Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

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Early-morning poetry

May 26, 2017

Rise Up Screaming
(Advice to an Infant … or a President)

The sky is dark, but dawn is near,
And though you’re safe within your crib,
The land outside holds much to fear.
It’s time to be alarmed, not glib!

Rise up! Rise up, and sound the call —
A call to arms; a call for milk.
Unleash a nice full-throated bawl
To rouse your parents and their ilk.

The early bird will get the worm;
The early child will get the toy.
Do not give in; stay loud, hold firm!
They must attend you, darling boy.

Rise up! Rise up, and yell, YOUR way,
In any garbled form you spew.
Despite what bleeding hearts may say,
Our world begins and ends with you.

Sam, 5am

[Inspired in part by Slate’s My First Big-Boy Trip.]

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TrumpWatch, part 7: this time it’s personal

February 28, 2017

Here’s the latest in my 100-part series on Donald Trump getting under my skin.

As a white cis-gender heterosexual American man, I am rarely if ever the victim of prejudice. Thus, when Trump blames American problems on, say, immigrants, my objections are more intellectual than visceral. I don’t personally experience queasiness, sadness, rage, or fear in the way that an immigrant (or a child of immigrants, or a dark-skinned native who might be mistaken for an immigrant) might.

There’s one partial exception, though: the President’s recent comment (on Twitter, since repeated at CPAC) that the news media are “the enemy of the American people!”

When my ten-year-old son asked me about this, I found myself choking up. “My dad spent twenty years of his life working for a newspaper,” I stammered. “He did his best to gather good information and explain it clearly. What’s so horrible about that?!?” My thoughts turned to my dad’s sister, a longtime copy editor at BusinessWeek … to their great uncle (?) Robert J. Bender, who covered the White House for the United Press Bureau around the time of Woodrow Wilson … to my own forays into journalism. A few tears fell. My son patted my leg sympathetically.

At that moment, there was no room in my head for cerebral ideas about Trump’s rhetorical strategies or how they might relate to his policy goals. All I could think was: the President of the United States has insulted my family and our earnest pursuit of knowledge. That’s not really what he did, of course, but that’s exactly what it felt like.

The moment passed fairly quickly for me. Before long I resumed my status as a white cis-gender heterosexual American man shaking his head at Trump with detached bemusement. But my heart goes out to the truly vulnerable targets of Trump’s rants, who may not be able to move on so easily.

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Slouching toward activism, step #2

February 17, 2017

Dear Representative Jayapal and Senators Cantwell and Murray:

Thank you for accepting our previous letter, which concerned the confirmation hearings of Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, and Scott Pruitt. We appreciate your responses. It is regrettable that voting on DeVos and Pruitt basically broke along party lines, and that Carson is likely to be confirmed in a similar manner.

Given the deep partisan divide, we wonder whether the issue of Donald Trump’s tax returns can be addressed in a way that does not simply pit Democrats against Republicans (especially since that is currently a losing battle for Democrats).

As you know, in all presidential elections since the 1970s, candidates of both parties have voluntarily shared their tax returns. Donald Trump’s choice not to follow this precedent raises important questions about his potential conflicts of interest, e.g., in interacting with foreign countries such as Russia. However, it seems clear that Trump will not release his tax returns unless forced by law to do so. It also seems clear that Rep. Bill Pascrell’s recent amendment to mandate the release of Trump’s returns, while admirable in our eyes, has hit a dead end in the House Ways and Means Committee.

We wonder whether Pascrell’s proposal was rejected by every Republican member of the Ways and Means Committee in part because it was specific to Trump. Perhaps there is hope for a more general, less partisan-sounding version of this idea, requiring all sitting presidents and future presidential candidates to release their tax returns? Perhaps such a bill could (accurately) be marketed as a general effort to improve transparency in government, rather than as a partisan attack on Trump, and thus could win some support from independent-thinking Republicans.

We are unsure how realistic this scenario might be, but we wanted to encourage you to devote any available resources to this kind of common-sense, nonpartisan solution to the tax return debacle.

