Today I added a new CounterClaim page about cancer. This is a complex and highly emotive topic, with most adults in the industrialized world knowing at least one person who has died of cancer. It’s also a controversial subject, with many different claims and counterclaims about the relationships between the different types of cancer, what does and doesn’t cause it, or contribute to it, and what does and doesn’t work in treating it.

As with any topic related to both human health and medicine, and the use of chemicals in domestic and industrial products, what people believe about cancer has major consequences for companies in the pharmaceutical and chemicals industries. As such, there’s bound to be PR companies muddying the waters about what scientific findings can really tell us about the nature of cancer, its causes, and its treatment. This PR cancer definitely needs the CounterClaim treatment.

I also did a bit of work on updating the page template that explains how CounterClaim pages are laid out. As well as a bit of minor tweaking of the formatting (eg changing ‘Points of Interest’ to a proper Heading), I added a number of new sections. One is an ‘Improvement Notes’ section at the bottom of the page, where I can record and keep track of tasks that need to be done to improve the page. If and when I can attract other contributors, it may be worth experimenting with using the Tasks tools for this, with a tasks list for each CounterClaim page.

The ‘Points of Interest’ sections will continue to be used for collecting general background info, and dumping links I haven’t yet had time to thoroughly read and use in the page, but I’ve now added two subsections. ‘Primary Sources’ will list all the peer-reviewed papers and other scientific sources relevant to the page topic. ‘News Coverage’ will list relevant articles from news media not identifiably connected to activist groups or think tanks. Articles from partisan groups and organisations will continue to be stored as general ‘Point of Interest’ items, then linked into claims and counterclaims in the tables. All the existing pages will need have these subsections added and populated, which will hopefully stop the general ‘Points of Interest’ working areas from growing like… well… cancers.

As each CounterClaim page grows, I come up with new ideas about what kinds of information need to be included in a CounterClaim page, and how to lay it out, and new solutions to the ongoing challenges of keeping the information on them both thorough and clear. Modifying the page template is a way to record these ideas and solutions while maintaining a reference page that helps to keep a standard page layout across the project. This helps me when creating new pages and updating existing ones, but it also helps keep the project logic clear to any future contributors.

Filed May 28th, 2017 under Uncategorized

As citizens of NZ, contributing to CounterClaim from New Zealand, each member of the CounterClaim project takes full legal responsibility for their copying of any peer-reviewed scientific papers, and other source material copied to the CounterClaim pages for the purposes of private study, research, criticism, review, and news reporting. This non-commercial copying of material restricted by copyright is allowed for such purposes under the “Fair Dealing” exemptions in Part 3 of the NZ Copyright Act (1994). This copying has been in no way checked, approved, or endorsed, by our US-based hosting provider CoActivate.org, or their upstream hosting providers, who are absolved of any and all legal responsibility for the contents of CounterClaim by the “Safe Harbour” provisions of the US Digital Millenium Copyright Act, and other relevant legislation.

Filed May 13th, 2017 under Uncategorized

I spent a big chunk of yesterday working on the Counterclaim page for EMF (ElectroMagnetic Fields) and starting a new page on biochar. These are both areas where a number of well-meaning people (including yours truly), who have been promoting technology they see as socially or environmentally progressive, have come under fire from activists who see them as benefiting only the industrial players involved, and the arguments defending their as misleading PR (Public Relations).

EMF are forms on “non-ionizing radiation” that people have been exposed to for decades. EMF surround everything that has as electrical current flowing through it, from high-tension electric transmission lines to household wiring and appliances. EMF are produced intentionally by modern technologies in the form of the radiofrequency radiation (RF) used in radio and television broadcasts, cell phone networks, wi-fi networks, and most recently wireless “smart meters” that use RF to send electricity usage data from the point of use back to the power company. There have been groups raising public health concerns about EMF pollution for decades, but concerns about the increasing “electrosmog” created by the interaction of all the different forms of EMF people are now being exposed to, and ironically, the ability to access information about them and organise campaigns over the internet, have produced a plethora of new EMF-related watchdog groups.

