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March 2014 Archives

On Thursday last week, Hamilton's city councillors voted 9-1 to return fluoride to the city's water supply. There was a fair bit of misrepresentation going on ahead of the decision - including the claims that it would cost at least $100,000 and this was unbudgeted (both untrue). And there was the predictable outrage after the event from those opposed to community water fluoridation, including this piece on voxy, entitled 'Ignorance wins over science", by Fluoride Free Hamilton spokeswoman Pat McNair.

I see an analogy here - this is like a court finding a criminal guilty, based on damning evidence. Suddenly there is a huge public outcry lead by the media. Misinformation spreads like wildfire. The media publishes an opinion poll. The public is invited to decide - guilty or not. None of the evidence presented at the original trial is divulged to the public. The popular vote is overwhelmingly "not guilty" so the criminal is immediately released.

So she sees the original HCC tribunal as finding fluoride 'guilty', based on 'damning evidence' against the practice of community water fluoridation.

However, as Ken Perrott's pointed out, the process was flawed from the point at which submissions were summarised for councillors: "a list of the key research papers referenced during the submission and tribunal process" was not inclusive ie it did "not cover all the reports referred as this was extensive, but focuse[d] on the ones most frequently cited." (You can find the HCC summary here.) The majority of submissions - many from outside Hamilton - opposed CWF and many of them quoted the 'Waugh' report ("Public Health Investigation of Epidemiological Data on Disease and Mortaliy in Ireland related to Water Fluoridation and Fluoride Exposure"), which unsurprisingly came out top of the pops, as it were. There's a major flaw in this method of determining the significance of references: science isn't some sort of popularity contest, and as it happens Mr Waugh's report has been found wanting.

"Misinformation spreads like wildfire". It certainly did - from those opposed to CWF. (Scan any FF Facebook pages, for example.)

"Israel is banning fluoridation": no, it's not. The Israeli government is handing the responsibility for decision-making to municipal authorities.

"95% of the world's population don't want it": not exactly - large swathes of the population lack access to safe drinking water, so fluoridation is a long way down their list of desirables. Many countries don't use CWF but do have fluoridated salt or milk.

We'll go back to having "poisonous carcinogenic hazardous industry waste dumped in our drinking water": no, what we get at the tap is water with 0.7-1ppm fluoride. (The carcinogenic claim relates to arsenic, which is actually at higher concentration in untreated Waikato River water than it is in that leaving the municipal water treatment plant.).

And so on; both Ken & I have previously addressed many of these claims.

"None of the evidence presented at the original trial is divulged to the public." Anyone with a computer could have accessed the material, had they wished, given that it was all available on the HCC website. And there was plenty of opportunity - made use of by both pro- and anti-fluoridation groups - to get information out to the public (including an information sheet that went out with the referendum papers). Unless she thinks that 2/3 of those voting in the referendum, and the councillors themselves, are ignorant?

Sorry, Pat, but science was the winner the other day.


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When I was a kid we used to go to the beaches of the Mahia peninsula most weekends. (Well, memory says 'most weekends' - it might not have been that often!). Sometimes we'd stop at the sweeping sandy shores of Blue Bay, but on other days we'd go round to the exposed rocky coast & spend happy hours messing around in the rock pools. I used to love floating my fingers past the sea anemones & feeling the tiny tugs as we touched (at the time, of course, I had no idea that those tiny tugs were the anemones discharging nematocysts into my fingers!) And to me it seemed that these intriguing little animals, which retracted into blobs of jelly when touched less gently, didn't really seem to do much.

Similarly corals - when we've snorkelled around corals I've been amazed by the forms they take and - in living corals - by their colours. But it's hard to see much actually happening.

But tonight a friend of mine posted this video - "Slow Life" - on their Facebook page. It's gorgeous, visually stunning - and it shows the hidden life of cnidarians in glorious technicolour. Best on the big screen, I think; I'm looking forward to showing it to my first-year class next week.


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A couple of years ago I spent a lovely afternoon in the huge domed glasshouses of Singapore's "Gardens on the Bay". The 'cloud forest' was my favourite - both for the concept & for the wonderful range of epiphytes on show there.

