Posts Tagged science & society

thoughts from a conference: scientists and science communication Alison Campbell Feb 17


I spent much of today at an international symposium on “Transforming Public Engagement on Controversial Science & Technology”. It’s been fascinating & I’m looking forward to day 2, having learned a lot from both the formal presentations and the round-table discussions. I also got to lead a discussion session after a keynote address by fellow sciblogger Shaun Hendy (hi Shaun!), who looked at the reasons scientists do – & don’t – get into science communication. Set the questions “should scientists be active in science communication, should they be ‘brokers’ of science knowledge or take on more of a ‘science advocacy’ role, and how best should we (society) support them in doing so, the participants came up with quite an extensive list. I’ve riffed on them a bit here in the hope that this may engender even more discussion.

  • Which scientists? Are we talking natural/physical scientists, or should the net be broadened to include social scientists, political scientists, & so on? Should we distinguish between them – there’s a case to me made for closer cooperation between the various disciplines (something of a ‘hybrid’ model). Also, do we really want open slather – there’s a risk of dilution of effort if everyone should happen to get involved. It could be better to have clear ‘go-to’ people for the media, in particular. (Here, of course, we need to remember that there are many ways to get involved in science communication. Fronting to the media is important, yes, but there are other avenues: presenting at Cafe Scientifique or science-in-the-pub events, helping schools during primary science week, & speaking to general interest groups spring to mind, but I’m sure there are many more.)
  • Science vs knowledge: science is only one lens for viewing the world; we also need discussions around ethical implications of novel technologies, for example. (Our table had an involved discussion, in a later session, around different cultural perspectives on assisted reproductive technologies, which had nothing at all to do with the mechanics of the actual technologies, and everything to do with the social and cultural impacts of both the application of those technologies and the very words we use to talk about them.) We can’t talk about science without also considering the social context in which it’s set, and the question of what society does with the science is up to society as a whole (or its elected representatives).
  • Communication may involve education around a particular aspect of science; advocacy (for the process, the nature, of science or for a particular application – although here you’d surely be moving into the realm of opinion?), or about policy issues. All must be evidence-based. Scientists are also citizens, and it’s not possible for us to be entirely objective about our work. We need to be clear about whether we’re communicating around our particular field of expertise, as compared to advocating for a particular action. And there does need to be discussion about and engagement with the nature of science, as well as the results of that science (advocacy for the scientific method, if you will).
  • Science communication is a two-way street: we need to listen and learn, as well as speak out.
  • We need to consider other forms of communication besides the spoken & written word – here Siouxsie Wiles and her glow-in-the-dark squid sprang immediately to mind :) More interactivity, more ‘non-traditional’ modes of communication!
  • Scientists are used to taking time to consider their responses to queries, while the media require quick (if not immediate) answers to requests for information. Shaun touched on this, too, as one of the reasons that some scientists may be reluctant to get involved in dealing with the members of the fourth estate.
  • Issues around conflicts of interest, memoranda of understanding, and confidentiality may affect individuals’ availability, willingness, and freedom to speak. The nature of the particular discipline, sources of funding, and potential impacts on job security may also influence decisions.
  • Why would scientists communicate? Should they? In a different, more scientifically-literate world, maybe we wouldn’t have to. Or there might not be so much need, anyway. However, these days, with very few specialist science journalists in the media, the need remains. As to the ‘why would we’ part, as Shaun noted, there are many potential reasons. Some – I think very few – do it simply as a means to raise their own profile or attract more funding. We may do it through sheer frustration with the way the media or society deal with scientific issues. But probably most scientists involved in science communication do it in the hope of making a difference; we’re usually motivated by a sense of social responsibility or by an interest in a particular issue. (I originally got into science blogging, for example, as a means of supporting secondary biology teachers and students.)
  • Scientists don’t always have to work though the media but may work in the community at the request of that community on local initiatives.
  • How do we enable scientists to communicate about what they do? Basically this activity needs to be incentivised, by funding and/or official recognition. (Writing science blogs, no matter how solid the science in them or how widely they’re read and discussed, doesn’t count in the PBRF stakes.) We also need to respect the work of those who don’t communicate; it’s not something that everyone can or should get into.
  • It’s a real challenge to communicate the uncertainty of science. This is something I’ve noticed in the fluoride debates, for example. People want a degree of certainty in their lives, while science is never 100% certain – though we may speak of an issue being ‘effectively settled’, there remains that hint of uncertainty. This can be unsettling, and it can work against science in some forums.
  • It’s also a challenge, at times, to avoid issues with equivalence or ‘false balance’. The media in particular are keen on presenting ‘both sides’ when from a scientific perspective there’s only one. (Hence we’ll sometimes see stories on vaccination paired with claims that this is linked to autism, or on evolution ‘balanced’ by the views of intelligent design proponentsists, for example. And no, that was not a spelling mistake on my part.)

