Category: pseudoscience


Notes on water fluoridation and the Fluoride Deception video

I’d heard of the great water fluoridation fight but never looked into it. In the 60’s the John Birchers were saying it was a Commie plot to weaken America’s vital fluids or something of the sort. And it was parodied in the movie Dr. Strangelove…

Let’s start by bracketing things. Fluoride in water can’t be highly dangerous or people would have noticed. Not putting fluoride in water is not a risk-free choice–it prevents cavities. Cavities don’t just make your teeth fall out, they also increase risks of bacteria related heart disease, and the occasional person dies of a tooth abscess. So the question is, is there disease caused by fluoridation, and is it worse than the diseases caused by no fluoridation?

OK, let’s look at the video.
5:42 Suggests that the idea of adding fluoride to water supplies was to hide the dangers of for fluoride pollution or avoid responsibility for damage due to fluoride pollution. Doesn’t really make sense so far. Ah, reading in the history, when government regs made industry stop dumping fluoride in air and water, one thing they did with it was process out fluoride for water fluoridation. Doesn’t sound that damning, after all it would have been cheaper to dump it in a landfill.

~7:00-20:00 Fluoride air pollution can be bad. Some of the early fluoride researchers also worked on and perhaps had a part in the worst cover ups regarding industrial pollutants. What I’ve read of the tetraethyl lead story is appalling. The connection with the lead story is tenuous. Fluoridating water wasn’t a gold mine, I don’t see there being much pressure to push fluoridation back when it started.

21:30 The NRC report (below) discusses Waldbott’s results, concludes that some people are sensitive to typical water concentrations of fluoride and that it appears to be fairly rare.

From the NRC report, it doesn’t appear that the safety of water fluoridation was well-established, certainly nowhere near today’s standards, back when it began. It was safe by 1940’s standards, and had a clear benefit. I’ve probably got an extra tooth in my mouth due to it.

25:00 The NRC report discusses the Mullenix study. Calls it inconclusive, calls for more studies.

The video didn’t have much info. Here are the establishment reference sources:

CDC recommendations

Fluoride reduces cavities by 15-40%, depending on the study. The low figure is an estimate of the benefit of water fluoridation in a population that already uses fluoride toothpaste.

2006 National Academy report (the greybeards)

Here’s the meat! Water fluoridation is 1 mg / L, when the level hits 4 mg / L studies start seeing negative health effects. That’s a pretty narrow window between benefit and danger level, the smallest one for an environmental exposure I’ve run into. YMMV, I’m not an environmental toxicologist.

What hasn’t really been studied are neurotoxic effects of low level exposure. A few studies have turned up disturbing results. Check out the summary on page 205.

Interesting take on differences between Europe and US fluoridation, Pizzo et al. 2008

The bit about Europe in the video is misleading. Europe hasn’t avoided fluoride, it’s just mostly not in water, it’s in salt or toothpaste.

There’s nothing to intelligent design creationism

flagellum electron micrograph
Composite electron micrograph of the flagellum basal body and hook, produced by rotational averaging (Francis et al., 1994).

Stephen M. Barr has an article in First Things, The End of Intelligent Design?. Unfortunately, Barr is looking to rescue something from intelligent design (ID) so his criticisms are muted. His main interest is whether ID has been useful in advancing religion and theology. In a faux even-handed approach he criticizes ID for not proving it’s claims but then tosses in criticism of scientists for unspecified excesses. He also tries to win favor with a religious audience by claiming that “the ID movement has been treated atrociously and that it has been lied about by many scientists”, a judgment he doesn’t substantiate.

The readership of First Things is a strange group, many of the comments go off in philosophical directions but no one is talks about the central issue–whether ID is true or false. Is there good evidence for it? Is it likely to be true? Could it be true? Or is it known to be false?

Barr’s article starts well, it is true that there’s “not a single phenomenon that we understand better today” through ID. To restate that, there is no evidence at all for ID and that is the reason ID has been dismissed by biologists.

When the idea that certain biological structures are “irreducibly complex” was proposed several examples were given: the bacterial flagellum, the immune system, the blood clotting cascade, the vertebrate eye, the Krebs cycle, etc. In fact, biologists have evolutionary models and physical evidence of how each of these things has evolved. No “irreducibly complex” structures were proposed and then proven to be so. In truth, none of the proposed examples are even open questions, things that puzzle biologists that could possibly be shown to be “irreducibly complex” in the future.

