Dealing with ‘true believers’

Musing on the fluoridation fun and games over the w/end on Twitter. It’s disturbing that people focus on a paper or tiny bit of data that they believe supports their view as conclusive proof that their pet theory is correct – a case in point being this morning’s ‘conversation’ with someone who was trying to claim a conclusion that at complete odds with the ACTUAL RESULTS OF THE PAPER. Likewise the lady at the weekend – who got a bit upset when I pointed out the flaws with the interpretation and usage of stats that she was making her point with.

I’m not a dental health professional, and thus not an expert in the field. But as a scientist, I do know how to look at data critically and dispassionately. And if the data is good, the methodology is sound, then it goes without saying that people who actually know what they’re talking about should be given their dues and have their conclusions accepted. It’s all about the data – that’s how hypotheses live or die by. Proof. And not just over one paper or review – but a mountain of evidence to support these conclusions.

That’s how science *works*.

From my own (non-expert) POV – water fluoridation, based on the data I’ve seen, is highly effective in reducing dental cavities, and is the best way of doing large-scale dental care. And in the concentrations used, there are no public health issues – fluorosis, cancer etc. The data is there to support these findings, and that’s good enough for me. After all, why would I support a practice that would badly affect my own health and that of my children?

One unfortunate by-product of the Internet Age is the ability of people to cherry-pick info that they believe will support their view point, without subjecting it to proper critical analysis. Even more so the phenomenon of attacking someone like myself who tries to rebut them with data and analysis – especially if they hide behind internet anonymity. A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing – especially if it leads to bad public health policy (or indeed, policy in any walk of life). I’m not an expert on a whole range of topics (apart from star formation in low metallicity galaxies, the Dutch football sides of the last 40 years and of course QPR) – so I rely on knowledge from people who *are* experts in their field. And the benefit of being a scientist is that I’m trained to look at data dispassionately – so at least I can critically review what’s been presented to me, and ask questions when I do not understand conclusions. It’s a better way of approaching topics than dogmatically approaching a topic, and cherrypicking/interpreting the data to support a viewpoint. That is bad, bad science – and a disaster in the making.

It also helps if you’re polite, and not an anonymous sock puppet.

So, said my peace on this. I have nothing further to add on the topic, and will let those who actually deal with this professionally to do their job!

Dunsink Observatory – a crying shame

It’s been a while, I must admit – life has been a tad busy with work on Herschel, with performance verification pretty much done (apart from one instrument) and science demonstration kicking off. It’s been pretty much non-stop since August, with me travelling quite a bit up and down to Oxfordshire for the majority of the week. So, unsurprisingly, not a lot of time has been free to update the blog, sadly.

For the last week, I’ve actually had some time off – I’m currently in Ireland on a bit of a busmans holiday. I came over to give a talk to the Irish Astronomical Society on Herschel last Monday night – we got a crowd of 25 or so up to Dunsink Observatory for the talk, and I think it went pretty well. It was odd being back at Dunsink, as I’d spent 18 months as a post-doc earlier in my career and had not been back in the 5+ years since.


The observatory is pretty much abandoned now – the internal politics and restructuring within the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies led to the academics moving into the Dublin city centre, leaving the Observatory empty. Now Irish science isn’t in the healthiest of states – astronomy in particular – but to leave a crown jewel like the Dunsink site to rot is unforgivable. The history of the site (luminaries such as Hamilton and Schrodinger worked there) plus the wonderful historical instruments (a 12″ Grubb refractor in particular) make it a *prime* site for a superb outreach facility for Irish astronomy and science in general. Apart from the sterling efforts of the IAS, the opportunities for using the site for science outreach are being sadly ignored by an increasingly short-sighted parent body and penny-pinching Government department – this sort of thing would *not* happen elsewhere in Europe.

Grubb Refractor

Instead, it is left there to rot. And sadly, that’s the way things happen in Ireland. It’ll be only when the Dunsink site is beyond saving that the powers that be will get up off their arses…. and then it’ll be too late.