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Suspect data

Malcolm Pittock, Bolton

ImageIn the issue of PN for October 2013, Gabriel Carlyle had an article about the Iraq ministry of health report entitled ‘Summary of reported Congenital Birth Defects in 18 Selected Districts of Iraq’.

This had come to the surprising conclusion that ‘the rates of spontaneous abortion, stillbirths and congenital birth defects were “consistent with or even lower than international estimates” and found “no clear evidence to suggest an unusually high rate of congenital birth defects” in the period 1998-2012’.

The results of the survey were so counter-intuitive, that anti-war campaigners and academics believe that the survey had been manipulated to serve the interests of the US. The results completely contradicted previous findings by individual scientists and by the Iraq ministry of health. Ah! But this was a controlled scientific survey in which the world health organisation was involved!

Gabriel maintained that there was no evidence of manipulation and was prepared to accept the objectivity of the survey, pro tem. Indeed he criticised Chomsky in his review of Chomsky and Vitchek’s On Western Terrorism for not taking account of it.

I smell a rat and that there is no evidence of manipulation does not give me any confidence in the objectivity of the report particularly when the conclusion so obviously serves special interests.

There is a long history of cover-ups, in which scientists have colluded, going right back to the days of nuclear tests when it was maintained that there was a ‘safe’ level of radioactivity below which there were no adverse effects whatsoever. Governments always want to convince us they were ‘only dropping peppermints and daisy chains’.

All international bodies from the UN to the international criminal court and the world health organisation, whatever good they do at lower levels, ultimately serve the interests of power.

I refuse to believe that the use of toxic materials – depleted uranium and white phosphorus, for example – has had no effect whatsoever in Iraq, and that if they had not been used the rate of abortions and congenital birth defects would still be the same.

Similarly, if a scientific report came out to the effect that the Clean Air Act had had no effect on the health of Londoners and they were just as healthy in the days of smog and pea-soupers, and this conclusion was mighty convenient to the powers that be, I would not believe it even though I could not prove it had been manipulated.

Think tobacco and lung cancer.

Editor Response: 

Gabriel Carlyle writes: Thank you, Malcolm, for your thoughtful letter, which I have to take issue with. Far from being ‘counter-intuitive’, the results of the 2013 Iraqi ministry of health (IMoH) report were consistent with a review of the published literature on Iraqi birth defects (up to September 2011) that concluded that the available evidence had not established ‘a clear increase in birth defects’ (Al-Hadithi et al, ‘Birth defects in Iraq and the plausibility of environmental exposure: A review’, Conflict and Health, 2012, 6:3).

Dr Syed Jaffar Hussain, representative for the world health organisation in Iraq, told PN that he could not recall any previous IMoH studies concerning birth defects in the country. If, as this suggests, there hadn’t been any ‘previous findings’ by the IMoH, then the results of the 2013 IMoH report could not have contradicted them.

Malcolm is right that I ‘maintained that there was no evidence of manipulation’ of the data used in the 2013 IMoH report. Indeed, no such evidence appears to exist.

However, I suspect that he is mistaken when he writes that I was ‘prepared to accept the objectivity of the survey’ for the time being. My view is that the report’s methodology, results and conclusions have not been subject to the standard peer-review process for scientific papers, and that the latter is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for its conclusions to be accepted as (provisionally) established.

I also did not criticise Chomsky for ‘not taking account’ of the 2013 IMoH report. In fact, I wrote that I had ‘cringed to see [a] passing reference to Chris Busby’s paper ‘Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005–2009’.

I first raised concerns about this latter article – which did appear in a peer-reviewed journal – in a 2010 article for PN. I noted that a similar survey by Busby – concerning increased cancer mortality risks near Hinkley Point nuclear power station – had been criticised by the UK government’s expert advisory committee on medical aspects of radiation in the environment (COMARE) as being ‘so poor scientifically that it would not be acceptable for publication in any reputable professional journal’.

Since then, important questions have been raised about the Fallujah paper’s methodology, arguments and conclusions – in particular, concerning the significance (or lack thereof) of its claims about a reduction in the boy-girl sex ratio for children born after 2004. See
www.tinyurl.com/peacenews1226

Since 2010, the Green Party – for whom he was formerly a science and technology spokesman – have apparently distanced themselves from Busby, following his promotion of ‘anti-radiation pills to people in Japan affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, that leading scientists ha[d] condemned as “useless”’ (Guardian, 21 November 2011).

Busby had also suggested – again, with no evidence – that the Japanese government was deliberately spreading radioactive material from Fukushima around Japan, ‘to increase the cancer rate in the whole of [the country], so that there will be no control group to which you can compare these children in the Fukushima area.’