Sincerely,
Gregory J. Crowther & Leila R. Zelnick
[street address redacted]
Seattle WA 98103

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If Trump were my student…

February 7, 2017

I feel ridiculous for continuing to write about Donald Trump on this blog. It’s not meant to be a political blog, and I’m not an especially political person. What I am, professionally, is an educator.  So let’s talk about what (if anything) is appropriate for educators to say publicly about Donald Trump.

My general stance — which not everyone will agree with — is that we should address Trump essentially as if he were one of our students. We should vigorously oppose any violations of our core principles, but, in doing so, we should exhibit the calmness and fairness that our students sometimes lack.

I’m thinking, for example, about the difference between saying (1) “Little Donnie’s actions on the playground last Tuesday constitute bullying because…” and saying (2) “Little Donnie is a bully!”  Version 1 — the “safe” version — simply identifies a specific instance of bullying and calls it out as unacceptable.  Version 2 is justifiable, I claim, only if one has overwhelming evidence that bullying is a fundamental, recurring theme of Little Donnie’s behavior and if one is prepared to present that evidence in a comprehensive, impartial manner.  Otherwise, Version 2 seems a lot like name-calling, which itself is a form of bullying.

Some people will find this distinction uninteresting, or will find my perspective too deferential. “Trump doesn’t respect other people, so why should I respect him?” they may ask.

My response would be that, as educators, we should not be aping our students’ questionable behaviors; rather, we should be striving to represent the highest ideals of our profession.  We must oppose sexism, racism, and all forms of hatred, but we must also be careful not to prematurely label people as worthless or irredeemable.

I am saying all of this partly to encourage others to practice greater civility in political discussions, but partly to remind myself not to give in to my own darker instincts.

Consider, for example, the following tweet:

Any negative polls are fake news, just like CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election.

My initial reaction to this was, uh, extremely unprofessional.  But what IS the behavior that I want to model for my students, their parents, and my colleagues?  Let me try again.

In academia, Mr. Trump, we insist that our students support their claims with carefully sourced, curated evidence. In contrast, in this tweet, you are rejecting the principle of evidence-based discourse.  You are not simply dismissing a particular poll as flawed (which it could be); you are saying that ANY poll that could ever exist that disagrees with you is wrong, period. You are saying, trust me and me alone; no rival source need be considered.

Mr. Trump, this is unacceptable hubris. Such unsubstantiated bluster would never earn my students a passing grade; likewise, it will never earn you any credit with me.   It’s time to start doing your homework.

 

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Slouching towards activism

January 31, 2017

My wife and I, not political activists by nature or habit, are trying to figure out how we can do our part to shape the future of the United States for the benefit of our literal and figurative sons and daughters. As a small step in that direction, we sent the following email today.

****************

Dear Representative Jayapal and Senators Cantwell and Murray:

We write to you to express our concern about Donald Trump’s nomination of Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, and Scott Pruitt to the respective cabinet-level positions of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary of Education, and Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

As citizens with liberal political views, we share many of your broad concerns about the new administration. It is hard to know which battles to fight, and which to concede. The three nominees above, however, seem especially worthy of scrutiny for the following two reasons.

First, all three have demonstrated alarming tendencies to dismiss research data from rigorous studies. Dr. Carson, while an accomplished physician, does not fully embrace Darwinian evolution. Ms. DeVos appears uninterested in careful studies of charter schools that question the efficacy of the “Michigan model” that she favors. Mr. Pruitt has expressed hostility toward mainstream climate science. As professional scientists, we find this behavior deeply concerning.

Second, each of these nominees, in the words of the Washington Post, “have key philosophical differences with the missions of the agencies they have been tapped to run.” As the Post explains, “Pruitt has spent much of his energy as attorney general fighting the very agency he is being nominated to lead… Ben Carson, named to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has expressed a deep aversion to the social safety net programs and fair housing initiatives that have been central to that agency’s activities. Betsy DeVos, named education secretary, has a passion for private school vouchers that critics say undercut the public school systems at the core of the government’s mission.”

In light of these serious concerns, we urge you to oppose the confirmation of these three individuals.

Sincerely,
Gregory J. Crowther, Ph.D.
Leila R. Zelnick, Ph.D.
[street address redacted]
Seattle WA 98103

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Trump is ever so slightly right about media bias, part 2: Streep-gate

January 10, 2017

[Click here for Part 1.]