And the case for ID is really worse that what I’ve described. It’s not that ID theorists proposed structures that biologists didn’t have good evolutionary models for, structures that could have turned out to be “irreducibly complex”. When these examples were given, there was already published research explaining the evolutionary origins of each example. For example, biologists reviewing Behe’s book were able to look up and reference the research discounting his examples. No better “irreducibly complex” examples have come to light since then.

Scientific consensus

In a meta discussion about AGW, Eric Raymond writes about how the term scientific consensus is used in public science debates. He seems to misunderstand it, and think it is an ‘appeal to authority’ type of argument and thus a sign that the party that raises it has no more convincing arguments.

It certainly can be that sort of poor argument, but typically when raised by scientists it is something different. The scientific consensus on a topic is mentioned as a shorthand way of communicating what’s understood by scientists working the field to the public. Scientists are trying to communicate that certain things are known, and that contrary arguments that pick one or two studies and argue that the contrary opinion is *really* true or at least that no consensus exists are misleading. Either the study is part of a technical debate in the field among researchers who all understand and believe the consensus that is being misconstrued or too much weight is being given to the opinion of a rare contrarian.

The contrarians can be further divided into 1) cranks of various sorts and 2) scientists working on a contrary idea who understand that the evidence still favors the consensus but hope to make discoveries that will eventually tip the balance of evidence in favor of their idea. The second scientist will happily talk up his idea if asked about it, but if asked about the consensus will acknowledge that it is currently overall the best explanation.

So scientists will mention the scientific consensus on an issue to the public to ground the discussion with the fundamentals of what is known. With the fundamentals set down, scientists can then explain the details of how things are known, what discussions within the field are about, or discuss contrarians.

Evolution of the glucocorticoid receptor

Interesting letter about the evolution of the glucocorticoid receptor from Joe Thornton, a biologist at the University of Oregon. Thornton’s lab has figured out some of the details on how this receptor evolved. Thornton’s writing this because creationist Behe is passing off a mangled version of his work as evidence for ‘intelligent design’.

The first Discover magazine blog post gives a good overview of what Thornton’s lab learned about the glucocorticoid receptor.

GR receptor pathway

Creationism talk by Dave Eakin

A UK Bible study group hosted a talk tonight by Dave Eakin, an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU). I didn’t know quite what to expect coming in to the talk–was Eakin going to explain some biology to the Bible study group or was this going to be bog standard creationism? The talk turned out to be standard old Earth creationism. What an embarrassment he is to EKU!

An MP3 recording of the talk is available here.

I made notes during the talk, they give a flavor for it. My comments are in brackets:

3 groups: biblers, people with set minds…

Comments about apoliticalness and open mindedness.

Cartoon: candle representing science, “Hit it with the Bible”.

Chain of being cartoon.
He mentions he had a creationisty poster at the KAS meeting and no one gave him guff about it.

3 theories of evolution:
1. chemical evolution (abiogenesis)
2. general evolution “an extrapolation of Darwin’s natural selection”
3. natural evolution = special evolution [seems to be a ref to microevolution]

Behe’s Black Box book. [Darwin’s black box: the biochemical challenge to evolution
By Michael J. Behe]

It’s hard to tell if things are designed.
Creationists are blackballed, McCarthyism-type environment for creationists.

Paley-like are arguments are too simple/wrong, but Behe is more sophisticated [not clear how].
Watch, mouse trap, flagellum
[clotting cascade, eye, Krebs]
Trials for cats. [????]

Graduate of U. of Louisville! [figures!]

No one can solve these problems

Color blindness slide?
Can make it clear by increasing contrast…
“Evidence doesn’t support theories, theories support evidence” –Dr Dave.
Big Bang not current, has been replaced by String Theory

CSI example, making the point that evidence can be made to support whatever theory a person wants.

If 60,000 people believe a lie, it’s still a lie.

All his sick evolutionist friends ask him to pray for them.

Quote: when fossils are known all no more guessing. [missed the cite]

We doesn’t know everything so we know nothing.

Absence of life in pre-Cambrian, organisms suddenly appear, and…

Picture of single-celled microfossils, asks if anyone believes them.
Makes fun of certainty of Ph.Ds.

Something new from Discover mag, image of tree of life from single-celled organism.
Pisoliths from pre-oxy atmosphere Earth (pre 2.3 billion years), but they only occur in presence of oxy.
[Casting doubt on what we know.]

Stephen Jay Gould had a young Earth Creationist student. [meaning unclear…]
Quote from Gould, from Evolution’s Erratic Pace, Natural Hist May 1977, at 12, 14. about no transitional forms.

Erase all the lines from tree of life because we don’t know anything for sure.