Please feel free to add to or comment on any of these points!

fluoridation in the news Alison Campbell Feb 04

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I didn’t intend to write another post on this subject so soon after the last one, but a story on’s news feed has really annoyed me. I know journalists these days are seriously under pressure, but that doesn’t really justify taking a ‘press release’ from a known activist organisation and running it uncritically ie without actually looking into any of the claims made therein. You’ll find the story here, & I’m going to comment on some of the claims it contains below. (I would have done it directly on the piece but they don’t actually allow comments, grumble grumble mutter.)

Dr Paul Connett is currently visiting NZ and Australia to promote the views of the anti-fluoridation organisation FAN and its antipodean sub-groups. While he has reportedly spent 17 years ‘researching’ issues associated with community water fluoridation (CWF), he has published neither original research papers on this particular topic nor a systematic review of the existing scientific literature, in leading science journals. He has, however, published a book on the subject, the contents of which formed the basis of an extensive discussion on the Open Parachute science blog (also syndicated to the Science Media Centre’s This output doesn’t really justify the ‘expert’ description so adroitly promoted by the FANNZ spokesperson who provided the yahoo item.

Repeated calls for a ‘debate’ are rather misleading as they suggest that there is in fact something to debate. In the case of the science behind CWF, as Sir Peter Gluckman has said, it is effectively settled. To call for a debate is simply an attempt to sow doubt and fear in people’s minds, and any such event would be ‘won’ by the better demagogue and not necessarily on the basis of the actual science presented. Thus it makes perfect sense for TV3 to seek comment from Dr Jonathan Broadbent, who has a solid research record around oral health, rather than to opt for the flawed ‘debate’ format & so give some feeling of false equivalency to an issue where none exists.

The FANNZ claim that our health officials are “[advocating] a highly toxic chemical be added to the drinking water of over 2 million people” is an attempt to imply that this practice is doing harm. However, there is no good evidence that the fluoridated water coming from the taps actually causes significant adverse health effects. Nor have health officicals “gone into hiding” (as stated in the yahoo story), as Dr Broadbent’s willingness to be interviewed clearly demonstrates,

What are the facts that FANNZ is so keen for New Zealanders to hear? The organisation certainly seems keen to obscure the evidence that community water fluoridation improves oral health (here, here, and here, for example) and is a cost-effective way of doing so. The spokesperson comments that it “is [health officials'] responsibility to provide people with real factual information” – and appears to be ignoring the fact that the National Fluoride Information Service has been set up to do just that. And just today dental health experts have provided commentary on fluoridation via the Science Media Centre.

As I’ve said, many large-scale systematic reviews have found that there is good evidence that ingesting fluoride reduces decay – and, contrary to the claim in the original press release – the evidence of “unacceptable health risks” is not “growing daily”. For example, the claim that fluoride is implicated in development of osteosarcoma appears to be based on a single preliminary study, and is not supported by more recent large-scale analyses. Similarly the ‘Harvard’ review, often cited as evidence that fluoridation affects IQ, has a number of flaws, some of which were identified by the authors themselves., it’s a real pity you didn’t look into this one rather more deeply.

the science-based medicine blog on fluoridation Alison Campbell Jan 22

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This is something that I posted on Making Sense of Fluoride, but thought I’d re-post here; it deserves to be widely read. I’ve highlighted some of the main points made by the authors as they address issues frequently raised by those opposed to community water fluoridation.

