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The other day I was involved in a discussion on setting up a ‘citizen science’ program. The people asking the questions were looking at developing outreach: giving talks, helping with local science-y initiatives, setting up websites, & so on. I responded that it all sounded good, and it was great that they were looking at ways of communicating about the science they were doing, but that it didn’t really sound like my understanding of the term ‘citizen science’. (I hasten to add that I’m not an expert: I do a lot of science communication, but this is not the same thing at all.)

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There is some seriously odd stuff on teh intertoobs. A coupe of days ago, one of our 'regulars' on Making Sense of Fluoride posted a link to a page entitled "Water Confusion". It was confusing all right.

Apparently we are confused about "what kind of drinking water is the most health promoting". I would have thought that one was fairly straight-forward: one that's free of pathogens would be a good start. But no; apparently the issue is hydration

hydration [is] on top of the list of medical concerns among sensitive and knowledgeable healthcare practitioners.

 

So if a doctor isn't overtly concerned about my hydration state then she's neither sensitive nor knowledgeable? Hmmmm. (The site owner doesn't agree with fluoridation either.) But wait, there's more:

How many people and doctors know that Pepsi and Coke are highly acidic and actually push our bodies into dehydration because the body needs water to process these corrosive liquids and thus ends up in a water deficit.

 

A quick google search on that one reveals a number of alt.heatlth websites, many with claims about hydration that vary only in the nationality for whom the claims are made. Irish? American? We've got you covered. So my next stop was the invaluable snopes.com (a place I visit regularly ie whenever one of my FB friends posts one of those 'important warning' messages). Snopes debunks both the general claims about how much someone needs to drink on a daily basis - the '8 glasses per day' mantra ignores the fact that food & drinks of any sort contribute to our daily intake) and the idea that cocacola is corrrosive or dehydrating. But wait, there's more:

Apparently water is sensitive to thought and 'fine' classical music (it is?); has a memory (it does?); carries information (really?) & thus can have an effect on our intelligence & how we process information. In this worldview the bloodstream is the 'river of life' - one that's disturbed by vaccines & improved by alkalising our tissues. So here there's a conflation of several forms of woo: homeopathy, pseudoscientific arguments against vaccination, and the idea that bodily ills can be done away with by drinking alkaline water (the site's owner obviously agrees with the line pushed by one Robert Young, that baking soda can be used to cure cancer.) And it's a conflation with the potential to do real harm, if someone with a serious medical condition follows this melange of advice.

From my perspective, the 'highlight' of the page was the discovery that its owner is in some disagreement with one of the kings of woo, Joseph Mercola...

And my title? Drawn from the statement that

When chemical fluids in the form of vaccines are injected into the waters of life (our blood), a great disturbance is created...

 

Obi Wan Kenobi, where are you when you're needed?

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Various commenters on the Uni's FB page for our google hangout earlier this week have urged me & my colleagues to read The Case Against Fluoride, by Drs Connett, Beck & Micklem. One of the reasons we should do is, we're told, is because it's got a whole 80 pages of references (or, as one commenter put it, over 1000 references). Which sounds impressive. (Dr Connett says it himself: "You will note that every argument in this book is backed up with references to the scientific literature - 80 pages in all.") But because I do like to check impressive-sounding numbers (especially when they've been used as a persuading point), when I got hold of a copy of the book, the References section was the first place I went. 

References are separated into two Appendices and the 'Endnotes', which together add up to around 80 pages. At least some sources of those in the appendices don't appear to be cited in the main body of the work, which surprised me a bit: if the material in them is relevant to the book's core thesis, then personally I'd expect to see them cited therein.

On to the endnotes: the first thing I noticed is that a fair number of sources appeared to have been listed multiple times, even within a single chapter. This does have the effect of pumping up the size of the references section. How much? In an idle moment (I do get them sometimes) I sat down & checked.

Looking only at duplicate references within chapters (not between, although there was some duplication there), I found 389 examples where the same source is given multiple citation numbers: 31% of the total 1244 references in the Endnotes are duplicates. That leaves 855 'single' citations, of which 32 are for newspaper stories, magazines, and newsletters; 25 letters, 20 testimonials/personal communications; and 17 videos. The remainder were for books (45) and various journal articles and reports. 

Now, I'd actually expect a number of 'non-traditional' sources in a popular science book, one that's hoping to get people to read more widely on the subject. But it's the first time I've seen TV programs/videos, letters, and newspaper articles described as 'scientific literature'. This is not to say anything about the content of the book, because I've only started looking through it. But it does show the commenters' claims to be somewhat hyperbolic.

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A few days back the Uni communications office asked if I'd be willing to chair a google hangout panel discussion. Subject: the chemistry of fluoride. I'm always interested in trying new things, so I said yes, and yesterday we had our hangout and this is the result:

It was an interesting experience and - from my perspective anyway - quite hard work (keeping track of who wanted to speak, & so on). People submitted questions, via the event's Facebook page & on twitter (which I still haven't delved into; sorry, Kimberley!), & so while it wasn't exactly a dialogue it was more than a one-sided presentation. My colleagues seemed to enjoy the session, several participants thanked us afterwards for running the session, & for a while it seemed that we might get more of that wider discussion that we haven't managed to achieve on other FB pages devoted to the subject of fluoridation.

