years, I’ve seen it in most media time and time again.

But while Mt Isa discusses whether or not to fluoridate their water supply, it is interesting to note that Jasmine Barber twice mentions fluoridation as “medication of the city’s water supply” in her article – once on her own and the other as a quote from the infamous Merilyn Haines. It simply doesn’t stand up to a thorough investigation.

For instance, we have many natural sources of fluoride exposure and it is also common in some foods and especially tea. Would Merilyn or Jasmine attempt to say that the Earth itself or tea manufactures are “medicating” us? Why is it different when added to our drinking water when no-one calls it “medication” to add chloride to render drinking water safe?

The term “medication” used by the anti-fluoridation movement is too slippery, requiring many if’s and but’s, for any dictionary definition.

More importantly, fluoridation has long been proven safe and effective.

Looking at an Aussie example, the NSW Child Dental Health Survey, 2007, found that 13% more children were completely free from dental caries in fluoridated areas than in non-fluoridated areas (page 27), where there was only an additional 3% increase of discernible signs of fluorosis (page 39). Fluorosis is of cosmetic concern only, where poor dental health is not only cosmetic, but also can lead to serious health issues.

I hope when Mt Isa votes, the local community look beyond the unreasonable fear and doubt mongering of Ms Haines and  QAWF and to the capital cities of the other states – all with several decades of water fluoridation. In these cities, the population isn’t riddled with bladder/lung or bone cancers or stupidity/lower IQ or a waste land devoid of hydrangeas. These cities are doing well and the children have an additional measure of dental health protection that is proven to be effective and costs the communities next to nothing. These cities enjoy what is considered one of the top ten public health achievements of the twentieth century.

In short, this is what the vote is for in Mt Isa; No = standing up for debunked alarmist anti-fluoridation propaganda. Yes = enjoying the benefits of public health improvements with a wealth of scientific evidence to back it up. No = high dental health expense and eroded smiles. Yes = helping to protect the teeth of Mt Isa’s children.

Conspiracy theories conspiracy

So far my favourite video from Peter Hadfield. I liked that he categorised a whole range of unfounded conspiracies – including fluoridation. It’s enough, as he notes, to simply ask questions (typically ignorant of the topic at hand) to then jump to the conclusion that something is wrong and give birth to a conspiracy theory.

Merilyn Haines in her interview on “Fire Water” provides an excellent example of this: “What is it doing in the rest of the body?”

Merilyn would have the viewer believe this hasn’t been tested, when in fact, it has, but until such testing confirms a conclusion she feels is right, then all scientific literature to the contrary can be ignored (as Hadfield notes, if evidence doesn’t back up the conspiracy claim, it’s “in on the conspiracy”).

Unlike the bulk of conspiracy theories, fluoridation intrigues me because it is the only one that the true believers cannot provide a hard hitting motivator. They call it “marketing”, however, compared to industries known to deliberately undermined science, fossil fuels and tobacco, fluoridation is barely even loose change. WHO take its cheapness, alongside its effectiveness, as a benefit.

At one time, a naive audience may have gone as far as taken fluoridation as mind control, as appeared in sci-fi literature of the Cold War era… at least that would be interesting if it was the claim, if not completely bonkers. Yet it remains; fluoridation occurs and the anti-fluoride movement cannot give a coherent motivator for the root of this “conspiracy”. And so, even for a conspiracy theory, it is one of the weirder ones.

The Ord River: the unlucky horse shoe in the Coalition’s northern development

Firstly, I have to thank my readers. My previous post, The Great Northern Development: the Coalition’s dead horse, did extremely well. I’ve never had a post that has caught such traction, so thank you to everyone who has shared it via report, twitter, facebook, email, whatever. It’s rewarding to know that my efforts are not in vain.

Yet one criticism has crept up over and over again; I’m ignoring the Ord River Irrigation Area. The commentators think I’m dead wrong, based entirely on this point and so, I figured it was worth writing a detailed reply post.

While I admit that my local knowledge of northern Australia between Cairns and Broome is limited (not a small area, by any means), I know enough about remote sensing, climate and ecology to feel my analysis remains correct.