The Science-Based Medicine blog is an excellent resource and well-worth adding to your regular reading list. A few days ago Clay Jones (a paediatric hospitalist) & Grant Ritchey (DDS) posted an article entitled “Preventing Tooth Decay in Kids: Fluoride and the Role of Non-Dentist Health Care Providers“. It’s reasonably long but contains a number of key points.

The first is that “there are a number of stumbling blocks that prevent children from receiving appropriate dental care” – including distance from/accessibility to a provider, not to mention the costs involved.

Secondly, that the majority of people will be affected by caries: ” [r]oughly 90% of us will have some degree of tooth decay during our lifetime”; that this prevalence increases over time, and that – sadly but unsurprisingly – it is most marked in poorer sectors of society. Interestingly they also characterise caries as infectious – because the bacteria involved can be & are spread from mouth to mouth. (Consequently they advise against ‘spit-cleaning’ a child’s dummy, which sounds just about as insanitary as popping it straight back in from a sojourn on the floor.) And there’s also a genetic component, which means that “[t]ooth decay truly is a complex, multifaceted process that clearly isn’t as simple as forgetting to floss every day or even the socioeconomic status.”

There’s a description of the effect of fluoride on tooth enamel, which says quite explicitly that “when exposed to fluoride either systemically during tooth development or topically via toothpaste, fluoridated water, or professional application, becomes strengthened.” Jones & Ritchey agree that dental and skeletal fluorosis are problems when ingesting higher levels of fluoride, but add a caveat that bears repeating: “It must be emphasized that skeletal and severe fluorosis of the teeth do not occur as a result of any sort of community water fluoridation, or because of fluoride in toothpastes or professional fluoride treatments [my emphasis]. They occur in areas with naturally occurring fluoride levels far in excess of what is safe, and are rare in the United States. In these areas, a defluoridation process must be undertaken to return the water concentration of fluoride to safe and optimal levels.”

And they have some strong words to say on the so-called ‘fluoride controversy’.

As I said, it’s a long-ish piece but well worth reading in its entirety.

For those interested in reading more on this issue, my colleague Ken Perrot has written extensively on fluoridation over at Open Parachute: here, for example.

shaking up the academy? or, how the academy could shake up teaching Alison Campbell Dec 10

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This is something I originally wrote for my ‘other’ blog over at Talking Teaching.

Last week I spent a couple of days down in Wellington, attending the annual symposium for the Ako Aotearoa Academy. The Academy’s made up of the winners of the national Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards, so there are around 150 or so of us now. While only 35 members were able to make it to this year’s event (& the executive committee will survey everyone to see if there’s a better time – having said that, everyone seems so busy that there’s probably no date that would suit everyone!), we had a great line-up of speakers & everyone left feeling inspired & energised. I’ll blog about several of those presentations, but thought I would start with one by Peter Coolbear, who’s the director of our parent body, Ako Aotearoa.

Peter began by pointing out that the Academy is potentially very influential – after all, it’s made up of tertiary teachers recognised at the national level for the quality of their teaching, & who foster excellence in learning & teaching at their own institutions.  But he argued – & I agree with him - that there is room for us to become involved in the wider scene. Peter had a number of suggestions for us to consider.