Singapore cloud forest mountain.jpg

So you'll understand that I enjoyed reading about it again on this blog, written for the New Zealand Epiphyte Network. Anyone with even a passing interest in New Zealand's native plants should drop by the site. And maybe sign up to be part of their citizen science project while you're there?

Go on, you know you want to :)

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For whatever reason, I find that many students seem to struggle when it comes to learning about plant life cycles. The whole sporophyte/gametophyte, meiosis/mitosis thing really gets them – & that’s even before we start looking at how the life cycle is modified in different groups of plants. Yes, the textbook has lots of diagrams & yes, I’ve always started simple & worked on from there, with opportunity for plenty of questions, but still there are those for whom the topic fails to click. (Not to mention the lecturers in third-year classes, asking whether we really teach this stuff in first-year.) This year the issue’s become even more of a challenge, given that about 2/3 of my large-ish (N>200) didn’t study plants in year 12 at school.

So this year I wondered if it would help if I drew a really basic cycle on the board, as preparation for a more detailed session in the next lecture. I do this in tuts anyway, but not everyone comes to those… And because I use panopto for recording lectures, I needed to think about the best way to do it, because while there are whiteboards in the lecture room they are non-interactive, & the camera doesn’t do a good job of picking up things on a ‘normal’ board. And this is where having a tablet (not an iPad this time; it’s too frustrating when mine won’t communicate properly with the lecture theatre software) comes into it.

This is because, once the tablet’s hooked up to the lecture room system, then anything I might write on its screen (with my spiffy little stylus) is recorded via panopto. And so I left blank slides in my presentation, & drew all over them when we got to that stage, cute little frogs & everything :) (Why frogs? Because we started off with drawing an outline of an animal life cycle, slotting in meiosis & fertilisation, haploid & diploid – with the opportunity to expand on what those terms might mean – before going on to drawing alternation of generations in a very general sense.

Which sounds fine in practice, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, now that I’ve gone & checked the recording, I see that the material on my tablet DIDN’T make it across to panopto, which is downright annoying & obviously I’ve stuffed up somewhere. OK, everyone in the lecture theatre got the benefit of that experience, but those who weren’t, didn’t :( And part of the reason for doing the recordings, is that those who’ve got lecture clashes can catch up later. Mutter mutter mutter.

However, all is not lost. I’m staying later at work for an evening event, so I’ll do a re-record once I can get into a free lecture theatre.

All part of the learning curve – as is the anonymised ‘feedback’ thread I’ve set up on our Moodle page. If the technique helped most students understand the concept of alternation of generations, then I’ll work on doing it better. If it didn’t, well, I guess I need to go back to the drawing board.

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Crocodiles (& their relatives, alligators) are generally viewed as top predators. They're 'ambush' hunters1, lunging up out of the water to snatch at their prey at the last moment.

But sometimes, they come off second-best. Check out this video on the National Geographic site, of a jaguar stalking, catching, & killing a caiman.

And how about these images of a rather large boa chowing down on a metre-long crocodile? Or an otter, eating a juvenile alligator?  Yep, it's not all fun & games being a crocodile.


1 Having said that, when I was writing this post I came across the intriguing suggestion that some crocodilians use sticks to lure birds within lunging distance ie that they use tools. They've been observed doing this only during the birds' breeding season, when their feathery cousins2 are looking around for sticks to use in nest-building.

2 Taxonomically speaking, crocs and birds are both archosaurs. Early crocodilians - the pseudosuchians - were a predatory force to be reckoned with & it's possible that the pseudosuchians' demise, in the mass extinction that marked the end of the Triassic, was a factor that opened things up for the expansion of the dinosaur lineages.

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Since the High Court judgement came out there's been a lot of news coverage on this issue - and an awful lot of misinformation & just plain fear tactics (particularly in social media) from those opposed to community water fluoridation (CWF).

Last night's news coverage had this from TV One News (skip to 5:43) and more from 3 News (skip to 2:53). Today there's an article on Stuff along with various stories and editorials in the print media. It's been notable how quickly those opposed to CWF have returned to spreading misinformation and to the use of scare tactics, plus the usual allegations in the social media about people being shills (with one commenter on Making Sense of Fluoride's Facebook page going so far as to suggest that the High Court judge was paid to make his judgement).

