Documents > Science
People in glass houses . . .?
2nd January 2016
churn out numbers that are optimistically described as 'models' and there's always a possibility that something interesting might creep out of the final chaotic results.
And apparently, in this case it did. It would seem that there's a lot more hypothyroidism in long-fluoridated Birmingham than in unfluoridated Manchester.
I won't ask if this might be yet another case of cherry picking, of which I have been somewhat sarcastially inclined in the past.
In this case, no-one seems to have bothered to pick more cherries anyway, so we're stuck with this simplistic little picture comparing two large cities in which socioeconomic thingies just happen to resemble each other, but only to a limited and variable extent.
And had our Champions just stuck with that, then that would have been fine, but they didn't. They had to start trying to explain their results, and then a little bit of speculation crept in. As it does. Dammit.
General results should never be extrapolated beyond their applicability (all right - that means don't go charging off when you don't have the right map!) Like an Olympic long jumper. if you put even the tip of a toe over the line they'll be at you like a pack of starving jackals.
Waking the dragons - the Establishment fights back
This was just what those convinced of fluoridation's charms were waiting for. In July, half a year after first publication, serial blogger Dr. David Grimes finally woke up to the threat to his fluoridation beliefs posed by Peckham et al's paper, and got his first belated punch in, in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Those of you in the know about such Internet and Journal sources will spot that this is filed under 'Opinion' by the Journal.
He has even put his comments on Researchgate, leading off with the infamous opinion of the Centres for Diseases Control (CDC) that fluoridation is 'one of the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th century.'
So he's clearly not one to exercise total scepticism over those sources that he himself likes to quote, to back up his erudition.
Dr. Grimes has strong and occasionally idiosyncratic views on a surprisingly wide range of sciences, Indeed, as a serial blogger and journo, he now has the distinction of being closely associated with that bastion of officially approved science, 'Sense About Science', which awarded him jointly the Maddox Prize in 2014.
You can learn a great deal to your advantage by appropriate research into SAS and its sister operation, the Science Media Centre.
For those of you unfamiliar with the politics of science in the UK, this is the gang who labour industriously to ensure that we all sing to the officially approved hymn-sheets.
No dissenters should be allowed to sully the simple-minded messages from the science coal face out to the gullible media.
Watch out - PHE is about
The redoubtable John Newton came literally hot on Dr. Grimes' smoking heels, on the very next page of the Journal, in fact.
He provided a ponderously dismissive rubbishing of the Peckham study without, apparently, noticing the irony of the
existance of some rather curious anomalies in some of his own organisation's recent publications in this very same area.
It's one of those depressing truths of modern-day life that academics often act in strange and excitable ways when they feel that they might be able to put one over a rival.
But in cases such as this, instead of throwing large rocks at the study, it might have been more prudent to try tossing a small handful of dry sand into the arena first.
It would be prudent to remember that PHE glass house that our government is so keen to have representing the imposition of public health policy in this benighted land!.
A little discrete nibbling might have avoided people taking an inconvenient interest in his background. People notice large bites, and can react rather strongly to them.
(In passing, don't you find it curious that after six months of complete indifference on the part of the fluoride pushers, two of the more excitable Champions of Science in the UK suddenly decided to write to the same learned Journal on the identical topic and at exactly the same time?
Somebody getting nervous behind the scenes, do you think?)
Who's who in The Others' camp.
By roaring (all right - belatedly wandering) in to the attack, they raised interesting questions about their own expertise in criticising other folks' work.
The adage that 'people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones', inevitably comes to mind.
I've mentioned Dr. Grimes' link with that bunch at SAS, but (Honorary) Prof. John Newton has an equally interesting past, much of it quite recent, in fact.
For those of you less familiar with the workings of PHE, Dr. Newton is Chief Knowledge Officer of Public Health England.
That's right - he's The Man, responsible for ensuring that PHE's store of knowledge is founded on real science. He's hugely keen on fluoridation as a policy. have been simply heroic.
For example, along with seven other PHE colleagues (and one other), he industriously interrogated those sets of dodgy data emanating from the NHS Oral Health Service.
With their teeth firmly into the computer, he and his colleagues deduced that the apparent beneficial association between fluoridation and tooth decay entirely justifies their support for the intervention.
They confidently conclude that 'this study uses the comprehensive data sets available in England to provide reassurance that fluoridation is a safe and highly effective public health measure to reduce dental decay.'
Quite so - those NHS Oral Health Surveys are certainly being worked to death by the industious folk at PHE.
So, as his ridiculously pompous title suggests, he's ultimately responsible for PHE's endorsement of the quality of the dental health data collected at huge expense in the National Surveys of Oral Health.