First up, there’s a lot going on in the area of policy – are there areas where the Academy might be expected to have & express an opinion? For example

  • There’s the latest draft of the Tertiary Education Strategy (TES), which ”sets out the Government’s long-term strategic direction for tertiary education; and its current and medium-term priorities for tertiary education.” There’s a link to the Minister’s speech announcing the launch of the draft strategy here.
  • In addition, the State Services Commission’s document Better Public Services: results for New Zealanders sets out 10 targets across 5 areas. Targets 5 & 6 are relevant here as they are a reference point for government officials looking at evidence for success in the education sector. (Such scrutiny is likely to become more intense in light of the 2012 PISA results, which have just been made public.) Target 5 expects that we’ll “[increase] the proportion of 18-year-olds with NCEA level 2 or equivalent qualification”; #6 is looking for an increase in “ the proportion of 25 to 34-year-olds with advanced trade qualifications, diplomas and degrees (at level 4 or above)”. This will increase the pressure on institutions to increase retention & completion rates – might this have an effect on standards?
  • There’s also the requirement to achieve parity of success for ‘priority’ learners, especially Maori & Pasifika – this is priority #3 in the TES. (Kelly Pender, from Bay of Plenty Polytech, gave an inspirational presentation on how he weaves kaupapa Maori into pretty much everything he does in his classroom, in an earlier session.) And it’s an important one for us to consider. Peter cited data from the Ministry of Education’s website, ‘Education Counts’, which showed significantly lower completion rates for Maori & Pasifika students in their first degrees compared to European students, and commented that this will likely become a major issue for the universities in the near future.
  • If we’re to meet those achievement requirements, then how institutions scaffold learners into higher-level study, through foundation & transition programs, will become increasingly important. What are the best ways to achieve this?
  • Peter predicted increased accountability for the university sector (including governance reform). Cycle 5 of NZ’s Academic Audits has begun, and ”is to be framed around academic activities related to teaching and learning and student support.” This is definitely one I’d expect Academy members to have an opinion on!
  • He also expects strengthened quality assurance processes throughout the education sector: this suggests a stronger (& more consistent) role for the  NZ Qualifications Authority, with the development of partnership dialogues across the sector (ie including universities).

Then, at the level of the providers (ie the educational institutions themselves – & that’s not just the polytechs & universities), we have:

  • a targeted review of qualifications offered at pre-degree level – there’s background information here;
  • a government-led drive to get more learners into the ’STEM’ subjects (science, technology, engineering, & maths) – this poses some interesting challenges as at university level we’re seeing quite a few students who’ve not taken the right mix of subjects, at the right NCEA level, to go directly into some of the STEM papers they need for, say, an engineering degree;
  • the rise in Massive Open On-line Courses, or MOOCs. (I find these quite strange creatures as they are free to the student and typically attract very large enrolments, but also apparently have very low completion rates. What’s in them for the institution? A good way of offering ‘taster’ courses that hook students in?)
  • the likelihood that we will see the development of a system for professional accreditation of tertiary teachers (I’ve written about this previously and will write another post fairly soon, as accreditation was the subject of a thought-provoking session at the symposium);
  • how we achieve protection of academic standards – it’s possible that government policies (eg those linking funding to completion & retention rates)may result in a tendency to exclude of underprepared kids &/or lowering standards – neither is desirable but both are possible results of those policies.

That’s a big list and the Academy can’t do everything! So, what should it focus on? (This is not a rhetorical question – it would be great to get some discussion going.) The Academy, in the person of its members, is effectively a resource; a body of expertise – can it become a ‘go-to’ body for advice? Speaking personally I think we need to make that shift; otherwise we remain invisible outside our individual institutions & the teaching-focused activities we’re involved in, & in a politicised world that’s not a comfortable thing to be. Can we, for example, better promote the significance of teaching excellence outside the education sector? Become involved in the discussions around & development of any accreditation scheme? Develop position papers around maintaining teaching excellence in the context of the new TES?

What do you think? And what shall we, collectively, do about it? 

fluoridation: an attempt to silence science, and false equivalence Alison Campbell Aug 23


This morning’s Waikato Times features the attention-grabbing front-page headline: “Anti-fluoride campaigner tries to silence science“. I guess the debate is really heating up when someone from one side tries to get the other side to shut up…

It would be appreciated if we could receive some confirmation from the chemistry department that it will remain publicly neutral on the matter.