Everyone has been talking about Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes acceptance speech in which she criticized Donald Trump for mocking a reporter’s disability. Predictably enough, Trump fan are incensed. But did Trump really make fun of Serge Kovaleski’s arthrogryposis? The truth, according to me, is that we’ll never know for sure.

Everyone who cares about this issue has seen the footage of Trump flailing around as he momentarily pretends to be Kovaleski. The key question is, was he specifically referencing Kovaleski’s physical limitations, or just impersonating a generic flustered, incompetent person?

The first interpretation is definitely plausible. But so is the second one, in light of two key points made by pro-Trump sites such as Catholics4Trump.com. First, Trump’s vaguely epileptic flailing bears little resemblance to Kovaleski’s limited movements. Second, Trump has made similar flailing motions when mocking other (non-disabled) people (a general; Ted Cruz; himself, when forced to go on vacation; a bank president; Donna Brazile).

(The article I’m linking to is NOT a good article overall. It has many problems. But we’re not going to get into those. Let’s focus solely on the disability issue.)

I’ve read the Washington Post’s defense of Streep, but the evidence is not nearly as strong as the Post claims. In particular, the Post’s use of the still frame, showing that Trump’s arm and wrist were bent like Kovaleski’s for at least a fraction of a second, is a cheap trick, as pointed out by Catholics4Trump.com. If Trump had frozen himself into a distinctly Kovaleski-like pose, that would indeed be damning, but the fact that his arm resembled Kovaleski’s at one moment in time is NOT a smoking gun. Not even close.

If Meryl Streep — whom I generally admire as an actress and as a person — wanted to make a compelling statement about Donald Trump’s treatment of marginalized people, she should have chosen a better, more clear-cut example. The fact that Trump seems (to liberals like me) like the kind of guy who might mock a disability does not mean that he actually did.

We need to pick our battles, people. This should not be one of them.

[UPDATE: Via Facebook, my friend David Crossman, who disagrees with me, cites another Washington Post fact-checker article that exposes Trump’s dishonesty in talking about Kovalesky. I agree with many aspects of that article, though not its specific conclusions on the disability issue.]

Trump_vs_Kovaleski.jpg
What exactly does this prove? Image taken from Catholics4Trump.com.

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2016, agGREGated: Trump, job apps, pregnancy

January 9, 2017

If you tried to deduce what last year was like for me based on my irregular scattershot posts during the year, you probably wouldn’t do very well. So, for a less cryptic view of my 2016, read on. In brief, there were three main themes.

TRUMP

No surprise here, right? Donald Trump was such an unbelievable character that even I, with my modest interest in politics, felt compelled to read and (eventually) write about him throughout the year, for better or worse.

Among the many, many Trump stories that I saw, my favorite was a post-election piece by Seth Stevenson of Slate.

There was something else. An uncomfortable suspicion taking hold in me. I became convinced we [journalists] weren’t at these [Trump] rallies to observe. We were there to be observed….

Perhaps I’d been naive, but it only now dawned on me, in the final week of the campaign, to my great horror, that the real reason they put us [journalists] in the pen was so they could turn us into props. We were a vital element in Trump’s performance. He never once failed to invite his crowds to heckle us. He was placing us on display like captured animals.

And it worked. The press pack, collectively, looked nothing like the crowds at Trump events—particularly in more rural towns. We’d file into these places with our sleek luggage and our expensive tech gear and our better haircuts. We were far more diverse than the people in the stands. When the crowds lustily booed us, we’d sit there impassive and stone-faced, and this only further served to convince the rallygoers that we were snobby, superior pricks. The pen was an amazingly efficient means of othering us.

Behold, Trump said to his fans, I’ve rounded up a passel of those elites you detest. And I’ve caged them for you! Allow me to belittle them for your delight. Here, now you take a turn—go ahead, have at it! Do it again, don’t be shy! Under President Trump, the other elites will be in cages, too. We’ll lock them up, just like the chant goes. Just like you wanted. You’ll be their captors.

As one of the journalism-valuing, anti-bullying “elites” against whom Trump raged, I struggled mightily to comprehend his candidacy, much less respond to it. But my open letter to my students was a useful contribution to the conversation, I think.

