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Book Review: Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, by Pope Brock 

Price: US$14.95
Paperback: 
324 pages
Publisher:
 Three Rivers Press, New York, USA (2008)
Language:
 English
ISBN: 978-0-307-33989-8
                                                                  

Goat glands, greed, and the gullibility of others turned out to be a winning combination for John R. Brinkley. In the early years of the 20th century it seemed as if science could do anything, perhaps even extend life - including life in the bedroom - well beyond the allotted three-score years and ten. Brinkley saw a market there, and managed to parlay the testicles of young goats, combined with the gullibility of the vain, the impotent, and the just plain desperate into an enormous personal fortune.

Pope Brock's biography of Brinkley, Charlatan, is both entertaining & alarming in equal measure. Entertaining, because it's quite a rollicking read. Alarming, because it highlights how easy it is for someone with a persuasive manner and a feel for the market to hoodwink an awful lot of people, and get rich doing it. For despite the fact that Brinkley had no real medical training, he somehow manage to persuade large numbers of men to part with good money (hard to come by, in the Depression years) for the dubious privilege of having the gonads of young billy goats implanted into their own scrotums. (These days, I guess people buy cialis & horny goatweed on-line instead.) We're not told what subsequently happened to the goats.

Now, the mind boggles at the sequelae of this, given the way your immune system would likely reject the goat gonads, & the likelihood of the transplants decaying anyway since they'd have had no blood supply. But nonetheless, Brinkley prospered & somehow people never seemed to hear of the folks for whom things went very, very pear-shaped. Nor was he alone in his endeavours: other quacks offered chimp glands, vasectomies, & various 'electric' treatments - for rejuvenation, as well as the more personal problems in the bedroom, but somehow it was Brinkley who rose to the top, eventually even travelling to Japan to market his techniques.

Brinkley fairly quickly set up shop in a purpose-built hospital in Milford, Kansas. You'd think that staying in one place for too long would not be a sensible move for a charlatan, but Brinkley prospered there - to the extent that he even ran for governor. Perhaps he was bringing so much money, & business, into the town that people turned a blind eye to his failures. Brock describes how Brinkley built his own not-so-small empire in Milford. Having recognised the power of advertising, the good doctor expanded into mail-order nostrums for pretty much anything that ailed you, and then into the brave new world of the airwaves. When the regulators finally removed his medical licence, he simply left a couple of locums to do the operations and threw himself into expanding his radio operations, eventually broadcasting from a massive station just over the border with Mexico (to get around the US ruling that radio stations could use only 5000 watts: Brinkley deafened the southern states with his 500,000 W transmitter). In the process, Brock tells us, he even kickstarted America's love affair with country-&-western music.

There was, of course, an eventual reckoning. Into Brinkley's story, Pope weaves the tale of the various medical investigators who tried to shut him down; most notably, Morris Fishbein, eventually the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. It took years, but finally, in 1939, Brinkley had his day in court, and lost. Once found guilty of medical malpractice, he was sued by many individuals & the IRS chased him for back taxes. His radio station closed, & he died in 1942.

But why did Brinkley have such a long run? You'd think, with a 'treatment' that was worthless, reality would have caught up with him much earlier. In explanation, Brock provides the following quote from Samuel Johnson, which probably goes a long way to explain why charlatans like Brinkley have never really left us:

[W]e go with expectation and desire of being pleased; we meet others who are brought by the same motives; no one will be the firest to own the disappointment; one face refelects the smile of another, till each believes the rest delighted, and endeavours to catch and transmit the circulating rapture. In time, all are deceived by the cheat to which all contribute. The fiction of happiness is propagated by every tongue, and confirmed by every look, till at last all profess the joy which they do not feel, [and] consent to yield to that general delusion.

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Any discussion around water fluoridation will bring up quite a number of concerns, but increasingly - on-line anyway - conspiracy theories also come to the fore. I think the latter need to be addressed, but not at the risk of ignoring or failing to address the former. Worrying about the nature of what's in our water supply, & its possible health impacts, is both natural and understandable - especially given that there's so much information (of varying quality) out there, & sometimes the people you hear are the ones who shout the loudest. Which is not necessarily the same as those who have the strongest case. As I've said before, that's what drew me into this debate in the first place: the way science has been misrepresented by those wishing to bolster a case against water fluoridation.

