Suspect data

Letter by 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. 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.