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.

Anti-Science Communication: It does not deserve to be placed with non-fiction

Regardless of the chosen subject, from climate to fluoride, the anti-science community pose themselves as a credible counter-weight in the public debate. In one regard, they are correct, but certainly not how they would like you to believe them to be.

There are obvious stepping stones between science and mainstream media, each having a valuable position in public discourse.

  • The first stepping stone is clearly the peer-reviewed scientific method itself. This happens among experts on a given subject well trained to critique and re-evaluate methods and data to test their merits and thus the confidence that can be drawn to a given conclusion.
  • The next stepping stone is a passive form of science communication. This form of communication demands some level of understanding of the science and the capacity to simply convert findings into a language that can be understood to a wider audience.
  • The final stepping stone converts that information into answers responding to the question, “What does it mean to us?”This stepping stone in science communication is the least expert on the topic of science, but is valuable because such individuals are likely to have good understanding on related subjects, such as policies and politics and can place this understanding, drawn from the science into a much broader context.

Where Does Anti-Science come into it?

The anti-science community sits on this third stepping stone, dressing itself up as the middle step which they want their readers to believe actually challenges the first one!

Take for instance Chris Monckton; he talks almost exclusively about what the subject means to us. In his world view, it means a resurgence of a hidden communist party out to take over the world and kill off six people out of seven. This message he dresses with graphs that are supposed to come from the peer-review process (suggesting that he represents the second stepping stone) and somehow challenge the standing confidence in basic principles within the climate science community.

Look at Merilyn Haines; she too speaks of values. She may refer to the odd science paper, which in itself would be an ill-fitting argument, but then wraps it up in anecdotal evidence, fear propagation and inaccuracies (such as the claim that fluoridated water is toxic or that the studies have not been done). It is entirely about what fluoridation means to us, but she pretends to accurately relay the science without bias and then suggests that it somehow challenges the standing conclusions in the body of science on public health.

Take any given anti-science communicator and you will find the same thing. Values – such as control / freedom, family health, prosperity etc – dressed up with unfounded assertions about the reality of scientific understanding. This begs the reader to be convinced of the validity of a counter-conclusion – one that avoids the scrutiny of expert peer-review completely!

Challenging the Denier

For those who choose to respond, it’s a doomed action. How can one prove that Monckton’s invisible enemies do not exist? How can one prove Merilyn’s sister did not get a skin condition from washing in the fluoridated water of Townsville?

Without first proving the invisible to simply not exist at all, how can you reply to the inaccuracies of the full package, which includes their “scientific” argument, in such a way that supporters of this anti-science would re-think their position?

This is why the creationism movement has persisted for so long; because the proof of a god will remain as elusive as the orbiting teapot – how can you prove it wrong? Clever anti-scientists have realised this and so market their message on their own imaginary threat or friend and in doing so render all counter-measures mute.

What we need to remember is that their fundamental argument is not on either of the stepping stones they pretend it to be. It does not challenge the science, because it avoids the scientific process like the plague. It is not the second passive form of science communication, because it is devout to desired values and clearly does not represent the science (it means to challenge the science and so obviously cannot).

It is the third step and based on, you guessed it, anti-science; a counter-argument to unfavourable conclusions drawn within the scientific method, devoid of the same level of scrutiny.

As a movement, it has no legs. It doesn’t draw upon reasonable sources of reliable information. It is untenable, beyond all doubt. Acknowledgement of these anti-science movements for what they are is the only method to respond. We must stop thinking it’s reasonable to see fairies at the bottom of the garden when human ingenuity has all but removed any possibility of such fantasy.

Check out: How does anti-science communication stand up to analysis?

Why I will no longer approve anti-fluoride dishonesty

An excellent example of the anti-fluoride culture: Fringe, batty and quick to irrationality when given the time
An excellent example of the anti-fluoride culture: Fringe, batty and quick to irrationality when given the time

Some time ago, I had a problem with a persistent troll and a fan of his waxing lyrical on their climate change denial nonsense on my space. It proved to be irritating.

As I’m a fan of free speech, I had to do something about this parasite that, like Seymour’s plant, seemed to grow more troubling the more effort I put in; so I quarantined them. I’ve since retired that effort too as it was needless energy expenditure on my behalf.

And then the anti-fluoride trolls moved in.

Last week, I had a couple comments by such individuals awaiting approval and I just couldn’t do so. It was the same dishonest nonsense that I’ve seen time and time again.

I’ve built the anti-fluoride arguments above to make it simple not only for honest websurfers to reply to the flimsy arguments provided by the anti-fluoride movement, but also to provide a platform on which the anti-fluoride advocates can stand upon to “raise their game” should they be able to.

I did not waste this effort simply to have the same dishonest arguments graffiti subsequent posts in complete ignorance to the rebuttals I have already created.

Every single anti-fluoride advocate that has written on NewAnthro has bombastically pronounced me some variant of a “moron” and then cherry-picked their favourite “proof”. If I take the bait and play word warfare, they are only too happy to dance that dance, however if I go to the effort of providing compelling counter-arguments, rather than critiquing this reply, amazingly they go silent.

I am in contact with other communicators and I know for a fact that many of these individuals later resurface elsewhere to comment with what is pretty much a copy-and-paste equivalent to their comments here. They practice avoidance of evidence against their position with amazing tenacity.