Productivity

Ecology demonstrates that where there is a resource, species move in to exploit it. Even warm springs full of chemicals that are toxic to most life can be abundant with activity – just look at Yellowstone Park.

The advocates of the northern development talk of the north as being “underdeveloped” and this River Irrigation Area being shockingly impressive for soil quality.

But microbe and plants never organised committees or governments to decide where they will set up home, they do so and to population sizes that the environment allows.

Looking at gross or net primary productivity gives us an idea of how productive an environment is, obviously. Apart from eastern Queensland and the top of the Northern Territory, much of this northern development region has a productivity akin to that of the dry land irrigation regions in southern Australia. Of course, it also lacks the accommodating mild climate of the south as well.

Using the MODIS GPP image, we have the existing Australian food baskets in the south – largely Victoria, Eastern NSW and the southern tip of WA – with a value greater than 0.03; a value this wonderful northern region simply does not reach anywhere.

Gross Primary Productivity - MODIS, LPDAAC MOD17A2 mosaic, Australia coverage
Gross Primary Productivity – MODIS, LPDAAC MOD17A2 mosaic, Australia coverage

If there is wide spread untapped fertile lands just begging for agriculture, how has it managed to hide itself from the most basic microbes, communities of trees (this region is typified by savannah, wetlands and arid landscapes) and most disturbingly, our best monitoring equipment?

I know the tropics can be farmed, but the land in southeast Asia is not as old and depleted as Australian soil. You cannot build complex carbon lifeforms without nutrient rich environments. Australian tropical rainforests are our best teachers to this reality; they are hives of life, yet their soils are depleted, which Australian farmers learned when they cleared them for farming.

In such places, there is a wealth of nutrients, but life lives on the fringe – keeping all the resources in the cycle and leaving none in the ground (ie. rip and burn removes the nutrient base).

So, as was stated in the original article, without vast investments in fertilisers or clearing of the few fertile ecosystems currently there, we do not have an untapped Australian food bowl in the north, as far as productivity is concerned.

Water… again

Again, water is a massive problem. One critic told me about pumping water – but that is a commitment. If one is planning to move hundreds of thousands of people to the north, that is a massive, ongoing, commitment to keep the community hydrated. It is terribly hot, regardless if it is dry or monsoonal, having ample water will be essential.

How is pumping gigatonnes of water to irrigate a low productive environment and to hydrate a heat stressed large community any different to the criticisms regarding desalination plants? In fact, I think it is worse because a political party is willfully wishing to invest in placing such people in such an otherwise avoidable position.

The Ord River Irrigation

This is the root of the dream for the northern Australian food bowl. The Ord River Irrigation area proves the norther is fertile and begging for development.

No, it is one region we have been flooding for more than 50 years, so that the feeding water supply and wetland birds can fertilise. It is also not an ecological risk if extended.

Yet it covers 117km2 of agricultural area – apparently to be extended to 440km2.

Yet a quick GIS polygon of the northern development region norther of Cairns to Broome is a region around 1025700km2. So the Ord River Irrigation area currently amounts for less than 0.0001% of the total region, to be extended to 0.0004%.

Sure, I’m ignoring currently developed regions and places you would not develop for ecological reasons, but are we really willing to bet on “greener pastures” on a sample less than a hundredth of 1% of the entire study region?

Conclusion

My argument was this; it is wishful thinking to bet on the northern development. The Coalition is no stranger to wishful thinking if basic mathematics mean anything, as I demonstrated in my review of the sequestration requirements of the Direct Action Plan or my analysis of their enthusiasm for 100 new dams – a move that would provide as much greenhouse emissions as a city the size of Warrnambool.

The advocates for the northern development, from my opinion, seem to be people who either have no personal interest to endure the harsh tropical climate or are the few locals there that seem to enjoy the prospect of investment potential and a few extra mates at the pub.

The climate is harsh. The soils are old and depleted for the most part. Once the mining investment is done, pumping water, maintaining dams, transporting resources to the middle of nowhere (which will also make them more expensive locally); all these and more will become more and more of a financial burden to be taken up by the locals. It will erode the financial security of the local community and leech the settlements until most move back down south (again the productivity is evident – not just in MODIS data, but in the carrying capacity and economy of a region).