My own personal opinion is that the issue should really be addressed in terms of ethics and societal responsibilities, and it's sad to see that attempts to have this discussion (on-line, anyway) are so often diverted yet again to a you-said-we-said about the science. I do wonder what this does for those 'lurkers' who may be following the to-&-fro - & I see I'm in good company in that respect.

Actually, it must get really confusing, for reading some of the on-line comments about fluoridation, I'm still surprised at how often conspiracy theories crop up. (I shouldn't be, I suppose, but I am.) The pharma shill gambit is quite common: the idea that people holding views that differ from the speaker's, must be being paid to hold them. In the case of fluoridation, I think people need to do their sums. In Hamilton, the cost of buying HFA to add to municipal water supplies was around $48,000 each year. That's not a lot to go around all the local scientists, dentists, healthcare workers, and humble bloggers accused of being bought by big business by anti-fluoride activists... (This is something also addressed in Harriet Hall's excellent post over at Science-Based Medicine. Bob Park's 'seven signs of bogus science' is also relevant.)

One might well ask why our opinions need to be bought. I've asked this more than once. One commenter told me darkly that all would be revealed in due course. (I'm still waiting.) The usual reason is some unspecified conspiracy by big business and government agencies, although again, it's not at all clear what they're getting out of it.

Unless, of course, the population is being dumbed down to blindly accept all sorts of attacks on our liberties. This seems to be linked to the fact that the tranquiliser prozac contains fluoride, & to the 'Hitler/the Nazis used it' meme - a claim, Ken Perrott notes, that was trotted out in the Hamilton City Council's 'tribunal' on water fluoridation.. Unfortunately for this one, Hitler didn't, & prozac contains much higher amounts of fluoride than town supply water would. (There have also been attempts to link fluoride with the nerve gas sarin; a sort of slur by association. Yes, there's a fluorine atom in there. There's also carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, & phosphorus: the formula for sarin is C4H10FO2P.)

Or perhaps it's all a plot to reduce the world's population! This one seems to be based on the observation that at high concentrations fluoride does affect the endocrine system: levels much higher than those found in town supply water. This means that fluoride's hardly an effective tool for population control if no-one's adding it at the requisite concentration. (China, with its one-child policy, doesn't fluoridate at all, at least in part because in some regions water fluoride concentrations are already elevated.) This 'theory' is further based on major misunderstandings of work by John Holdren, who with Paul & Anne Erlich discussed the burgeoning human population & various actions that might curb its growth in the book Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment. At one point they noted that a population of around 1 billion might be optimal in ecological terms (we're already at 7 billion & counting). This has been (mis)interpreted as advocacy for deliberately reducing the population to this level and, because of the known impact of high levels of fluoride on endocrine functioning, then gasp! fluoride must be part of the plot.

Ultimately, all these conspiracy theories require that an awful lot of people should be corrupt. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of scientists, falsifying their research, hiding the bits that don't fit the story, suborning new researchers as they come along. They'd have to be in every research institution in the world. It would cost ridiculously large amounts of money (money, in the case of fluoridation of water, that simply isn't there.) Governments and the media would have to be in on it as well. And that's not possible. Someone, somewhere, would provide evidence of what was going on.

And indeed, the various conspiracies can't be all that good, if various brave mavericks are able to a) recognise what's going on and b) spread their findings (on the internet & elsewhere) without the men in black turning up & carrying them away. 

ooops....

 

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Elf Eldridge has just put up this excellent post on a breaking news story. The issue? that it seems schools are increasingly pulling back from making science compulsory in year 11. From the Stuff article:

Scientists are alarmed as a growing number of schools considering [sic] ditching science from the compulsory curriculum because it is too difficult for some pupils.

Schools across the country are pulling the pin on year 11 science, saying the step up from year 10 was too big and students were struggling to achieve NCEA level 1.