For example, on TV3 we had a commenter claiming that most people in Hamilton are against the use of CWF. Yet 70% of those who voted were in favour of this practice, and the numbers voting were such that we can be pretty sure that the poll accurately reflected overall opinion. That referendum made the news not that long ago, and you'd think that the TV3 journalist might have called the commenter on that.

And on yesterday's Radio New Zealand Checkpoint program, we heard Mary Byrne of the Fluoride Action Network saying that the ruling is a dangerous precedent:

The judge has said that it's legal because water is not a food for the purposes of the Medicines Act. So does that mean that councils can add anything they like to the water supply and it won't come under the Medicines Act, particularly things that may occur naturally, such as lithium. Is it kind of open slather for councils just to add what they feel like putting in the water?

The answer is 'of course not' - councils can't just add stuff to water at a whim and in fact drinking water quality is tightly regulated - but the reference to lithium is interesting, given that both fluoride and lithium are claimed to be used to turn people into sheeple (just do a google search on lithium, fluoride, and mind control & see what you get). And it's similar to claims on Seven Sharp's Facebook page that fluoride was used by the Nazis to help control concentration camp prisoners, a claim that even some anti-fluoride groups deny and which is absolutely false.

However, it seems that's unlikely to get in the way of a 'good' story, especially if it's likely to sow doubt & fear in people's minds.

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We've been waiting a while for the High Court judgement on the scientific validity of community water fluoridation, and that judgement is now available. And it supports the science - see this report on the OneNews webpage. (Hamilton City Council, please take note.)

The following content is from the Science Media Centre website:

Court rejects fluoridation challenge

The High Court has ruled on a high profile court case questioning the legal right of local councils to fluoridate water.


decision from Justice Rodney Harrison, released today, rejected all grounds of a legal challenge from an anti-fluoridation campaign group which disputed South Taranaki District council's decision to add fluoride to water in Waverley and Patea.

Justice Harrison further concluded that water fluoridation is not a medical treatment, and does not differ fundamentally from other public health interventions aimed at a wider population, such as chlorination of water or the addition of iodine to salt.

Responding to news of the decision, Dr Jonathan Broadbent, Public Health Dentistry Specialist at the University of Otago comments:

"This decision reaffirms the legal basis of the scientifically sound practice of community water fluoridation. The people of New Zealand have the right to benefit from this effective public health practice.  Community water fluoridation benefits everyone, especially those New Zealanders who are disadvantaged." 

Prof Murray Thompson, Dental Epidemiology and Public Health, University of Otago, comments:

"This sensible judgment affirms the important role of community water fluoridation in keeping New Zealanders healthy." 

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The new semester kicks off tomorrow & right now I'm adding resources to my first-year bio moodle page & running through the powerpoints for the week's lectures. After a couple of introductory sessions we're diving into the section of the class that focuses on plants, and I'm giving some serious thought to how I present that material given that it looks like more than half the class didn't study the relevant year 12 Achievement Standard. 

So among other things I've looked around for some engaging short videos on plant biology, and I found this one (part of what looks like a great sequence, which I've bookmarked for future use): 

OK, I know the humour might not appeal to everyone, & he does speak rather fast at times, but the presenter's engaging, the graphics are good & the key points are emphasised and repeated - a nice little primer for my class to watch for homework as preparation for making sense of plants.

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Recent Comments

  • Alison Campbell: He's a stunning little fellow, isn't he? :) read more
  • herr doktor bimler: It's a transitional form between birds and butterflies. read more
  • ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©: SPECTACULAR! ~ read more
  • Alison Campbell: Usually when people shout (write in all-caps) it's a sign read more
  • Alison Campbell: I care about the finer feelings of your readers read more
  • herr doktor bimler: Not pedantry, so much as concern that some cnidarian enthusiast read more
  • Alison Campbell: Pedant! ;)It's mostly cnidarians... read more
  • herr doktor bimler: It's not all cnidarians, mind you -- the opening sequence read more
  • ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©: I love New Zealand's epiphytes from afar. (Spellchucker does not read more