JOB APPLICATIONS

2016 was also a really hard year in terms of job-searching. My tale of one of my near-misses was published on a friend’s academic blog last month.

I felt unstoppable. Fourteen years after finishing my Ph.D., I would finally be settling into a stable position that I really wanted and totally deserved.

And then I got a call from my department chair. “I’m afraid I have bad news,” he began. I hadn’t gotten the job -– either job. I was a well-liked, already-successful internal candidate, and I couldn’t even place in the top two.

Up to now, I’ve been hesitant to air such laments publicly. (I wrote the above post only after a less personal version [eventually revised and posted here] was declined by my friend.) I guess I’ve been worried about being perceived by prospective employers as a whiner or a loser. But it’s time to stop worrying. If you pre-judge me as unworthy simply because I think there’s value in acknowledging and discussing one’s failures, well, that’s your prerogative — and your loss.

PREGNANCY

On to happier stuff! My wife has blogged about this (here, here, and here); the bottom line is that we’re expecting a baby boy on or around February 5th.

For me, the best part was after the MRI … when the radiology technician showed me some of the images and even a video…. I was astounded to see my favorite little alien moving around in there — it looked like he was having quite the dance party! It put a huge smile on my face the rest of the day to have a mental image of what was going on down below every time my stomach turns and tickles.

2017 should be really, really interesting.

* * * * * *

2016_trump_xmas

slide from job talk

2016_10_22_mri_sam

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Trump is ever so slightly right about media bias

January 3, 2017

It is no secret that I consider Donald Trump unsuited to be president of the United States. But once he was elected, I decided to get to know him a bit better … by following him on Twitter. (Not exactly march-on-Washington activism, I know. But it’s a start.)

Some of his tweets seemed fine: standard rah-rah campaign rhetoric, shout-outs to his friends, etc. Others struck me as outrageous. For example:

Of course, nobody likes to see negative news coverage of oneself, but here Trump is (A) dismissing the work of an entire profession and (B) disingenuously claiming that he tweets largely to correct media distortions. (Why can’t he just admit that tweeting is fun for him?)

In sifting through his media-related tweets, though, I came across two that sounded more like justifiable self-defense.

Trump was presumably referring to a CNN story whose headline was Conway on Trump ‘Apprentice’ role: He’ll do it in his spare time.

For Trump-hating liberals, that headline is pure catnip. I certainly fell for it. “My God,” I thought, “why can’t he let go of his stupid reality TV show and focus on governing the country?”

But the reporting in the article itself is limited to two unremarkable claims by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway: (1) presidents have some free time in which to pursue non-government interests and (2) Trump is meeting with people who are helping him figure out whether he can or cannot be involved in things like The Apprentice.

In other words, Conway did NOT say that Trump would be working on The Apprentice, yet the clickbaity headline indicates the opposite. In this particular case, Trump’s anger was justified.

In 2017, as we retreat to our respective bubbles and echo chambers, let’s remember that no source is infallible, and that our adversaries are sometimes right.

cnn_trump_apprentice

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Fluoridated drinking water is not an elegant 21st-century solution

December 3, 2016

In a previous post, I explained why, overall, I approve of the anti-fluoridation movement. Now I want to address one specific aspect of this that is partly scientific but partly philosophical and aesthetic.

First, a bit of personal context. In the lab-research phase of my career, I spent about 7 years working on the development of new drugs for infectious diseases like malaria. To my great disappointment, my work did not contribute much to the fight against these diseases. However, as I worked in this sphere, I was dazzled by others’ advances, such as the following:

(1) A project led by Meg Phillips (UT-Southwestern) and Pradip Rathod (University of Washington) has intensively studied dihydrooroate dehydrogenase (DHODH), an enzyme thought to be a good malaria drug target. In other words, if a drug impairs this enzyme in malaria parasites (Plasmodium falciparum and related species), the parasite should die and the infected person should be cured of malaria. Over the past 15+ years, DHODH has been characterized in almost obsessive detail, enabling the design of chemicals that strongly block the Plasmodium DHODH without messing up the human DHODH or other human enzymes. A new drug based on this work, DSM265, is currently undergoing clinical trials.

DSM265
Figure (taken from Phillips et al., Science Translational Medicine 7: 296ra111, 2015) showing how the drug DSM265 nestles among specific amino acids of DHODH, thus disrupting its function.