To be fair to the anti-fluoride lobby, the letter to the Chemistry Department at the University of Waikato came from a single member of the local Hamilton group. Note to the organisers of Fluoride Free Hamilton – if you are not in support of this letter, it would be really nice to hear you say so. Publicly.

The letter reproduced by the Waikato Times includes the statement that

At Fluoride Free Hamilton we intend to limit the debate to the social science and public health aspects of fluoridation.

Now, I actually think that it would be good to have a reasoned, well-informed debate on social issues relating to fluoridation. Is ‘mass medicalisation’ the way to go, for example? If fluoride isn’t delivered this way, then how do we deal with the social costs entailed in some members of society not accessing it? How much, as a society, are we responsible for our poorest members?

Unfortunately that’s not really the way things have shaped up to date. Instead the HCC tribunal that made the original decision to stop fluoridation, the letters/opinion columns of our various local papers, & on-line discussions of media reports have been awash with dubious & frankly scaremongering claims about the ills of fluoridation. For example

that in drinking fluoridated water we’re forced to drink acid  - No, we’re not. (Presumably those making this claim don’t eat citrus fruit, or drink wine or a certain caffeinated fizzy beverage.)

that hydrofluorosilicic acid adds harmful levels of heavy metals to our water supply – No, it doesn’t.

that fluoride is neurotoxic and lowers children’s IQs – again, at concentrations found in municipal supplies, no, it doesn’t. (Did they even read the original paper?)

that fluoride ‘narcotises’ salmon at levels well below those present in municipal supplies – No, it doesn’t - the original paper says nothing about this.

and so on, and on, and on… I am moved to ask (again) – if the anti-fluoridation activists are so sure of their case, then why do they need to distort, cherrypick, and misquote science in order to support it? You’re entitled to your own opinions, folks, but not your own versions of the facts.

We’re also seeing a fair amount of false equivalence here, where the anti-fluoridation groups would argue that their ‘science’ is equivalent to the science put forward by (for example) the District Health Board & my chemistry colleagues. In fact there is no equivalence – how can there be, when those claims (above) are examined & found wanting?



once more into the fluoride ‘debate’, dear friends Alison Campbell Aug 08


This week’s Hamilton Press (a local free newspaper) has a lot of fluoride-focused letters in its opinion pages. After reading them I must ask, again, why those opposed to fluoride need to misrepresent the evidence if their case is so strong.

For example, we’re told about Amsterdam GP Dr Hans Moolenburgh, who apparently noticed those children in his practice who were drinking fluoridated water were developing colic. (Ulcers & eczema were also attributed to this ion.) Incidentally much of the letter’s content seems to be cribbed from on-line sources such as this.

“These sudden pains only took place in fluoridated Heemstede, and the cure was easy: Non-fluoridated water.”

Now – aside from the issues of why fluoride, in the very low concentrations added to drinking water, would cause colic, and how likely it is that we’re seeing confirmation bias – this ‘cure’ would seem quite significant. So, where are the publications relating to it, that would draw the attention of the medical world? Yes, I know he’s written a book. But a search of pubmed and the NIH database (using the terms moolenburgh+holland+fluoride+colic) drew a blank. Searches using & google Scholar brought up a paper citing Moolenburgh, but no actual peer-reviewed publications. (Incidentally that paper is in the publication Fluoride, which does not appear to be an independent journal.)

This is really odd, because the letter writer goes on to say that Dr Moolenburgh got together a research team that

eventually conducted a double-blind experiment, the results of which clearly established there was a definite relationship between the symptoms and fluoride in water. Following publication of their research results, water fluoridation in Holland was discontinued in 1976.

I would really quite like to read this research paper, except so far I’ve not been able to find anything that matches what our writer describes. Just what was their double-blind set-up, and their intervention? For it to be a double-blind study then none of the researchers should know where their patients came from, for example.

Also, while it is correct that the Netherlands no longer fluoridate their municipal water supplies, fluoridated salt is available. Indeed, as the paper I’ve just linked to points out, if a country’s major discounters sell only fluoridated salt, then that’s what everybody gets.