Now, this is something that's been possible for a number of years; it's a decision made by individual schools rather than the Ministry of Education. (I don't agree with this, but there you are.) The time a school devotes to science, & the subjects it offers, can be chipped away at, or (hopefully!) increased, for all sorts of reasons: the school community specifically wants change in the science on offer (for an extreme example, see my previous post); the school is keen, or under pressure, to offer other subjects, & so the number of credits a student need take in science is reduced; a school doesn't have a specialist teacher to deliver eg physics or chemistry to senior students.

However, I disagree with the idea - reported in the Stuff story - that year 11 science may be the only exposure to science that a student gets. This Education Review Office document makes it quite clear that science is a compulsory part of the school curriculum for years 1 to 10 (inclusive), so I'm hoping that the Secondary Principals' Association president was misquoted on that one.

But dropping science in year 11 because students find it 'too hard'? We are doing all students a significant disservice if we go down that route. Hopefully the Ministry of Education's just-announced advisory group will be looking carefully at this one. Why is science "not accessible" for all students? Why has the subject become "more difficult for some students to pass"? Along with those questions I think they should also be looking at how the 'Nature of Science' strands are being delivered - there are a fair few resources available to support this, but it may come down to how they are used ie simply to deliver content, or to do this and engage students in developing an understanding of how science actually operates. For it's that understanding that is clearly required by the NZ Curriculum document: 

This compulsory [years 1-10] strand emphasises the importance of scientific processes in helping students understand the way scientific knowledge is developed and how science relates to their lives and the everyday context of wider society.

This is important. Science is not just for those individuals intending to go on to a career in the sciences. Science is for everyone if they're to participate fully in our society & the decisions we make. The trick will be to identify what's wrong and put it right.  

I think that a commenter on Elf's post has nailed it: 

It seems to me the fundamental issue is not necessarily that science is hard, more that students aren't enjoying science. And that's the biggest shame, because every kid I have ever come across has been driven to understand their environment. What is happening that they lose that sense of wonder? How can it be taught in a more appealing way?

And after I'd talked about this issue with friends, one of them emailed me: 

This is a crazy world we live in. Without a future generation of scientists, where will we be? Science is fun, it is exciting, it is creative. We should be afraid if science is dropped from the curriculum! Too hard? Is that like saying it's boring? Encouragement for students to discover their natural world is essential. We certainly ensure that students participate in PE, speeches etc even when that is terrifying and demoralising for some students. Should we stop that too?

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Every now & then I've had someone say to me that there's no harm in children hearing about 'other ways of knowing' about the world during their time at school, so why am I worried about creationism being delivered in the classroom? 

Well, first up, my concerns - & those of most of my colleagues - centre less on whether teaching creationism/intelligent design is bringing religion into the science classroom1, & more on how well such teaching prepares students for understanding and participating in biology in the 21st century. For example, if a school can make statements like this

It is important that children and adults are clear that there is one universal truth. There can only be one truthful explanation for origins that means that all other explanations are wrong. Truth is truth. Biblical truth, scientific truth, mathematical truth, and historical truth are in harmony2.

and go on to list the "commonly accepted science we believe in", then their students are not gaining any real understanding of the nature of science. And the statements regarding the science curriculum that I've linked to above indicate that it's not just biology with which the school community has an issue. Physics, geology, cosmology: all have significant sections listed under "commonly accepted 'science' we do not believe in"3. (Did you notice the quote marks around that second mention of science?) 

Science isn't a belief system, & while people are entitled to their own opinions they are not entitled to their own facts. Any school science curriculum that picks & chooses what is taught on the basis of belief is delivering (to quote my friend David Winter) "a pathetic caricature of actual science, ... undermin[ing] science as a method for understanding the world and leav[ing] the kids that learned it very poorly prepared to do biology in the 21st century." Or indeed, to engage with pretty much any science, in terms of understanding how science is done and its relevance to our daily lives. And if we're not concerned about that lack of science literacy, well, we should be.

 

although I do think this is a problem too.

2 with the subtext that the first 'truth' takes precedence.

