Are you are real skeptic, or are you just faithing it

And by faithing it, I mean using faith rather than critical analysis of the available information to make important decisions about what to regard as valid.

[This is a repost, and originally appeared here. You may want to glance at the comments on that original post.]

Let’s do a couple of informal experiments to explore this issue more closely. For the present discussion, I’m assuming that you are a non-scientist and non-medical person who self identifies as a skeptic.

Do you know the following terms, without looking them up (which you can do, in part, by clicking on them)? In some cases you may be able to guess meanings, in some cases you may have a vague idea from prior reading. But that’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking if you know the following terms. Like a teacher would know the terms well enough to teach them, or a researcher would know the terms while using them in the Monday Lab Meeting, or a physician would know the term well enough to get what she is reading in the PDR or some medical journal article. Do you?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
Hemagglutinin Stalk Domain
Mucociliary escalator
Treg cells
IgA, IgG, IgE, and IgM

For most of you, the honest answer is no, you don’t, even though these terms are not especially esoteric.

Next question: Had you children, would you get them vaccinated? If so, why?

I’m guessing that the answer is “yes,” and the reason is two fold: 1) For their health benefit; and 2) for the health benefit of society at large.

But wait, there is a controversy that indicates that vaccinating your children will cause autism and other bad effects. Yet, you say you are going to have your children vaccinated. That is the “why” I was actually getting at. Why did you decide to go with the pro-vaccination “side” of this issue rather than the anti-vaccination side?

I’m guessing that the answer is that the pro-vaccination side has the science right and the anti-vaccination side does not.

Which would be correct. However, since you didn’t know the meanings of any the terms above cold, teachably, usably, pragmatically, then how do you know the science is correct? Yes, this is just a vocabulary list, but these terms are to the immune system what “left and right” are to directions. A person who understands the immune system well enough to really evaluate the claims regarding vaccines would simply know these terms, just like a person understanding directions understands that “turn left at the barn and right at the old fence” will know which way to turn at those points in space.

There are different levels at which you can understand the topic of vaccination, or any other complex medical or, more broadly, scientific topic. As a biological anthropologist interested in certain aspects of evolution, I make it a point to “understand” the immune system at a much more detailed level than the average non-medical person. But I do not work with the immune system every day. Not even close. So, reading a scientific paper or sitting in on a lab meeting could be challenging for me, but quite doable. Less challenging if I’ve recently “worked with” the material, more so if I haven’t.

But what if you are a pipe fitter or an English literature professor? You may have less reason to encounter the technical details of vaccine science and the immune system on a day to day basis, so you would have to go out of your way to get up to speed to really evaluate research.

In fact, you may end up simply not being able to do it at all. You may have to rely on the good will of others who know about the topic at hand to summarize it for you, and to make the case so that you can get what they are saying even if you can’t reproduce what they are saying. Like when the mechanic is explaining all the expensive stuff that is about to happen to your car; You don’t need to be able to do the work yourself, but you want to understand it enough to convince yourself that you are not getting ripped off (or at least reach a state of plausible self-denial!).

Of course in either case, you could be getting ripped off. Your source for science info and argument may be wrong, or even intentionally misleading. Your mechanic may be … well, let’s not go there, I don’t want to get mechanics mad at me…

About six months ago I had occasion to ask myself this question: Is it true or not true that fluoride added to drinking water can have negative effects on babies if formula is mixed with said drinking water? There are various sources of fluoride, and it is said that adding the drinking water in the formula mix increases the dose of this element to a level that could have negative effects. I heard this, and became a bit suspicious of it because of the whole Dr. Strangelove thing, but I didn’t know. So I looked it up.

I googled it. I got results like this:

…Baby Formula and Fluoride Water. Because of the risk of fluorosis, or getting too much fluoride, which can lead to tooth staining, ……The Vermont Department of Health recommends mixing powdered or concentrated baby formula with water that is fluoride-free, or contains very low levels of fluoride, for feeding infants under 12 months of age….If you’re concerned about fluorosis, you can minimize your baby’s exposure to fluoride by using ready-to-feed formula. You can also alternate using tap …… Babies are sensitive to the fluoride that exists in tap water, reports the Fluoride Action Network. If you dilute your baby’s formula with…

Oh. The “fluoride action network.” Sounds important. Better Google that..

97% of western Europe has chosen fluoride-free water …. Fluoridated water is no longer recommended for babies…. Ingestion of fluoride has little benefit, but many risks…. Risk to the brain, the thyroid gland, the bones, cancer, kidney disease… Due to other sources, many people are being over-exposed to fluoride .

OH. OK, so the American Dental association says something about fluoride. I can click on that.

Page Not Found

Huh. A little more googling, and I get this whole page of videos on fluoride. Fluoride causes autism!!!11!!! Finally, a link!!! Elsewhere, I see this: “If you look up fluoride on the net, you will find many who feel that it contributes to children’s attention deficit reactions.” Wow, that’s some bad shit!

OK, that was my google experience. Then, I did the same thing with Google Scholar. Google Scholar is one of the options you have when you do a Google Search, and the results are quite different in where they come from and even how they are presented on the search results page. If you are unaware of it, do have a look.

Restricting results to the last few years, I find the Journal of the American Dental Association article. Regarding the issue at hand:

The ADA offers these recommendations to reduce fluoride intake from reconstituted infant formula.