Public health authorities are under huge pressure from industry not to cry wolf in ways that might be bad for business, and can only make public statements and set regulations based on conclusive scientific data, and if that data supports public health policy that could reduce the profits of powerful companies, it has to be bulletproof to survive the lobbying war that inevitably follows. The WHO has classified cell phone RF as a “possible carcinogen” (https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/are-cell-phones-a-possible-carcinogen-an-update-on-the-iarc-report/), which means there is weak evidence that it might cause cancer, which is more than *no* evidence, but not strong enough evidence to come to a firm conclusion either way. The strongest indication that there may be a case to answer is the group of 190 scientists, from 39 nations, who signed the International EMF Scientist Appeal, all of whom have published peer-reviewed studies relating to health effects of EMF.

This is a subject I feel very conflicted about. I have been a vocal proponent of using wi-fi (wireless networking technology) to extend access to the internet to more people more quickly and cheaply than laying cables. Since my time with Indymedia, along with many other media activist, I’ve been excited by the possibilities wi-f potentially opens up of an internet infrastructure that doesn’t depend on corporate-owned cables and datacentres. The radically democratic values behind this vision were articulated in the Free Network Definition, by the now seemingly defunct Free Network Foundation. The possibility that all of us who’ve been advocating for this vision have been serving as “useful idiots”, covering for a wi-fi equipment industry profiting from health damaging EMF pollution, is a deeply disturbing one.

I feel similarly conflicted about biochar, which I first came across at gatherings of the permaculture movement. Proponents argued that it could be made from fast-growing noxious weeds, like gorse and blackberry, using community-scale, DIY equipment. They made strong claims about its potential as a technology for harvesting energy from biomass waste, improving soil, increasing food production, and sequestering carbon. I’ve read comments by university academics researching it which seem to back this up, like the late Dr Peter Read who researched biochar at Massey University, in in Aotearoa/ NZ. Yet there are also climate campaigners like George Monbiot of the Guardian and Steven Horn of DeSmogBlog, who dismiss it as unworkable, and worse, claim that it could actually cause more harm to the environment. Are they misinformed, or am I, and other permaculturists who support biochar technology, serving as a useful idiot to investors trying to talk up a potential biochar industry? As usual, creating a CounterClaim page on biochar illustrates that there are more than two sides to this story. From my reading so far, it seems that while the benefits of biochar for large-scale carbon sequestration may have been over-hyped, its potential as a way to produce energy from plant waste and add carbon to depleted soils to improve fertility are still very exciting.

Filed March 30th, 2017 under Uncategorized

In August last year, I announced that this project was being renamed from ‘Drilling for Truth’, the working title it started with. The new name I decided to try out was ‘CoSpiracy’, an obvious pun on the fact that many of the topics researched in this project are the subject of one or more conspiracy theories. As I said in the renaming announcement on the blog, the name was also intended to reference the cooperative approach I want to take to researching the claims documented here, in contrast to the scornful accusations like “anti-science” made by the self-styled “skeptics” who seem to pop up defending corporations and entire industries every time environmentalists and other activists criticize their practices.

After trying it on for size for a few months though, it’s become clear to me that this jocular name doesn’t fit the serious intent of the project. So, from today onwards, having checked that there are no significant existing websites using the name, I’m relieved to announce that this project will be retitled ‘CounterClaim’. This name drills right down to what distinguishes this project from the many others that cover similar topics, the particular claim/ counterclaim format that is used here to map out all sides of controversial issues, with reference to specific pieces of evidence.

Sometime in the next few days (all going well), or maybe weeks (if not so well), I will go back through the entire project, replacing ‘CoSpiracy’ with ‘CounterClaim’, and fixing any broken links etc. Watch this space.