But then things started to go downhill, in that the all-too-common name-calling and claims that those in favour of fluoridation have been bought, started cropping up. I found it all really frustrating & in the end, posted this in response to one comment:

 

I'd like to address this in a general way. I thought one of the positives that came from yesterday's event was the opportunity for dialogue - something that was emphasised by Carrie when she said that with any contentious issue, we'll only ever get movement when people talk *with* each other rather than at cross purposes. As someone involved with science communication this is something I strongly agree with, and I'm also interested in understanding why the process goes off the rails. So I'd appreciate your considered opinion on what I'm about to say.

First up, I know you & I hold quite different opinions on this particular issue. I fully respect your right to hold your opinions, even though I don't necessarily agree with all of them. What I can't understand (& I'll get in quickly & say, call me naive if you like ) is the tendency for many folks - in this case on the strongly anti-F side of the spectrum - to pretty quickly label those with opposing views as being paid to hold them. Its not something I've ever attributed to those I might be arguing with, nor do I believe it applies to those people I work with here in the Faculty.  

The other thing is, I think we agree that yesterday's event was a good one, and that it would useful to see more like it. It's actually quite hard to get people to commit to doing things like this, but I think these events are an important part of improving engagement between science and the public. (It's why I ran Cafe Scientifique in Hamilton for a number of years.) So I'm concerned when people who put their hands up to speak are subsequently 'targeted' in some way, because I know it's going to made it harder to set up similar events. And that would be a real pity.

 

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Book Review: The Two-Headed Boy and Other Medical Marvels 

by Jan Bondeson

Cornell University Press, USA (2004)

Paperback: i-xxii, 297 pages

ISBN: 0-8014-8958-X

RRP: US419.95

It's all Grant's doing, really. If he hadn't picked up on an off-hand comment of mine (relating to vipers in bosoms) & turned that into a catchy blog post, I quite probably wouldn't have gone looking for other books by Jan Bondeson, or found The Two-Headed Boy and Other Medical Marvels

This is a fascinating, saddening, and occasionally appalling book by a humane and extremely well-read author. The subjects of Bondeson's essays are those who are (or were, for these are historical essays) in someway very very different from the rest of us: the exceptionally tall, the enormously obese, the unnaturally hairy, the two-headed boys of the title. Those who in what we'd like to regard as a less-enlightened age would have spent their lives in what were then called 'freak' shows, for others to gawk and gape at. (Not that this horrified fascination with those who are different has disappeared. We just don't deem it appropriate to pay to indulge it.) And while the money may have poured in from the gawkers, all too often most of it made its ways into the pockets of 'managers', and not the afflicted individuals. (Although there were exceptions, which we'll come to shortly.)

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the book was its interweaving of scientific and historical perspectives. Did Countess Margaret of Henneberg really have 364 - or was it 365 - children all at once? Today we'd immediately say, well of course not! But then, what are the origins of the tale described in Bondeson's essay, "The strangest miracle in the world"? The author examines the development of the legend over the years, noting with wry amusement that until quite recently childless women would wash their hands in the bowl in which the unlikely children were supposedly baptised - even though the original was destroyed long ago. And he shows how science has a part to play in the explanation: it's possible that the Countess delivered a hydatidiform mole. Although you'd think that the midwives might have had some experience of this condition, the mass of small blobby bits might have been seen by them as a large number of gravely undersized babies.

At least Countess Margaret wasn't displayed for money (although the local townsfolk must subsequently have made quite a lot out of tourists), but money's involved in most of the stories. (And attention, which may well have been the driver for the poor lady who pretended to lay eggs - a tale which also attests to the extreme gullibility of those in attendance at the delivery!) Both Daniel Lambert (for a time the fattest-known human, although more recently he has been outweighed by a man nearly double Lambert's 700+ pounds) and the 'Swedish Giant', Daniel Cajanus, parlayed their physical extremes into quite comfortable livings, for not only were they charming and intelligent men but they also had the sense to manage their own affairs. All too often that hasn't been the case, with children put on display out of desperation or greed on the part of parents or 'managers'.

Of those children, I sometimes wonder if our most awful fascincation might not rest on conjoined twins. Bondeson discusses several examples, including parasitic twins and two-headed children. Apparently dicephalus (two-headed) twins represent around 11% of conjoined twins, the great majority of whom die before or soon after birth; certainly a google search will produce more images than you may be comfortable with. I first heard of them when reading Stephen Jay Gould's essay on the twins Ritta-Christina, in which he not only discussed the children's short, sad lives but also the issue of what constitutes an individual. Bondeson also tells their story, but the two-headed boys of his title had a better time of it; in fact, he describes Giovanni and Giacomo Tocci as the "most celebrated pair of dicephalus conjoined twins of all times". While most dicephalus twins are short-lived, often due to other structural abnormalities in one twin or the other, the Tocci brothers were born in 1877 and lived at least into the second decade of the 20th century, at least in part because the boys were 'symmetrical' in that both seemed to have properly-developed hearts and lungs. Like all the dicephalus twins described in the book, the Toccis were two distinct individuals with different personalities and intellects.

And this, of course, poses some serious ethical questions. While it is possible to separate some conjoined twins, depending on the degree to which they share organs and blood vessels, to do this for dicephalus twins means that either both would spend the rest of their lives incapable of independent movement & with significant post-surgical disfigurement, or one would be sacrificed that the other might live. To whom should this decision fall? (The parents of perhaps the most famous living dicephalus twins, Abigail & Brittany Hensel, never considered this option, & their daughters are now young adults.) 

Yes, this is a fascinating and thought-provoking book, not least because it offers a discomforting mirror in which to review how we see those who are so different from ourselves.

 

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