Taken to its extreme, the belief system promoted in teaching creationism as science can result in statements such as this:

We believe Earth and its ecosystems - created by God's intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence - are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing...

...We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth's climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of miniscule changes in atmospheric chemistry.

This does not look like a recipe for good environmental management to me.

 

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I've spent a bit of time lately on the Making Sense of Fluoride Facebook page: I realise there's no convincing the committed anti-fluoride activists who spend time there, but like the other science-y people on the page, I'm hoping to provide information (& counter misinformation) for the 'lurkers' there: the people who visit & read but don't comment.

A common technique of those arguing against fluoridation on the MSF page is to dump large amounts of copypasta (from various sources) & tell us that if we'd only read it we'd see the rightness of their case. Or else, we get a lengthy list of references, & the same admonition. The problem is that if you pick a paper or two at random & do read it, you often find (as I've noted before) that it doesn't say what's claimed for it, or that it contains methodological errors that bring its findings into question.

For example (from a rather long list of references, all of which the commenter claimed to have read): a study by Reddy et al (2011) supposedly found that fluoride accumulated at very high levels in rats' brains. The researchers used 2 groups of male rats: one experimental group, one control. There were only 6 animals in each group, which is a very small sample size. The control group supposedly received no fluoride, but then there were no data on fluoride levels in the tap water they drank or the rat chow they ate. This is a significant flaw & I'd have thought it should have been picked up by peer review.

The experimental rats apparently received 20ppm fluoride by nasogastric tube for 2 months. Actually, it's not actually clear what dose they received: the abstract says 20ppm NaF, but the methods section says "20ppm concentration of fluoride". These are 2 different things. Either way the dose is about an order of magnitude higher than you'd find in fluoridated municipal water in New Zealand, in which case the paper didn't really support the commenter's assertions. Also, after those 2 months the researchers recorded 864mg/kg F- in the rats' brains: given that a large proportion of fluoride is normally excreted, and some of the rest fixed in apatites in bone, this figure looks extremely high & should surely have been questioned by the referees. 

And in addition, both groups of rats lost a great deal of weight during the course of the study. While the average body weight of the animals was 180g (+/-20g), after 2 months the control animals weighed on average 111g, while the experimental group was down to 93g (both +/- 2g). This strongly suggests they were either ill, or not receiving adequate food.

Another example: Bataineh & Nusier's 2006 report on the effects of sodium fluoride (NaF) on behaviour and reproduction in male rats is presented to us. Let's have a look: in the very first sentence of the abstract, we see that the experimental animals received either 100ppm or 300ppm NaF for 12 weeks, while the controls received normal drinking water (1.2ppm NaF). So the experimental rats were receiving a dose up to 2 orders of magnitude higher than what's normally found in fluoridated town supply! Unsurprisingly the control rats continued to do what rats normally do. In other words, the dose makes the poison - this paper does nothing to bolster claims that fluoridated municipal water is harmful to health. 

But point this out and what do we get? Cries of 'more excuses' and/or an immediate switch of attention to the next thing that appears to show teh ebils of fluoridation. It seems that the Gish Gallop is a technique not restricted to creationists.

Bataineh, H.N., Nusier, M.K. (2006) Impact of NaF on aggression, sexual behaviour and fertility in male rats. Fluoride 39(4): 293-301

Reddy, P.Y., Reddy, K.P., Kumar, K.P. (2011) Neurodegenerative changes in different regions of brain, spinal cord and sciatic nerve of rats treated with sodium fluoride. J.Med.Allied Sci 1(1): 30-35

 

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I first wrote about charter schools just over a year ago. At the time I was commenting on statements that such schools would be able to employ as teachers people who lacked teaching qualifications, wondering how that could sit with the Minister's statements around achieving quality teaching practice. But I also noted concerns that charter (oops, 'partnership') schools could set their own curricula, as this would have the potential to expand the number of schools teaching creationism in their 'science' classes.