In this connection, it may be worth quoting Mark Lynas, who maintains that ‘All the scientific authorities now agree that the worst impact of Chernobyl has been social and psychological, due to fear of radiation and the dislocation effects of the exclusion zone, rather than the actual physical effects of radiation itself’.

Conspiracies do exist – and we are all prone to look for evidence for what we already believe, and discount evidence pointing in the opposite direction – but spreading wild, unfounded claims and promoting junk science helps no one, and can, in fact, cause substantial harm.

Comments

John Steward plethora of mistakes

The paper by Steward about our "plethora of mistakes" was published in the Journal of Radiological Protection, editor Richard Wakeforrd of BNFL. Stweards paper failed to cite the earlier paper by Prof Vyvyan Howard and I wrote for the Journal of Public Health about the enormous and schoolboy error that Steward had himself made when accusing us. He had misidentified the populations of the areas involved. See: jpubhealth.oxfordjournals.org/content/28/2/177.full.pdf
Steward had to apologize and so did COMARE accept that he had egg on face. You also should apologize, but I am not holding my breath.
See also the children in the paper:
jpubhealth.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2006/.../pubmed.fdl001.full.pd...

Chris

Iraq malformations and other stuff

Well, Gabriel Carlyle seems to have it in for me (Infamy, Infamy, they've all got it in for me-Frankie Howard) and it would be nice to have space in the columns of Peace News to respond to all the slurs. Where shall I start?
Briefly, the question of the Iraqi WHO report which found no (or lower, Yes that's right) levels of congenital malformation has been addressed elsewhere. See my Russia Today article:
http://rt.com/op-edge/who-iraq-report-disgrace-461/
In it I point out that the Iraq survey was not capable of determining the rates of birth defect since was based on a questionnaire to the mother. Mothers have no idea if their child died of a cough or if the cough was a consequence of a heart defect. Only a hospital paediatrician can diagnose the birth defects, and that is exactly what Dr Samira Alaani and colleagues did, the results being published by us in a peer reviewed journal which is cited in the RT article and which gives the rates for individual defects. I was, in fact, approached by Dr Jaffar of WHO who invited me to be in the study: I refused unless I had control of the protocols, which I pointed out would find nothing. Accurately as it turned out.
On the question of our peer reviewed epidemiological study of cancer and birth defects in Fallujah which Mr Carlyle dismisses because the UK government didnt like what we found in the way of cancer at Hinkley Point, I merely say that anyone who disagrees with what I find (and there are many) should communicate through the peer review process rather than with arm waving references to experts like Mark Lynas (a history graduate). When asked to do so (as was the case recently in the affair of the thyroid problems in newborns in California after Fukushima, these people invariably bottle out. The Health Protection Agency cannot be trusted any more then the WHO and those ( like Malcolm) who suspect skullduggery or cover up are quite right to do so. You can read enough cover ups, with evidence, in my 2007 book Wolves of Water, including accounts of the breast cancer excess near Hinkley Point and also Bradwell.
I would be happy also to provide a short account of the Fukushima issue of the pills and /or other calumnies you may wish to list for your excellent magazine. The Guardian refused to allow me to respond to the Monbiot nonsense and the Press Complaints people backed him up. Maybe you would like to print the response to Monbiot that I wrote for the Guardian. If I had the money that Lord Mc Alpine has George would have been in deep trouble.
Sincerely
Christopher Busby
Riga

A 'plethora of mistakes'

Readers interested in seeing a peer-reviewed critique of some of Chris Busby's self-published epidemiological reports should have a look at John A Steward et al, 'Leukaemia incidence in Welsh children linked with low level radiation—making sense of some erroneous results published in the media' (Journal of Radiological Protection, Volume 28, Number 1, 2008): http://iopscience.iop.org/0952-4746/28/1/001/.

Among other things they note that:

"By following through the methodology of Green Audit with the same cancer registry data,
we found clear evidence of data-dredging which renders all subsequent statistical inference
spurious. Green Audit’s own caption to their table 1 implies that the dataset has been
systematically trawled. We have shown AoR-coded registry data to be unsuitable for small area analysis, and that small numbers have been over-interpreted, but with appropriate analytical methods more informative results can be derived. The claimed cluster at Bangor which has been so widely quoted has been shown to be an artefact.

"Some of the data analysed by Green Audit are obviously incorrect. The error in the initial
Welsh report was so large it should have been detected by data screening. Green
Audit admitted making similar errors in a report on Bradwell in Essex. The data for
tables 6–8 in their Menai report could not be confirmed by postcoded registry data and
undoubtedly resulted from a poor survey technique. The construction of the post hoc areas also suggests data-dredging. Gross inaccuracies are also apparent in another survey carried out with TV reporters around Trawsfynydd. COMARE have concluded that all these surveys are flawed.

"Considering the plethora of mistakes in these reports there is a case for such surveillance
to be carried out by experienced registry statisticians who follow good practice."