Filed May 7th, 2016 under Uncategorized

Sorry to have to report this folks, but Quackwatch operator Stephen Barrett is a either a paid shill or a useful idiot. For example, on YouTube you can now watch the full version of a ‘Smoking Tooth’ video where a number of credible, scientifically-trained sources, demonstrate through scientific method, using a number of different experiments, that mercury dental amalgam fillings release mercury into the body in alarming quantities under normal conditions.

…and here is Barrett hand-waving away their points, using claims that are effectively debunked elsewhere in that same video, and endorsing a class of highly profitable products using classic PR language:

“The minor increase in exposure, which is considered trivial and without risk, is well worth the benefit of having strong, inexpensive, lasting dental restorations.

Compare that to this quote from Muriel Newman, former Member of Parliament for the corporatist ACT party:

“In fact, in a bizarre twist of fate, at a time when advocates of man-made global warming continue to push government policies to restrict energy use and the burning of fossil fuels in order to prevent ‘catastrophic’ warming, the world continues to cool….That is leading to increasing scepticism that the call to sacrifice living standards in order to “save the planet” is just political spin designed to persuade the public to accept green taxes.”

The underlying methodology is the same. Trivialize the problems, and exaggerate the benefits of continuing the practices that are profitable to the industries they are covering for. In Barrett’s case, the industries for whom mercury is a “co-product”  they can sell rather than a waste product they have to pay to dispose of safely, and the pharma companies who buy it, process it, and sell it to dentists. In Newman’s case, the oil industry and other greenhouse gas polluters.

He uses the same propaganda tactics as corporate front groups like Newman’s ‘NZ Centre for Political Research‘, covering up the logical fallacies in his arguments and evidence with scorn, mockery, and bullying. A classic example is calling people who disagree with him “anti-science”, a tactic pioneered in the 1980s by the tobacco industry, and used since in defence of everything from DDT to genetic engineering of non-human animals and food plants (”Genetically Modified Organisms” or “GMOs”).

Whether he is genuinely in the sway of corporatist propaganda, or accepting money to pretend he is, is neither here nor there. Barrett is a “skeptic” about the health harms of mercury amalgam (and water fluoridation and all sorts of others profitable toxics), in the same way that Ian Plimer is a “skeptic” about climate change.

Filed January 21st, 2016 under Uncategorized

I’ve been looking for a better name for the ‘Drilling for Truth’ project for a while now. Although “drilling for truth” is an accurate enough description of what this project is about, it’s very similar to the name of TruthDig, and such a common phrase in online journalism it’s become something of a cliche.

CoSpiracy is, of course, a pun on “conspiracy”. It implies (I hope) a Cooperative (and Constructive) approach to investigating conSpiracy theories, or more specifically, controversial topics which are often the subject of them. I’ve spent a good chunk of today going through all the pages in this project, updating them with the new name, and tidying up various other things (fixing broken links etc).

Another major change is that, as of today, I’m (re)licensing the CoSpiracy project under version 4.0 of the CreativeCommons-Attribution-ShareAlike license (CC-BY-SA 4.0). One of the major changes with version 4.0 of the licenses is that the licenses have been thoroughly internationalized, so the country-specific versions - like the version 3.0 NZ license I originally applied to (what was then) Drilling for Truth - have been discontinued. Although older versions of CC licenses continue to apply forever unless the copyright owner decides to change to a newer version, the version 4.0 licenses are a major upgrade, and with the renaming of the project, it feels like a good time to move to a new, internationalized license.