Even Merilyn Haines dropped a stink bomb – which led to my greater efforts on the subject – only to fall mute when I’ve illustrated each of her arguments to be misleading, incorrect and cherry picked (for instance).

antiscience-logic

Rather than attempt to fault my efforts, they have simply ignored them. The anti-fluoride advocates are stuck on the insistent belief that they are right and hold no capacity to move the conversation forward and admit to fault that is so easily evident when one takes their claims seriously.

My second video on the subject made the point that they ought to be thanking me for quality controlling their arguments; if fluoridation is a problem, then I could do nothing to deny the fact – the evidence would be compelling. All I have done is remove the bad arguments that in turn weaken their position… Of course, nothing of their argument remains, hence the bile, dishonesty and ignorance I find waiting for approval.

Enough has to be enough.

The anti-fluoride advocates have shown nothing by contempt for my efforts and thus are not welcome to my comment treads.

This is not an attack on free speech as NewAnthro is all about progressing human activity based on the best quality data available; something in contradiction to their goals. Wordpress allows them to build their own soap box elsewhere to pursue that goal.

They are a fringe movement given too much weight in public discourse – amazingly expecting equal weighing for degrees in lab technology and no study history against health advocacy supported by health professionals with expertise in the field of dental and public health.

I can only afford them fair weighting.

As it stands, that means I can give them nothing. In reply to my efforts, they are vacuous and academically, they are just inert  in response to the actual question; the safety and effectiveness of fluoridation at 0.7 ppm in public water.

Misleading: Is Merilyn Haines the Innocent Casting Stones?

Once again, I’ve noticed a spike in the traffic to NewAnthro due to searches on Merilyn Haines and fluoridation. A quick search shows that the anti-fluoride crusaders are blowing their own trumpet over their successes so far this year in denying children additional protection to give their teeth the best chance of surviving a life time of service, not unlike the anti-vax crowd whom high-five one another when another parent chooses to expose their children to polio, measles mumps and rubella, various forms of hepatitis etc.

Further, I found that yesterday, Merilyn Haines was interviewed alongside Dr Michael Foley whom is not only a dentist, but also a former president of the ADA. I’m certain she walked away feeling she had done her cause justice, but anyone unblinkered on the subject could see that she was owned.

One needs only a single Merilyn quote from the interview; “It’s a bit misleading to say that it’s [fluoride] is natural”

So who is misleading?

    • Firstly, I’ve made the point before that you can extract sodium chloride (commonly known as table salt) from many sources; including the ocean and even your own urine! If you extract it well, it remains simply table salt – “industrial waste” is misleading.
    • Dr Foley reminds her that the fluorides used break down to the same ions and molecules found already in the water supply, but lead to a small increase in fluoride levels, which has been proven to increase dental health – Merilyn stating that the raw material prior to being added to the water is a “poison” is misleading.
    • Merilyn states that the fluorides used are allowed to include as much as 600 mg of lead per kilo. Firstly, that doesn’t mean that they do have that much. Secondly, 600 mg is 0.6 % of the mixture; this mixture is then diluted down to 1 part per million, thus such a water supply may have as much as 6 parts of lead per billion! I could understand if the fans of homeopathy may faint at such “high” concentrations, but for everyone else, she is overstating the exposure to lead which of course is misleading.
    • That she instead points to other trace chemicals found in the fluoride mixtures when asked about poisons is, in itself, misleading; if the fluorides are as bad as she states, no bait-and-switch would be required.
    • Merilyn argues that the study comparing tooth decay in Townsville children (fluoridated water supply) to Brisbane children (not fluoridated water supply) showed no significant difference in decay of permanent teeth. However, the children were aged between 5 to 12 years, with permanent teeth only starting to appear at the higher end of this study group, thus not having much exposure time to potential decay. Focusing on adult tooth decay in children, Merilyn, is misleading.
    • Merilyn refers to the 2007 NSW Dental Health Survey to support her case. She states that 25% of children had dental fluorosis. The report on the other hand states, “More than 97% of 8 to 12 year old children do not display any discernible signs of fluorosis.”
      Actually looking at the report, at best, she can only claim that fluoridation increases rates colouration of teeth on any level by 8%, however with the level of agreement between assessors and what is fluorosis and what is not, any more than the 3% is dubious (more here).
      The same report also states, “For all ages, only 40% of children from non-fluoridated areas, compared with 53% of children from  fluoridated areas were caries free
      Merilyn’s representation of the report is misleading.
    • Merilyn points to her access to good information, however, my previous articles and videos on fluoride would argue that this too is misleading. She refers often to bad sources or misrepresents the study, such as;
    • Merilyn, while not naming the paper, refers again to osteosarcoma. This relates to the Bassin et al (2006) which I have previously shown that the researchers involved do not agree with her conclusions, thus she again is misleading.

Merilyn’s “facts”

Dr Foley retorts at one point, “Merilyn, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts”.

The fact is, Merilyn needs to ignore the science and those who challenge her to maintain an erroneous position and her success is base purely upon misleading others over and over again until the scaremongering pulls them in line. There’s no surprise as to why Queensland has a number councils rejecting fluoridation when they have Queenslanders for “Safe” Water, Air and Food to deal with.

Find my previous articles on the subject here.