(2) Among already-approved malaria drugs, artemisinin-related compounds are the best ones we have. However, isolating artemisinin from its natural source (the plant Artemisia annua) is costly and time-consuming. A team led by Jay Keasling developed an intricate “semi-synthetic” process, involving both genetically engineered yeast and chemical engineering technology, by which artemisinins can be made cheaply in the lab from simple starting materials.

Artemisin synthesis, part 1
Artesinin synthesis, part 2
Figures (taken from Paddon et al., Nature 496: 528-532, 2013) showing how artemisin can be synthesized in a chemical engineering lab.

To me, these projects represent the pinnacle of modern biomedical science. They were exceptionally hard, but years of relentless detail-oriented work by large groups of talented scientists — not to mention generous funding from government and nonprofit groups — led to practical advances that could save uncountable lives.

When held up against such thorough, painstaking work, the strategy of fighting tooth decay by dumping fluoride into drinking water strikes me as really lame.

For the sake of this argument, I’m not taking a stand on the strength of the evidence that fluoride reduces the formation of dental caries (cavities). Let’s assume that it does. The key point here is that according to most pro-fluoridation experts, fluoride acts topically (i.e., at the surface of teeth) rather than systemically (i.e., by passing through the blood and the rest of the body).

The Fluoride Action Network argues, “If fluoride works topically, there is no need to swallow it, and therefore no need to add it to the water supply. This is especially so when considering that (1) fluoride is not a nutrient, and (2) fluoride’s risks come from ingestion.” This reasoning really speaks to me as a scientist.

As illustrated above, we live in an age of remarkable biomedical resources. With the efforts of our best scientists, we can achieve great things like cure malaria with the best precision drugs mankind has ever known. In this can-do environment, do our most sensible and sophisticated cavity-fighting efforts really involve delivering fluoride to the wrong place in the body (the gastrointestinal tract) and hoping that the right amount of it trickles to the right place (the teeth)?

Fluoridated water’s relative safety or lack thereof is, in some ways, beside the point; it’s simply not the best option that we have. As scientifically literate, non-superstitious people, if we want fluoride to act on our teeth, we should put it on our teeth (e.g., with fluoride toothpaste), then spit it out. Period.

In closing, I want to acknowledge a counterargument to which I am sympathetic. People with limited incomes are least likely to get regular professional dental care and are also least likely to be able to afford fluoride toothpaste or be aware of its value. Shouldn’t we fluoridate water to give these vulnerable people the benefits of fluoride even if they’re not brushing regularly with fluoride toothpaste?

I think it’s a reasonable question. But if I were the mayor of a fluoridated-water town, I’d redirect all fluoridation funding into programs to aggressively distribute fluoride toothpaste to all low-income people who need it. And if I were a dentist, rather than lobbying for water fluoridation, I’d focus on this more intelligent route of fluoride delivery.

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Fluoridated drinking water: public-health triumph, or force-fed meds?

November 29, 2016

In general, I trust our government. I trust it to use my taxes wisely, protect the less fortunate among us, and enact policies based on sound research and reasoning.

If scientists from the government tell me that the scientific consensus is such-and-such, I generally believe them. Sample topics: climate change, vaccines, evolution.

Thus, when I heard that citizens’ groups were opposing the fluoridation of public drinking water, in contrast to the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), I was initially skeptical. It sounded like a variation on the tragically misguided “vaccines are dangerous” movement.

But now that I’ve done some more reading and thinking about fluoridation, I think the anti-government fringe groups might be right!

Admittedly, a few hours of reading does not make me an expert on fluoridation. (So far, I’ve looked at the websites of the American Dental Association [ADA], CDC, Fluoride Action Network [FAN], and Rutland Fluoride Action, and followed links from these sites to other files such as the National Research Council’s 2006 report on fluoride in drinking water.) But, as someone with a Ph.D. in Physiology & Biophysics plus 14 years of postdoctoral research and teaching experience, I am qualified to comment on the issue.