Data that, as I have pointed out elsewhere, does tend to have some issues with reality.
Dr. Newton's efforts to add credibility to PHE's astoundingly biased fluoridation report of 2014. He was for two years Director and CEO of UK Biobank, an organisation with a quite unsettling history. All this flim-flammery rather reminds me of our interesting times with dear old Professor Anthony Blinkhorn, first Director of the ill-fated and short-lived National Fluoride [Dis]Information Centre and now busily beavering away Down Under.
Around the world in (a bit longer than) eighty days
But this new paper by Peckham at al was an opportunity that seemed just too good to miss. By November, even that determined old Antipodean fluoridation advocate, Michael Foley had finally got his act together and jumped aboard.
Or Dr. Foley as he likes to be called. He's a dentist, and unfortunately never got around to earning a Doctoral degree, so that's an 'Honorary' title, then. A lot of dentists do that.
Mr. Foley is Director of Brisbane Dental Hospital, and according to PubFacts Scientific Publication Data web page he is co-author of three published papers in peer-reviewed Journals.
In none of these is he lead author. One paper describes an unusual dental anomaly in a single indigenous Australian individual. The other two are low-level discourses on social and political aspects of fluoridation in Queensland. Not exactly a strong scientific research background there, then.
But at least now he's trying - he's just got himself in with a bunch of five researchers at Adelaide University Dental School on a real science research paper.
I see it was even read twice last week, dammit - well done, Michael!
Pity it was just another 'cross-sectional study' - just a bit like the Peckham et al paper that you were so keen to dismember on the same grounds, actually. So what was it you were bitching on about, then, Michael?
These attacks on anyone who dares publish any evidence that raises questions about fluoride's alleged safety and efficacy are routine and entirely predictable.
The same old roundabout
Remember Roger Masters' and Myron Copland's hugely disturbing papers on fluoridation and its link with lead in drinking water in America, back in the late nineties?
They were immediately attacked by the redoubtable engineer (but not toxicologist or chemist) Mr. Thomas G Reeves, whose expertise lay in water works design and fluoridation management.
He relied on a single paper by Urbanski and Schock which itself was challenged by Finney at al in 2006, only for that to be itself criticised by Burghstahler shortly after. And so it goes on!
Often the most eager throwers of stones turn out to be living in very fragile glass houses of their own making.
So just do a little digging when next they come around, rattling your cages and generally making a spectacle of themselves.
You can learn some quite interesting things about those who happen to disagree with your own beliefs.
That doesn't mean that yours are totally credible either, of course - but keeping the argument going is what counts. Isn't it?
Have you noticed that whenever anyone publishes research that purports to show that fluoridation does, (or indeed, does not) work as claimed, it precipitates an outburst of furious responses from those in the opposite camp?
The latest kerfuffle erupted after Peckham, Lowery and Spencer published the discovery of an apparent association between water fluoridation and hypothyroidism in England.
Instantly the opposition fell to denigrating the authors and their work, Our Heroes roared into action, picking nits as if the integrity of science itself was threatened with imminent catastrophe. All very predictable, all utterly infantile.
Here we go again - more statistics!
Now, those of you who have bothered to read my past musings on the supposed reliability of official NHS data will know what to expect next.
Having taught statistics to young would-be biologists myself, I have a healthy (or perhaps I should say unhealthy) disrespect for appealing but simplistic pictures painted by those who trawl the fragile descriptions of the real world.
One of the great bugbears of modern science is the strange fascination for the strange and inscrutable 'models' that workers labour to construct when they are inventing some new theory or trying to disprove someone else's old one.
Like so many scientists nowadays, Peckham et al carried out a little harmless number crunching. No-one was injured in this research. No terrifying dentists poked about in the mouths of babes and sucklings, counting bad - or indeed, any - teeth.
No children were dragged off to hospitals to have their rotting dental assets extracted by fiendishly masked surgeons subjecting then to life-threatening anaesthetics.
They just collected a bunch of official statistics and played the numbers games on them. And of course, like all models, they are fine to play with, but should never be relied on in real life (ask the Environment Agency about hydraulic modelling of flooding, up here in soggy Cumbria! Point made.)
Watch out for the buzz-words
The give-away is there, written in the introduction, for anyone to see. The wording of their methodology is crammed full of phrases like 'cross-sectional study design using secondary data to develop binary logistic regression models of predictive factors'. Have you any idea what that may mean?
Or there's 'Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF) diagnosed hypothyroidism prevalence data', and grabbing yet more numbers from that ultimate invention of feral bureaucracy, the 'practice level Index of Multiple Deprivation scores'. Clever stuff, eh?
In fact, this is all pretty flexible, second-hand stuff. Stick it into mindless computer packages that