Never presented Creationism in class. Wants student to think for themselves.
Quote from Colin Patterson (April 10, 1979) on how we don’t have any transitional fossils.
Quote by Tom Bethell in Harper’s February on how no one is willing to publicly talk about ‘questions’.

But what about Archaeopteryx? Small, unimportant. Just a reptile.
Eakin has reviewed many/most biology textbooks.
Says Archaeopteryx is often misrepresented, over interpreted.

Some point about lack of learned behavior in reptiles.
Figures of bird physiology. Pectoral muscles in bird/reptiles.

How did scales evolve into feathers? Unknown, too hard to imagine. [Evo-dev has been providing answers about this.]

How did birds start to fly? An irreducible jump.
We know in our hearts that transitional forms can’t happen.

Faith is… “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

My battery ran down at this point and the sound cut off the last minute or two of his talk and the extended Q&A afterward. He mentioned the audience was very respectful and had given him his say. Bible groups must usually be a rough audience!

In the Q&A, he also said that he had talked to many biologists and that 10-20% were creationists of some variety but unwilling to publicly talk about it. This is quite silly, an argument from popularity. Also it’s nonsense. Anonymous surveys of biologists have been done and almost no biologists are creationists. A 1987 Newsweek article reports a survey found 0.14% of earth scientists and biologists are creationists, and a survey reported in CSI pegs the number at 1-2 in about 2000, about 0.1%.

It was sad to find out that EKU has a creationist teaching biology. Oh, the poorly served students!

Most surprising was that Eakin gave his whole talk without ever describing the theory of evolution, in any of its forms, either the simple Darwinian version or the Modern Synthesis. His talk was instead the poorly thought out basket of criticisms of evolution with no case made for anything else. I’ve heard this described as common in creationist talks.

Eakin started his talk saying that evidence is never conclusive, that there’s always doubt, and that we can’t be sure of anything. I thought that would be the theme of his talk before he swerved into ordinary creationism.

Eakin’s talk was at least a decade out of date. One topic was Behe’s book and the argument of ‘irreducible complexity’. Eakin doesn’t seem to know that Behe’s featured examples, the flagellum and the eye, have been shown to have evolutionary precursors where part of the ‘irreducible’ structure exists and functions.

Eakin mentions Archaeopteryx and then makes an extended argument that the evolution of reptile ancestors into birds is impossible but doesn’t seem to know that additional transitional birds have been discovered, or the recent evidence of the relationship between scales and feathers.

Eakin also briefly mentioned his impression that few transitional horse fossils are known, and mentioned that the linear, gradual depiction of horse evolution was admitted by biologists to be false. This hoary creationist canard leaves so much out as to be plain dishonest. Eakin should known better.

In the early part of the 20th century, depictions of horse evolution presented a linear, gradual picture of horse evolution, but soon after more and more horse fossils were discovered and filled in a picture of horse evolution as a branching bush with over a score of Genera, many coexisting and all but a few now extinct. has a good page on this, though Stephen Jay Gould’s essay “Life’s Little Joke” collected in Bully for Brontosaurus is a better read. There are many transitional horse fossils, and the branching tree of horse evolution has been widely known for 70+ years.

The talk ended with a series of quotes from evolutionary biologists about the lack of transitional fossils and the difficulty of drawing conclusions. This was standard creationist quote mining, quite a laugh.

Eakin is a graduate of U of L. I know that won’t surprise anyone at UK.

‘Noetic sciences’

I was listening to the NPR food show, The Splendid Table, and they ended the show with by having Dean Radin from the Institute for Noetic Sciences on to talk about how ‘thinking at’ chocolate makes it better. No, I’m not joking, and it wasn’t April Fools’ day. Ordinary fools day, I guess.

Looking at the Institute for Noetic Sciences (IONS) web site, it looks like this is the place where the California nuts collect. They are still doing psi studies, lots of ‘intentional’ studies which test various ways thinking at something changes it, from prayer and healing to remote viewing to psychokinesis. Not too surprisingly, Deepak Chopra is ‘associated faculty’.

The chocolate study guy, Dean Radin, is an interesting nut. He was a real engineer, then got a Ph.D in psychology from U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, then went off the deep end. It’s odd, he uses methods that look quite respectable–the chocolate study was double-blinded–to come to nutty conclusions, and publishes them in nutty niche journals. IONS has its own journal, “Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing”, and disturbingly the NIH’s Pubmed article indexing service includes its articles (see This is by far the craziest journal I’ve ever seen in Pubmed.

Examining the giant marijuana cash crop urban legend.