Plus, as the sole contributor so far, I don’t need anyone else to agree to a license change, something that gets complicated when a wiki project has a lot of contributors who all retain copyright to their own work. Wikipedia had to hold a massive election before they could decide whether to stay with its original license, the GNU FDL (Free Documentation License), or dual-license with the very similar, but more common, CC-BY-SA. Another project which relicensed from the GNU FDL is PowerBase.info, the UK version of SourceWatch.org, who I just noticed switched to a CC license in 2013. At this stage it’s hard to tell which one, as the license statement at the bottom of the page (CC-BY-SA) is a different license from the one indicated by the license graphic (CC-NC-SA), which in turn is a different license from where the link is pointing (CC-BY-NC). I will email them today, pointing this out, and encouraging them to use the same license as SourceWatch, and our own ‘Who Said It?’ pages, so we easily copy and build on each others’ research.

Filed August 20th, 2015 under Uncategorized

As David Graeber explains in his book ‘The Democracy Project‘, the word democracy is used to mean two very different things; a system of government where representatives gain a mandate to rule an area by being elected by popular vote, and a system where everyone directly participates in making decisions which affect their lives. Representative government, in practice is often less democracy than ‘technocracy’, the idea that an educated elite, with specialist knowledge of science and technology, can make better decisions for the benefit of the public than the public themselves. Technocracy is essentially the same as theocracy, just with science used as justification in place of religion.

This month, Water New Zealand issued a press release about water fluoridation, in which CEO John Pfahlert claimed that because “the science is settled” the government should make a law obliging councils to fluoridate all public water supplies. This is classic technocracy. Even accepting Pfahlert’s claims about the science at face value, what he ignores is that just as people can choose to eat unhealthy food, or smoke, or drive cars (all of which kill a *lot* of people unlike dental cavities), they can also legitimately choose not to fluoridate their drinking water.

At present, each city and district council makes this decision for the water supplies it manages, which allows the communities who drink that water a much greater influence over whether it should be fluoridated than they would if it was mandated by central government. Whether or not you agree with Water New Zealand isn’t just about whether you are pro, anti, or on the fence about the pros and cons of fluoridation. In some ways, it’s more about whether you support parliaments centralizing decision-making power, and reducing people’s ability to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

There are a number of things about the pro-fluoride campaign that make me profoundly uncomfortable. One is Ken Perrott, a retired fertilizer chemist whose prolific writing on fluoridation is about as neutral as retired petroleum geologist Ian Plimer’s writing on climate change. Another is the sock puppets, with names like “Cedric Katesby” and “Debz Whipple Chris Price“, who pop up wherever the subject of fluoridation is being discussed online to reiterate one of a handful of empty rhetorical claims, laced with heavy doses of scorn and mockery. The most common of their claims are:

  • fluoride is a naturally occurring element
  • there is no evidence of harm to humans from fluoride dissolved in water at concentrations under 2ppm (part per million)
  • the science is settled, and water fluoridation is normal
  • therefore, opposing fluoridation is a form of “science denialism” and anti-fluoridationists are “anti-science
  • questioning the science of fluoridation is akin to questioning the scientific consensus on climate change, or arguing that the Earth is flat
  • for these reasons, the public should pay not attention to activists groups who oppose fluoridation

The more I see them, the more the constant chanting of these mantra starts to look suspiciously like the sort of key messages cooked up by the Hollow Men and their PR strategists. What these claims distort or ignore is:

  • As clarified on the D4T page on fluoride, fluorine is an element, whereas fluorides are compounds containing fluorine. While some fluorides occur naturally, pro-fluoridationist have publicly admitted that the fluoride compounds used in water fluoridation schemes are industrial byproducts. An Official Information Act request I made through FYI.org.nz shows some chemicals used in fluoridation are made by fertilizer companies, and when independently tested, contained a number of dangerous elements which are bioaccumulative (they build up in the body over time and can’t be eliminated), and therefore dangerous at *any* level.
  • Focusing on a claimed lack of evidence of harm when fluoride levels in water are under 2ppm cleverly avoids discussing the well known, and serious human harm caused by levels higher than 2ppm.
  • The science on fluoridation is far from settled. Epidemiologist Ben Goldacre, in his ‘Bad Science’ column in the Guardian, said, “the reality is that anybody making any confident statement about fluoride – positive or negative – is speaking way beyond the evidence“. Highly esteemed science reviewers the Cochrane Collaboration recently put out a detailed review of the scientific literature on fluoride which stated that much of the research on fluoridation uses flawed methodology, or has an obvious bias, or both. What these highly respected scientists are saying, is that the evidence for benefits is far from clear, which makes any potential risk to public health hard to justify.
  • Once the “science is settled” claim is debunked, the “anti-science” trope and the parallels with climate change don’t stick, and the rest of the house of cards just falls to pieces.