Well, now the list of the first 5 charter schools has been published: two of those schools is described (in the linked article) as intending to "emphasise Christian values in its teaching." By itself that =/= creationism in the classroom - but yesterday Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint program (17 September 2013) reported that the school's offerings will probably include just that: 

In addition the prinicipal has reportedly said that the school will teach "Christian theory on the origin of the planet." 

And today we're told (via RNZ

The Education Minister has conceded there's nothing to prevent two of New Zealand's first charter schools teaching creationism alongside the national curriculum.

Two of the five publicly-funded private schools, Rise Up and South Auckland Middle School, have contracts that allow a Christian focus.

The minister, Hekia Parata, said on Tuesday that none of the five schools would teach creationism alongside or instead of evolutionary theory.

But on Thursday she told the House two of the schools will offer religious education alongside the curriculum.

Ms Parata did not specify how the two would be differentiated in the classroom.

South Auckland Middle School has told Radio New Zealand it plans to teach a number of theories about the origins of life, including intelligent design and evolution.

Point 1 (trivial, perhaps?): South Auckland Middle School needs to look into just what constitutes a theory in science. (Hint: a theory is a coherent explanation for a large body of facts. "A designer diddit" does not remotely approach that.)

Point 2 (not trivial at all): Why do people responsible for leading education in this country think it acceptable for students to learn nonscience in 'science' classes? After all, the Prime Minister has commented on "the importance of science to this country." Evolution underpins all of modern biology so how, exactly, does actively misinforming students about this core concept prepare those who want to work in biology later? Nor does teaching pseudoscience sit well with the increased emphasis on 'nature of science' in the NZ Curriculum.

This is really, really disappointing. We already have 'special character' schools which teach creationism in their classrooms (see here, here and here, for example). It's irking in the extreme that state funding will be used to support the same in the new charter schools.

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Every now & then (well, fairly often, if I'm honest) I join in discussion at the Making Sense of Fluoride page on Facebook. This page was set up to discuss the actual science (as distinct from personal opinions) around what's become the very fraught issue of water fluoridation, and over the last few weeks the number of anti-fluoride commenters there has increased.

I can now report that - in some folks' eyes anyway - I have joined the ranks of the Paid Pharma Shills. It seems that those of us who write posts or comments that are in any way positive about fluoride in municipal water supplies must be being paid to do so, cos otherwise, well, we just wouldn't do it, would we? In vain does one protest that the cheques have yet to arrive!

But seriously, it's an interesting mindset that believes that people could not possibly hold an opposing view without receiving some sort of kickback for doing so. It could, I suppose, reflect the fact that at least some anti-fluoridation activists seem to be quite big on conspiracy theories (I have yet to see claims of reptilian overlord involvement, but it may only be a matter of time until someone discovers David Icke). 

On the same page, we've also had a couple of commenters now bringing up the myth that Hitler/the Nazis used fluoride during World War II, either to subdue the populace or to kill (details are a little unclear), thus Godwining the particular thread they're writing on. In this particular context the intention is quite clearly to label those discussing the actual science around fluoridation as Nazis. And the problem with this implicit comparison is that it's baseless.

The two 'sources' commonly used to support this particular urban myth are Charles F. Perkins' book "The Truth about Water Fluoridation" and "The Crime and Punishment of I.G. Farben", by Joseph Borkin. Both books are available in digital format through Scribd (& the hyperlinked titles will take you there). Because they're in digital form it's an easy matter to do a search for terms such as 'fluoride', 'fluoridation', 'Hitler', and 'Nazis'.

The results? While fluoride/fluoridation is mentioned in Perkins' book (as you'd expect, with that title), there is no reference at all to either Hitler or the Nazis. Similarly, Borkin's book has absolutely no reference to fluoride, or fluoridation. None whatsoever.

Another conspiracy theory bites the dust. Or it should. Unfortunately these things seem to be a bit like zombies, with a life all their own.

 

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A few weeks back I briefly mentioned the 'bobbit worm' - a rather large polychaete worm of scary appearance (a friend said 'nightmarish' was closer to the mark) and predatory habits. I've noticed on Facebook how interest in any particular subject seems to come in waves, and so it is with this creature. 

For via FB I've come to Matt Simon's interesting article - with Jenny Huang's rather lovely photo - on wiredscience.