I’ll get onto the next letter later.



the drunken botanist Alison Campbell Aug 07

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That’s the title of one of the books I’m reading at the moment: The Drunken Botanist, by Amy Stewart. (I do not know any drunken botanists!) Contrary to any expectations engendered by the title, the book is a thoroughly engaging wander through botany, history, & a little bar-tending (although, now that I look at the recipes, there are quite a few of them!) – in the sense that it includes recipes for a range of cocktails where at least some of the ingredients are derived from plants.

But be warned. As the author points out, just because many of these ingredients come from plants, doesn’t mean you can just set to it & start brewing up a storm. She notes

Do remember that plants employ powerful chemicals as defenses against the very thing you want to do to them, which is to pluck them from the ground and devour them…

It is also important to note that distillers can use sophisticated equipment to extract flavourings from a plant and leave the more harmful molecules behind, but an amateur soaking a handful of leaves in vodka has no such control… Just because a distiller can work with them safely doesn’t mean you can, too.

Which is why those consuming ‘moonshine’ may well be at risk of more than a simple hangover.

Anyway, I am finding this book to be a fascinating ramble down a whole range of information by-ways. I’ve learned, for example, that the agave – whence come tequila & mezcal – is actually related to asparagus, & that it’s possible to persuade the plant to produce up to 250 gallons (more than 1000 litres) of sap over a period of several months, by cutting and wounding the flower stalk just as it begins to grow. (In this, an agave plant outstrips the annual production of a sugar maple tree – but the tree has the advantage that it lives to flow another year. The agave eventually dies, exhausted.) This liquid is fermented very quickly by ‘wild’ microbes, & – being an innocent in these things – I thought that would be distilled to produce tequila. But I was wrong – this spirit’s produced from a base of roasted agave hearts. And while you might be thinking of a metal or glass still, it seems in Mexico they used to use a hollow tree trunk as the basis of the still!

Apparently the worm is there as a marketing ploy…

So, there’s snippets of genetics, & palaeontology, & chemistry, & botany, & anthropology – it really is an interesting book. And Stewart has the ability to turn some lovely phrases. I’ll leave you with the following, which I love & will be using tomorrow when discussing cellular respiration in class:

The science of fermentation is wonderfully simple. Yeasts eat sugar. They leave behind two waste products, ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. If we were being honest, we would admit that what a liquor store sells is, chemically speaking, little more than the litter boxes of millions of domesticated yeast organisms, wrapped up in pretty bottles with fancy price tags.

A.Stewart (2012) The Drunken Botanist: the plants that create the world’s great drinks. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. ISBN 978-1-61620-046-6

does science literacy matter? Alison Campbell Aug 01


That’s the title of a post over on the Australian site, The Conversation (which I found by way of a piece on “Scientists, the media, & society” by Sir Peter Gluckman). The author of the piece, Ken Friedman, answers his question with an emphatic “yes, and here’s why”.

As he notes,

The big question is what we expect citizens in a modern industrial democracy to know & to understand

- he’s writing following the publication of a recent survey by the Australian Academy of Science that suggested that in some areas, Australians’ science knowledge could be better. (And, I hasten to add, I suspect a similar survey would garner similar results in New Zealand.)

It caught my eye because I recently had a discussion around assessment: the context was on-line assessment and whether it mattered if students could check resources as they wrote. My feeling on this one was no, not if your assessment was intended to look at skills & higher-order thinking and not simple mastery of factual content. Those attributes – which specifically relate to science literacy – are surely ones that all uni graduates should come out with, after all.

I probably need to unpack that statement a bit! I agree that students do require some (lots of?) factual knowledge in a subject, and that their knowledge should increase in breadth & depth as they progress through their program of learning. But shouldn’t they also be learning how to process that information? How to assess its validity? How to apply it in novel circumstances? After all, there’s a huge body of information – which varies greatly in quality – out there on the internet (& in more traditional places such as libraries!) and freely available to anyone who knows how to use a search engine. And it’s very clear, from following on-line discussions (on fluoridation, for example) – Facebook, science blogs, newspaper comments pages – that how people deal with that information is really important.