Most importantly, all of these claims about “The Science TM” carefully avoid addressing the ethical objections I mentioned last time fluoridation came up in this blog. The ethical aspect was addressed by Perrot and Price, along with one David Fierstien, when they set up accounts on FYI specifically to troll an anti-fluoridationist who had made an (admittedly poorly worded) OIA request. What their argument boils down to is that because fluoridation chemicals are not “drugs”, making people drink them in their water to prevent dental disease is not a “medical” treatment, so medical ethics involving the need for informed consent from patients don’t apply. This is a clever argument too, because it appears to address this issue, but it’s painfully self-contradictory. Giving people a substance (”drug” or not) to prevent disease is, by definition, a medical treament. Medical ethics apply. On that basis alone, I agree with Water NZ that the government should make a law about water fluoridation - one that bans it.

Filed August 12th, 2015 under Uncategorized

Just a quick update. Today I reorganised the main page a bit, splitting the “Food and Health” category in two, adding categories for “Environment” and “Social Justice”, and putting the “Tools” section under its own subheading, to make it extra clear those items are different from the various topic pages. This was provoked by the overly busy look that resulted from my adding the first new pages since I got back online after my year long “net fast”, one on GM (Genetic Modification) and one on DDT (the controversial pesticide).

GM is a critically important topic for us to get our heads around. From an Aotearoa perspective, the late 1990s saw the beginning of the first wave of pro-GM lobbying by biotech industry lobby groups. This wave broke and rolled back in the face of a broad social consensus against the environmental release of transgenic organisms (usually known as Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs), but in the last few years, there has been a renewed push by the the biotechnology industry, and its critical that everyone knows enough about the scientific arguments for and against GM to make the right decision on whether to support them, or once again oppose them.

Pro-GM groups like like the Life Sciences Network, whose public spokesperson was Dr William Rolleston, were light on references, but heavy on rhetoric; one of their regular claims was that environmentalists who oppose GM were opposed to “progress”. According to an article by Quiggan and Lambert in Propsect Magazine, this “anti-science” trope dates back to the 1980s, when tobacco corporations were desperately trying to distract people from the emerging evidence that their products cause lung cancer by claiming that public interest activsts of all kinds are “anti-science”.

The particular focus of the Quiggan and Lambert’s article is the claim that when the newly coined environmentalist movement, shocked by the revelations in Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”, pushed for a global ban of the use of the insecticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), this resulted in the avoidable deaths of millions of people from malaria. A number of big green groups considered persistent organic pollutants like DDT to be a serious health risk to humans and other species, and wanted the 2001 Stockhold Convention to ban them outright. But faced with evidence that living in houses sprayed with DDT was less wrong than dying of malaria, they accepted an exception which allowed countries to continue using DDT for disease control until better alternatives could be found.

The most recent evidence I could find today suggests that supplying malaria-affected countries with insecticidal misquito nets is both cheaper and more effective than DDT spraying, but as always, Drilling for Truth pages are a work in progress, and any evidence for claims or counterclaim is always warmly welcomed.