It’s a challenging issue to tackle because there is a huge body of research on the biological effects of fluoride, which the two sides filter quite differently. For example, a thorough 2015 meta-analysis of the issue conducted by the independent, rigorous Cochrane Database group is touted by the FAN as showing “no valid evidence exists to prove fluoridation works,” while the ADA and CDC complain that the Cochrane analysis excluded valid studies that indicate benefits of fluoridation.

It’s hard for a neutral, semi-informed observer to know what to make of such debates.

Still, amidst the fog of disputed data and accusations of bias, the anti-fluoridation crowd does have a simple argument that I find compelling. Here it is:

1. Fluoride is a drug, not a nutrient.

2. Mass-administering a drug to entire communities, without individuals’ consent, can only be justified if we are extremely confident that the benefits-to-risks ratio is extremely high.

3. The available evidence does not warrant such extreme confidence.

Of these, claim #1 may be the most contentious. The ADA seems to disagree, as its 5 Reasons Why Fluoride in Water is Good for Communities include “It’s natural.”

“Fluoride is naturally present in groundwater and the oceans,” the ADA reassures us. Well, yes — but so is uranium-238. Should we be adding that to our water too?

The ADA continues, “[Fluoridation of water is] similar to fortifying other foods and beverages, like fortifying salt with iodine, milk with vitamin D, orange juice with calcium and bread with folic acid.”

The FAN rebuts this effectively.

It is now well established that fluoride is not an essential nutrient. This means that no human disease -– including tooth decay -– will result from a “deficiency” of fluoride. Fluoridating water supplies is therefore different than adding iodine to salt. Unlike fluoride, iodine is an essential nutrient (the body needs iodine to ensure the proper functioning of the thyroid gland). No such necessity exists for fluoride.

If fluoride is not a nutrient, then what is it? I find the FAN’s stance completely reasonable:

All water treatment chemicals, with the exception of fluoride, are added to make drinking water safe and pleasant to consume. Fluoride is the only chemical added to treat people who consume the water, rather than the water itself. Fluoridating water supplies can thus fairly be described as a form of mass medication, which is why most European countries have rejected the practice.

This classification of fluoride as a drug is consistent with official definitions from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

People usually are prescribed specific dosages of drugs according to their age, weight, medical history, etc. For fluoride in water, however, doses will vary wildly, not based on individuals’ “needs,” but based on how thirsty they are. It’s a bit unsettling, at the least.

Claim #2 concerns informed consent. I have some relevant professional experience, having conducted laboratory research and educational research that required approval from my university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) as well as the consent of the research subjects themselves.

It’s a lot of tedious paperwork. In my own proposals, for example, I’ve spent many paragraphs explaining why students will not be harmed if they anonymously complete a survey, and guaranteeing that the students can nonetheless skip the survey, without being punished, if they have any objections to it. Still, I’m grateful that my institution has a serious review process that reflects its firm commitment to respecting individuals’ autonomy. This respect is a bedrock value of civilized society in general, and infringements upon it must be well-justified.

So is it OK to force-feed a drug to populations at haphazard levels related to individuals’ thirst? Sure — but only if the drug has obvious, important benefits and is extremely safe.

So — claim #3 — what does the evidence look like for benefits and risks?

Regarding benefits, the above-mentioned Cochrane study basically says that there IS evidence that fluoridated water reduces tooth decay, but that this evidence is not nearly as strong as we would like.

Regarding risks, the above-mentioned NRC report devotes over 200 pages to reviewing fluoride’s effects on the musculoskeletal, reproductive, nervous, endocrine, digestive, renal, and immune systems. For most of these systems, the NRC concluded that more research was needed, which is not particularly helpful because scientists always say that about everything (thus justifying our existence).

Still, based on data showing that high fluoride levels can compromise teeth and bones, the NRC concluded that the Maximum Level Contaminant Goal (MLCG) be altered downward from the previously established standard of 4 milligrams per liter (mg/L). More recently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has lowered its recommended level of fluoride in the water to 0.7 mg/L (down from a previous recommended range of 0.7-1.2 mg/L). These changes can be taken as an acknowledgment by experts that greater caution regarding fluoride exposure is warranted. Throw in some journal articles and government grant proposals that have made it through the peer review process, and you don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to think that mass fluoridation has been enacted prematurely.

In a subsequent post, I will address the issue of “topical” versus “systemic” delivery of fluoride.