So, provided that I’d given students plenty of opportunity to learn & practice the relevant skills in advance, I could see opportunities for on-line assessment where it wouldn’t matter if students had books open, or webpages. Because the assessment item would provide information (in a structured way, & for a particular context) & students would be assessed, not on their knowledge, but on their ability to apply those higher-order thinking skills to the data set.**

But maybe I’m a tad too idealistic :) Feel free to drop by & let me know what you think!

** In the same way, after running the ‘design-an-organism’ classes for a couple of years now, I’ve seriously thought about asking just two questions in the final exam: ‘design’ a plant, and an animal, for a particular well-defined environment. Give plenty of background information, & let them go to it. The test would be in how well they could justify their various decisions. Hmmmm.



can people really sense exposure to emfs? Alison Campbell Jul 26

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Back in 2007, I was the MC at a Cafe Scientifique focused on high-voltage power lines. Then, as now, there was concern that the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) around these high-voltage lines posed a health hazard, so I did quite a bit of reading around the subject (as always, we had experts along to lead the discussion, but I always like to be prepared!). And so it was that I was introduced to the topic of ‘electromagnetic sensitivity’, something I was reminded of this week when friends sent me the link to a website claiming that the smart meters currently being installed by many electricity suppliers are a health hazard due to the EMFs** they emit.

Now, the question of electrosensitivity is one that Ben Goldacre wrote about in some detail on his Bad Science website, back in May 2006 (with a number of follow-up articles as related stories hit the UK press),and it’s also covered on the excellent science-based website EMF & Health. Ben kicked off his 2006 piece thusly:

“Electromagnetic fields stemming from gadgets such as kettles, computers and microwaves, contribute towards a cloud of unseen emissions – even when they are switched off.” It’s a sinister idea, and “Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity” is sweeping the nation, or at least the Independent and the Daily Mail last week. Symptoms include fatigue, tiredness, headaches, concentration difficulties, dizziness, nausea, heart palpitations, and digestive disturbances: and since these are real symptoms, causing genuine distress, the problem deserves to be considered seriously, and carefully.

The immediate question – and it’s worth asking of the smart-meters site too – is, what is the scientific evidence to support claims that EMF ‘smog’ affects people’s health? And also, if there is an apparent correlation between exposure and ill-health, does that equate to a causal relationship?

At this point, it’s also worth saying that – like Ben Goldacre & indeed pretty much everyone who’s written on this subject from the evidence-based science perspective – I don’t think those reporting electromagnetic sensitivity are hypochondriacs. Their symptoms exist & many sound rather unpleasant. The question is whether those symptoms are due to EMF exposure.

When Ben wrote his original piece he found that there were 31 published studies that examined the claims for EMF sensitivity; that is,

whether people who report being hypersensitive to electromagnetic fields can detect their presence, or if their symptoms are worsened by them.

A meta-analysis of those 31 papers is available here, & it’s important to note that in many cases the researchers measured actual symptoms as well as whether or not the participants could detect EMFs. The majority of these studies (N=24) found no evidence to support that hypothesis. Of the remaining 7 research projects, it turned out that the results were “statistical artefacts” (3 studies – the stats issues are explained very well in the Bad Science article), or could not be replicated, not even by the original authors (2 studies); the last 2 studies produced mutually inconsistent results.

However, scientists didn’t stop there; the question of whether “electromagnetic sensitivity” is real continues to be the focus of research. With pretty much the same findings. For example, in 2008 the Health Council of the Netherlands found (page 73 of the pdf at this link) that

Both in the living environment and in the laboratory, studies have been performed into a possible link between exposure to electromagnetic fields and the occurrence of symptoms. Several of these studies were not properly designed and cannot be used for the analysis

and concluded

From the good quality scientific data emerges the picture that there is no causal relationship between exposure to radio-frequency electromagnetic fields and the occurrence of symptoms. However, there is a relationship between symptoms and the assumption of being exposed and therefore most likely with the risk perception. Nevertheless, the symptoms do exist and require a solution.