I’d heard before that marijuana is the biggest cash crop in California …in Kentucky …in the US. Online you can see a 2006 estimate that puts marijuana on top by Jon Gettman. It always sounded patchy, and here Kevin Drum links to a critical site that estimates the retail value of the cannabis sales at $10 billion.

Even this seems high according to my estimate. I recently (can’t lay my hands on the figure) saw a graph of pot smoking by age in the US within the past month. Highest for people in their 20’s, then about 10% until people hit 60. Older folks smoke very little. So let’s say 10% of people from 15-60 (roughly 24 million people) smoke twice a month:

24 million people x 24 joints/year / 40 joints/ounce x $100/ounce = $1.5 billion retail per year.

By comparison, the US corn crop is $24 billion/year. $1.5 billion/year is about the size of the US tobacco or orange crop. But then we are comparing retail prices to farm prices. So figure growers are getting at best 1/5 or 1/10 or the retail price, and now the marijuana crop is tiny, smaller than the peach crop. Also, considerable marijuana in the US is imported, so the US crop is even smaller.

Running the estimates in the other direction, the $10 billion estimate of spending on marijuana has the monthly US smokers lighting up every other day. This sounds too high, most smokers are occasional smokers. Estimating pot spending at $35 billion as Jon Gettman does has monthly pot smokers averaging eleven joints a week, or every man, woman, and child in the country lighting up once a week. Way high.

Are people on the Nicoya peninsula, Costa Rica long lived?

Caught a story on the Oprah TV show talking about why the people living on the Nicoya peninsula on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica are long lived. And I asked myself, are these people long-lived? I haven’t heard that before and I should know.

So I went looking, and the special on Oprah was touting a book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest by Dan Buettner. Buettner first reported the story for National Geographic. So why does Buettner think Nicoyaians are long lived?

Some populations have been studied and found to be long lived–for example, there are four times as many centenarians in Okinawa, Japan compared to Japan as a whole.

Buettner’s source is Dr. Luis Rosero-Bixby, a Costa Rican demographer. The sole published source I can find is The exceptionally high life expectancy of Costa Rican nonagenarians. I haven’t read the paper, but from the abstract national birth registry data was used to establish date of birth and census data was used to monitor survival, and life expectancy of 90-year olds was found to be half a year longer than anywhere else in the world, for males only.

This seems very thin evidence, I can’t find other studies by Rosero-Bixby or evidence that these people were studied by any other groups. It is especially odd that the effect is seen in males but not females–this was the pattern in other areas where long survival was reported but didn’t pan out-the Caucus region of Georgia, northern Pakistan, and the Andean village of Vilcabamba in southern Ecuador. Usually remote areas with poor record keeping.

Discussion of 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, by Michael Brooks

I read a review of Michael Brooks’s 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense on the Uncertain Principles blog. I haven’t read the book, but the review tickled me enough that I looked around for more info and found Jennifer Ouellette’s review in The New Scientist where Brooks is a contributor.

Both Chad Orzel and Jennifer Ouellette give Brooks weak “this book has some weak parts but also some good parts” reviews. Just from the reviews and blurbs I can tell Brooks book is destructive, part worthless speculation on the meaning of anomalous results that are almost certainly erroneous and part flattering discussion of pseudoscience.

Why are people giving Brooks such gentle reviews? The physics results are typical of the lot. John Webb’s fine-structure result is of the same sort as the Viking experiment result. Interesting if true, but not reproduced and instead contradicted by other experiments and thus uninteresting.

Brooks doesn’t understand that for something to not ‘Make Sense’ it has to be true. Anomalous *verified* results, results that can’t be explained theoretically or seem to contradict existing results are the kinds of things that ‘Don’t Make Sense’ but could be cool. These are the kinds of things that Brooks should be writing about.

One of Brooks’s topics is the mimivirus, a virus with the largest genome known so far (1.2 Mb). I can’t imagine anything particularly Earth shaking about it–it’s really big for a virus, but that’s it. Biology is littered with oddities and weird exceptions. No one tell Brooks about ttn-1, a titin protein 57X larger than the average worm protein. Or about the ostrich.

The placebo effect has two components, self-delusion and a poorly understood mechanism whereby the state of mind can affect the body. The mind->body connection is true and poorly understood, the proper subject of Brook’s book.

In Jennifer Ouellette’s review she says that Brooks includes homeopathy because of its relation to the placebo effect. This is ridiculous–any of the thousands of worthless ‘medical’ treatments known from blood letting to magic spells have this property.

Brooks’s inclusion of homeopathy and death is complete nonsense. Homeopathy is pseudoscience, bunkum. And there well understood evolutionary reasons why organisms die, death (and aging) are not even anomalous.