I’ve noticed something about the pseudoscience world – they love to “prove” their point by pointing to a Harvard (or some other prestigious university) research study that they believe supports their claims. It usually doesn’t. Now we have something floating around the anti-vaccine interwebs – there’s a Harvard vaccine study that says that unvaccinated kids are not dangerous to other children.
No, Harvard published no such a study. But our favorite false authority, Tetyana Obukhanych, did make these claims, which we have debunked previously. Basically, the new claims in the anti-vaccine blogosphere are related to a letter she wrote in opposition to SB277, California’s law that eliminates personal belief exemptions for vaccines prior to entering school.
Since most of those who caught the disease were vaccinated with the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella, the anti-vaccine interwebs are jumping up and down pointing at the pro-science people and saying, “neener neener, vaccines don’t work.” Yeah, they’re that immature. And they are absolutely wrong.
Let’s take a look at the whole story, including some very simple math, which even science deniers should understand. Then we can thoroughly debunk the tropes pushed by the vaccine deniers. This should be fun.
When I was a kid (probably 6 or 7), there was a big controversy in our community whether the water would be fluoridated or not. Now, I was just becoming fascinated by science, medicine, health, and sports at that time, so I tried to figure out what was happening.
To my ears and adolescent brain, the argument boiled down to no fluoridation (which meant cavities and visits to the dentist) vs. fluoridation (which was a communist conspiracy). Scary choices. Though Nazi dentists were also plenty scary.
But I grew up, and fluoridation became more common, as communities accepted the evidence that fluoridate water was safe, and improved the health of the community’s teeth. Water systems are mostly fluoridated (unless you drink bottled water).
And fluoride is in toothpaste and various mouthwashes. I thought the fluoridation controversy had passed into history with rotary phones, the Soviet Union, and the slide rule. My younger readers probably have never seen any of those three in their native states.
Water fluoridation is a controversy that just doesn’t seem to go away, despite the overwhelming evidence of successfully reducing the rate of cavities in children (and adults), while also having little or weak evidence that there are any risks. When I was a kid, I remember controversies about fluoridating water. But I just hated dentists, so to my young, immature scientific mind, if fluoridation kept me from the dentist, that was a good thing!
Today, fluoridated water has become ubiquitous in the USA and many other countries. Unless you drink bottled or filtered water, or avoid fluoride toothpastes (or mouthwashes), most children and adults get an adequate level of fluoride to maintain good dental health. I actually thought that the fluoridation controversy had passed into history with rotary phones, the Soviet Union, and the slide rule.
Yes, there are groups that still fight against water fluoridation, and there are many people who think that fluoridation is bad.
The John Birch Society, a right wing conspiracy group that I thought had passed into history, still considers water fluoridation to be mass medicine and once thought of it as a communist plot to poison Americans (see Schneider & Lilienfeld, 2011). Ironically, on the opposed side of the political spectrum, leftists, like the UK’s Green Party, are opposed to fluoridation because of the mass medicine idea, a concern occasionally expressed by antivaccine proponents. So it’s really not a right or left political issue. It seems to be, like many medical issues (for example, vaccinations), a matter of good science versus bad science (or even no science). Continue reading “Water fluoridation-an update”
This is a story about clinical research, misinterpreting said clinical research, an overaggressive Public Relations department, honest scientists, and good scientific journalism. Let’s start at the beginning.
Men who had greater than 1 daily serving of diet soda had increased risks of NHLs and multiple myeloma. Women had no observed increased risks.
They also observed an unexpected elevated risk of NHL with a higher consumption of regular, sugar-sweetened soda in men but not in women.
Neither regular nor diet soda increased risk of leukemia but were associated with increased leukemia risk when data for men and women were combined.
Based on these results, you might think that diet sodas are dangerous, at least for men. Or maybe just sodas (or pop), whether sweetened with sugar or artificial sweeteners, are dangerous. Or maybe not. The authors themselves conclude:
Although our findings preserve the possibility of a detrimental effect of a constituent of diet soda, such as aspartame, on select cancers, the inconsistent sex effects and occurrence of an apparent cancer risk in individuals who consume regular soda do not permit the ruling out of chance as an explanation.
In other words, there’s really not much there. And that’s not bad in science. They tried to look for something, and they didn’t find anything. Maybe those men who drank sodas heavily had other confounding risk factors like obesity, diet, or other environmental factors. Or it may just be random.
At this point in the story, it’s just one of those published articles that really isn’t much of anything. No one would make much of it, because it really doesn’t provide much evidence that aspartame or sodas are that dangerous.
Then Brigham and Women’s Hospital puts out a press release with an attention grabbing headline of “The truth isn’t sweet when it comes to artificial sweeteners.” Now, if you saw that headline, you would have assumed that the article provided a solid conclusion that there was a direct causal link between artificial sweeteners and certain cancers. But the article said no such thing, it showed a very weak link, if one at all.
I guess the real scientists at Harvard saw the press release and decided their reputations mattered more than marketing the hospital in an unethical way. But whatever the real story, the hospital issued an “apology”:
It has come to our attention that the scientific leaders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital did not have an opportunity, prior to today, to review the findings of the paper entitled “Consumption of Artificial Sweetener and Sugar Containing Soda and the Risk of Lymphoma and Leukemia in Men and Women”, to be published in today’s Journal of Clinical Nutrition (sic). Upon review of the findings, the consensus of our scientific leaders is that the data is weak, and that BWH Media Relations was premature in the promotion of this work. We apologize for the time you have invested in this story.
Uh, it’s actually the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, shocking they can’t get that right. Maybe I’m just being picky, but Public Relations should represent the organization better than that.
Robert Bazell, NBC News reported that “the situation is a great example of why the public often finds science confusing and frustrating. After being asked some hard questions – and just before the report was to be released — the hospital changed its tune.”
Bazell further reports that “the conclusion was so weak that the researchers had to submit it to six journals before they found a seventh, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, that would publish it. Few reporters read that journal. If it was not for the frightening headline no one would have known about this study.”
This study was a well-intended one that could have found a causal link if there was one, because of the way it sought out information. But it did not find the link, and that is how research is done. Sometimes, you find evidence of the null hypothesis, that artificial sweeteners don’t do anything.
And just in case there’s any confusion, Bazell reported that the lead author Schernhammer, when asked whether the published “research proves that aspartame is dangerous, she answered emphatically, ‘No, it does not.'”