A 2010  project updated the 2005 meta-analysis, adding a further 15 studies, and again found no link, saying that

Despite the conviction of IEI-EMF sufferers that their symptoms are triggered by exposure to electromagnetic fields, repeated experiments have been unable to replicate this phenomenon under controlled conditions

and a study published earlier this year also found no correlation between participants’ symptoms and their actual exposure to EMFs. The authors of this paper go further, concluding that

Media reports about the adverse effects of supposedly hazardous substances can increase the likelihood of experiencing symptoms following sham exposure and developing an apparent sensitivity to it. Greater engagement between journalists and scientists is required to counter these negative effects.

Back to where we began: on the plus side, the smart-meters website does admit that the various health problems it lists (headaches, insomnia, fatigue, muscle aches, memory problems, and alterations in moods including irritability, depression, and anxiety attacks – all vague, in the sense that it’s often hard to pin down a cause)

are not necessarily due to EMR exposure, so anyone with these symptoms should consult their doctor to determine the cause. If the problem is due to EMR exposure, the symptoms should subside when the person is not exposed.

True enough, although the author does definitely incline to the idea of a causal relationship – in the face of an awful lot of evidence to the contrary.

**Also, now that I think of it , the author also seems to be conflating EMFs and EMR, where the latter stands for electromagnetic radiation. We’re exposed to forms of EMR – eg radio waves – all the time (unless living indoors 24/7, in a fully tinfoil-lined house with no electricity supply), so the exposure’s not going to stop any time soon. Which I suppose leads on to a form of confirmation bias.

Nor does it help that the very first link on their faqs page is to the (in)famous website…

fluoridation: those pesky facts Alison Campbell Jun 12


Reading the comments on a recent Stuff article,I was reminded of the aphorism attributed to Mark Twain: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

The original opinion piece was quite strongly worded; understandably, as this is an issue that’s stirred up strong feelings on both sides. However, there was a tendency for the vituperation in the comments section to be delivered by those who came across as ‘anti’. There was also a tendency from those in that camp to misrepresent facts to suit their point of view. Here’s an example: a commenter claimed that:

salmon are unaffected by natural 1ppm fluoride in ocean water where calcium is extremely high but are narcotized by industrial fluoride in soft water at only 0.3ppm (Damkaer and Dey [15].

That they included a citation number (the [15]) indicates that this was in fact a cut-&-paste from an article somewhere else. But then a colleague of mine pointed out that this was completely incorrect and Damkaer & Dey (1989) had said nothing of the sort (you’ll find the original paper here):

Damkaer and Dey say no such thing. They showed that some salmonid species are able to make a choice to avoid water at concentrations of fluoride at 0.5 ppm when swimming up a river with ambient fluoride concentrations of 0.1-0.2 ppm. There was no evidence, or even mention, of them being “narcotized”. Salmonids show avoidance (or selection) for all sorts of chemicals, even at very low concentrations. Salmonids are particularly good at detecting chemicals at low concentrations in water – they use it as a mechanism to find their home streams, where they were spawned, as adults.

This comment promptly received 16 “dislikes”. Interesting to see that response, rather than engagement with the actual information. Which leads me to wonder, if the case against fluoridation is so strong, why some of its proponents feel the need to resort to distortion & downright misrepresentation of facts in order to bolster it. As this excellent blog post on The Ruminator says, you’re entitled to your opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts. (Go on, go & read the whole thing. And the comments.)

I was reminded of a discussion I had recently with a friend who had been on a team-building exercise: apparently the facilitator commented that people who think factually see the world in black-&-white, while those who rely more on intuition are “shades of grey” thinkers. But given the comments of those who just “know” that fluoridation’s bad for you, I’d have to disagree.

(I also wonder whether Hamilton’s councillors found the time to read the various papers cited – sometimes in quite a misleading way – in support of moves to drop fluoridation…)


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