Filed June 24th, 2015 under Uncategorized

I don’t have the credentials to make a definitive scientific case for or against water fluoridation based on the highly contested body of evidence available. There are dentists on both sides of the divide. There are academic researchers on both sides. Public health officials vary from wildly enthusiastic about water fluoridation (eg New Zealand, parts of the US) to completely opposed (eg Sweden, in fact excepting the UK, most of Europe). What I do find convincing is the ethical argument, as laid out by numerous writers like Mark Diesendorf, Ph.D (see the original in .PDF form) which says that mass medication without consent is a violation of basic medical ethics. To quote the UK All Party Parliamentary Group Against Fluoridation:

“The right to refuse treatment is accepted as fundamental in a free society, and has been enshrined in human rights legislation, the Patient’s Charter and elsewhere. There is thus a moral imperative on a Government (whether or not it sees itself as legally bound) which can possibly be lifted only in cases of national emergency, and/or highly infectious and/or life-threatening epidemics.”

Here in Aotearoa, a series of multi-day hearings have been held by a number of local government bodies, including New Plymouth District Council and Hamilton City Council, to investigate the safety and efficacy of water fluoridation. In each case the result has been a decision to end the practice, despite the fact that public health officials and academics at the country’s main Dental School in Otago consider the science to be settled in favour of it. With local body elections looming, the Minister of Health is determined to play King Kanute, and turn back the anti-fluoridation tide. He is quoted by TVNZ news as saying:

“There are a number of referenda that are going to happen around the country over the run-up to the local body election period,” Mr Ryall said.

“One of the things I’ve done is I’ve asked the authorities to look at how they can better convey both the health benefits and the social benefits of fluoridation in such a way that people can appreciate those benefits and be aware of them.”

What really bothers me here in the patronising attitude towards the public. In the eyes of technocrats like Ryall we remain the “great unwashed”, incapable of understanding logical arguments or weighing the available evidence for ourselves. In other words, presented with both sides of the argument in a thorough public hearing, people are coming to the *wrong* conclusions. Public servants are now tasked with the PR job of massaging the way the information is presented until we start coming to the *right* conclusions again. If I’m correct in my suspicion that it is the ethical argument that is winning people over, I doubt they can succeed, but it’s truly sad to think about how many thousands of public health dollars are being wasted in the process of trying.

Drilling for Truth has the beginnings of a research page on Fluoride, although much more work needs to be done.

Filed July 7th, 2013 under Uncategorized

I have to admit to being against the use of 1080. However, I’d like to mention that I’m vegan, so not really an advocate of hunting, or the pest-meat industry. Also I’m studying Ecology at Massey, so while I wouldn’t claim to be a scientific expert, I’m certainly not unfamiliar with the issues, or unconcerned about the survival of native species.

Anyway, I can’t help but notice that the Graf Brothers, creators of the anti-1080 documentary Poisoning Paradise, seem to attract some pretty strident critics. When the NZ Department of Conservation produced a critique of the documentary, it produced a rash of comments on the Graf’s website, and I couldn’t help but ask, who are these people trolling the comment thread? Are they useful idiots who really do care about native bush and its ecosystems but cannot grasp that dropping a broad-spectrum poison into that bush is ecocide? Are they provocateurs working for the chemical industry and aiming to:

* start arguments using patronising languge (eg “your movie is constructed on inuendo, fear and cherry picked sentences from 20 year old reports?”)

*distract the discussion onto tangents (eg the country of origin of scientist, or red herrings like creationism)

* claim to the moral high ground (eg you’re not like those of us who are committed to the ecology and conservation of Aotearoa… you’re a hand puppet to the hunting and pest-meat lobby)

One clue to look for is the same (or similar) lines being repeated by different posters, as if they were scripted, eg “please detail (or at least outline) what the issues are that you think are of such importance”. Sometimes these semi-scripted key messages will turn up on multiple fora, news sites etc. Some of these techniques are discussed in Nicky Hagar’s book the Hollow Men. I’m still interested in hearing scientific arguments that support the use of 1080 in our native bush, but this trolling does little to convince me that the pro-1080 discourse emerges from genuine and informed concern for native species.

Filed March 30th, 2013 under Uncategorized
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