File:Eunice aphroditois.jpg

Image by Jenny Huang,via Wikimedia

A beautiful nightmare, then.

Apparently there's not a lot known about them in the wild, but these worms can be a right pain in the proverbial for aquarium keepers: bring in some coral for your tropical marine tank, & it's possible there's a little bobbit worm hiding in there, ready to come out & pick off your fish when it's feeling peckish. And growing bigger... up to 3 metres or more in length.

It's possible that, like other similar polychaetes, bobbit worms reproduce in a distinctly odd manner: at certain times of year the rear part of each worms body, packed with gametes, breaks off and swims upwards to the surface in a massive, mass mating swarm. Which leaves Simon with the opportunity for a truly excellent punch-line for his story:

Hate to leave you with the image of a beautiful tropical ocean swarming with sex-crazed 10-foot-long worms with hair-trigger jaws, but that's totally happening now.

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The image below is of the bee orchid, Ophrys apifera. I know I'm 'seeing' something - the 'face' - that isn't really there (an example of pareidolia), but still, that's one happy-looking flower!

File:Ophrys apifera (flower).jpg

Image courtesy of Hans Hillewaert, from wikimedia.

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In the run-up to our local Council elections and the associated (non-binding) referendum on water fluoridation, I've spent a bit of time on a couple of science-based Facebook pages, discussing the various issues associated with fluoridation. My main interest in doing this is because, frankly, I'm appalled by the misrepresentation and distortion of science coming from some of those on the anti-fluoride side of the debate. (As I've said before, I think it would be excellent to have the discussion around whether individuals should be free to add fluoride to their diet/water on an individual basis - which then leads us to issues such as the question of supporting those who would want to so but cannot afford to. But so far this isn't really happening.)

And what's really amazed (& saddened me) is the huge amount of negativity - &, I must say it, downright aggression - from almost all the anti-fluoridation individuals who also comment there. Apparently those of us discussing the scientific evidence and debunking the misquoting and mispresentation of the same, are variously bosom-dwelling vipers; bought scientists; very ugly people; evil; the worst kind of scientist; and presenting the worst kind of propaganda. One can only sigh & think fondly of the late Margaret Thatcher's take on such behaviour (substitute 'scientific' for 'political'):

I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.

Now, I recognise this is an issue where feelings run high, and where everyone is going to have an opinion. But in instances where much of the 'argument' consists of statements often based on misreadings of the science, combined with that outright rudeness & aggression, then it is a real concern. And yes, I am bothered when opinions unsubstantiated by current scientific understanding are nonetheless presented as fact. For example, on-line and in letters to the editor you'll regularly hear that if we live in a fluoridated area we're drinking highly toxic, acidic industrial waste every time we fill a glass from the tap. And it doesn't seem to matter how often we attempt to put this one right.

In some ways this is characteristic of what I've seen characterised as 'science denialism', and it would be really, really good to understand what leads people to take such positions. And what scientists and science communicators could do about it. The chap in the office next door says I should write a book on it - for some reason he seems to think I have time on my hands! - but first I would need to understand the whys & wherefores. So please feel free to give your opinions here! 

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I mean, look at those really weird spines!

Image from Moorea Biocode via ScienceAlert

This unusual creature is Chondrocidaris brevispina, which appears to be much less spiny than the urchins we're probably all more familiar with. Those pinkish pimply bumps towards the creature's right-hand side are the bases of missing spines, which articulate with their bumps via a type of ball joint.

As the name 'brevispina' suggests, the spines are quite short. Those pink swellings on the end of each are apparently sponges, which leads me to wonder what restricts the sponges' downward spread along each spine. Their lower limit seems very well defined. If this was a 'normal' urchin I'd wonder if that was due to the action of the structures known as pedicellariae, which are capable of nipping & crushing (& are sometimes venomous as well) - they'd certainly take care of an overgrowth of sponge!

Alas! Information on C.brevispina seems fairly scanty - a pity as I really would like to know more about those spines. Hopefully someone more learned in this area than I am can help me out :)

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