In short, the dead horse is still a stinking rotting mass of bad ideas and wishful thinking. A good punter would be quick to be turned off. However, I do not like instincts. I prefer to test things. I have listened for a heart beat and found none. I have tested for temperature and found it unsuitable for life. I have looked into the eyes of the beast in search for the racers spirit and found nothing but the pale, unfocused glare of an idea that should have been buried a long time ago.

The Ord River Irrigation development is the unlucky horse shoe on the foot of the dead beast. This is not a subject I wish to debunk for the rest of my life, regardless of how many whipping boys are lining up in the vain hope of the norther development.

Part one here.

Mount Isa City Council: showing how to value evidence

In Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and Conway make a compelling point about a need for fair weight, as opposed to the historical equal weight approach of ideas within the media. The latter treats two ideas as though they have equal merit, to be debated on the same level. The former instead gives higher value to the idea which has been more thoroughly tested and demonstrated to be the most correct to the best of our knowledge.

In short, fair weight favours scientific confidence of ideas.

The reason why fair weight is more just is because it values data quality.

It is good news when one hears fair weighting being undertaken within policy discussions, as is occurring in Mount Isa on the topic of fluoridation.

Ms Haines, from the Queenslanders for Safe Water, Air and Food Inc has been disappointed to learn that her opinion is given no more time than any other member of the general public.

Professional health experts, such as Brisbane Dental Hospital director Doctor Michael Foley and Queensland Health water program director Doctor Greg Jackson, on the other hand, have been given more time, in other words fair hearing based upon their expertise in evaluating the quality of relevant data.

In the interest of sound policies to increase the health of the community, it always pays to give more attention to the experts, just as most of us would heed the advice of our GP over the wives tales of our grandmothers. Sure, we can be respectful of the voice of the latter, but who is more likely to understand the human body and spent their lives in dedication to the cause of medical health?

Mount Isa City Council has done the right thing here, which is a welcome change!

Is there anything wrong with dismissing a previously dismissed and dismissed again idea?

Politics is a funny arena, to say the least. From the madness we have been witness to over the past decade, I’m seriously starting to worry about the negative impacts this career path might have on the sanity of public figures. Perhaps that’s the cost of doublespeak.

Which brings me to Greens MP John Kaye. While he has “unequivocal” support for drinking water fluoridation, he fuels the fires of unreasonable doubt by pandering to the anti-science movement against fluoridation. Dr Kaye has suggested that there is a need for review over the safety of the practice.

Surely, that is the type activity that led, say, the World Health Organisation to its strong support for fluoridation or the US National Institutes of Health to the same position.

When we looks at the scientific literature, we find no compelling evidence that fluoridation of water of less than 1ppm will do harm. But it will assist dental health. Only in anecdotal evidence and in books that avoid the peer-review scrutiny do we find the contrary argument. What review is needed apart from caving in to an obvious anti-science movement?

Dr Kaye states, “I am afraid of public health consequences of dismissing concerns without responding.”

John, I have a list here of many claimed ailments that have been linked to wind farms across Australia. They range from advanced aging, decreased libido, cataracts and, most concerning; herpes. The list also includes the typical list of livestock mutilations and deformities more often left to the UFO truthers.

Should we seriously look into the potential risk of contracting herpes from a wind turbine?

There is nothing wrong with being dismissive if the idea has been tried and rejected previously time and time again. We can be dismissive of flat Earth claims as we can creationism. Likewise we can be dismissive of concerns regarding lost IQ, withered hydrangeas, wide spread fluorosis, place of origin, osteosarcoma or cancers in relation to fluoridation.

Simply, they have been tested and shown to be wrong. Fluoridation has been proven safe when applied within WHO guidelines.

Rather than calling for a review, Dr Kaye should refer concerned members of the public to such resources as WHO for further quality information. Of course, he shouldn’t be surprised if they still reject reality in favour of their desired belief.