– Breast milk is widely acknowledged as the most complete form of nutrition for infants. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends human milk for all infants (except for the few for whom breast-feeding is determined to be harmful).
– For infants who get most of their nutrition from formula during their first 12 months, ready-to-feed formula is preferred to help ensure that their fluoride intake does not exceed the optimal amount.
– If liquid concentrate or powdered infant formula is the primary source of nutrition, it can be mixed with water that is fluoride-free or contains low levels of fluoride to reduce the risk of fluorosis. These include water labeled as purified, demineralized, deionized or distilled, as well as reverse-osmosis filtered water. Many stores sell these types of drinking water for less than $1 per gallon.

Parents and caregivers should consult with their dentist, pediatrician or family physician regarding the most appropriate water to use in their area to reconstitute infant formula. Ask your pediatrician or family physician whether water used in infant formula should be sterilized first (sterilization, however, will not remove fluoride).

Unless advised to do so by a dentist or other health care professional, parents should not use fluoride toothpaste in children younger than 2 years, because they may inadvertently swallow the toothpaste.

Children 2 years and older should use an appropriate-sized toothbrush with a small brushing surface and only a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste at each brushing. They should always be supervised while brushing and taught to spit out, rather than swallow, toothpaste.

Fluoride mouthrinses have been shown to help prevent caries in both children and adults. Unless the child’s dentist advises otherwise, the ADA does not recommend the use of fluoride mouthrinses in children younger than 6 years, because they may be more likely to inadvertently swallow the mouthrinse.

Fluoride supplements are not recommended for children younger than 6 months. Children should receive only dietary supplemental fluoride tablets or drops as prescribed by their dentist or physician based on the supplement schedule approved by the ADA, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (visit “”).


Huh. In looking further at the Google Scholar results, I could not find support for autism or ADD or other scary things being caused by fluoride, but clearly, there is a potential problem of over-dosing (as it were) with fluoride by mixing baby formula with standard (fluoridated) tap water.

This experiment was interesting for the following reason: When I was done with the standard Google search, I would have had a lot of bad information among which was one piece of good (and important) information, but no real way to tell the chaff from the wheat. Well, I suspected the talk about autism etc was a clue that some of this was crazy-talk, but that was a gut feeling, not “skeptical reasoning.” Indeed, I’d wager this to be true: As you were reading through the Google results, you were thinking that the whole fluoride thing was crazy, and all of it was made up, and there was no real issue here. You were using the received knowledge that is part of your skeptical culture to tell you what to believe and not believe. Right?

But you were wrong! You were ready to blow off all concerns regarding fluoride because those claims generally sound (and are) crazy, but in the end, the ADA is suggesting that caution is appropriate with infants.

Is the ADA being over cautious? Are they merely responding to public pressure from crazy anti-Fluoros? I don’t know. Read the article and let me know what you think. That is a real possibility, but one would think the ADA would be a primary go-to source for finding out what is scientifically supported and what is not. On the other hand, when I blogged about this topic a while back, the ADA seemed to be saying to not worry about this problem. But the link in my earlier post to the ADA document is now … dead. Did someone get to the ADA?

Or, had someone gotten tho the ADA before, as per this item: Suppression by medical journals of a warning about overdosing formula-fed infants with fluoride , link here and see full reference below. The abstract of that paper is as follows:

In January 1990, a short letter was sent to the editor of the international medical journal, Pediatrics, to alert its readers that the standard, highly quoted paper by Singer and Ophaug on fluoride intake by infants, published in 1979 in the same journal, required revision/correction in order to protect one group of infants from receiving substantial overdoses of fluoride. This group comprises infants who are fed almost entirely on powdered formula which is reconstituted with fluoridated water.

The letter was based on the well-established pediatric guidelines of water intake by infants and the fundamental toxicological principle of protecting groups at highest risk. It did not question the fluoridation of public water supplies. Nevertheless, the letter, together with a response to it by Ophaug, was rejected by the editor of Pediatrics, “due to a large backlog of articles.”; Following a protest, the letter was reviewed by three referees, two of whom conceded its main point, but was still not published.

In the present paper, the original, previously unpublished letter on fluoride intake by infants is first reproduced verbatim, and then the comments of the referees and editors are reported and examined. It is concluded that the most plausible explanation for the rejection of the letter is that it might assist the anti-fluoridation movement. Another possible contributing explanation is that publication of the letter might reduce the status of the scholars who had defended the previous position and might be perceived to diminish the status of the journal.

Wow, this is getting complicated.

The point is: Knowing what is a valid argument for or against something, for the average person who wants to be a skeptic, is not easy. One must find sources one trusts and rely in part on those sources. And then, one must ask oneself, is “trust” just another five letter word. Like “faith”?

That it is hard, that it is work, is not a new idea, and you may be thinking “WTF did I just read this whole post for just to find out what I already know.” But you would be missing the point. My point is some “skeptical thinking” is faith based. Skeptics are not as skeptical as they think they are, or at least, they are not a skeptical as they claim. Very few skeptics like to hear this (see comments below for skeptics yelling at me for saying this apparent fact out loud). But it is true. And it is of concern. Indeed, what I would predict to be a standard faith-based skeptical conclusion regarding fluoride is to not worry about the extra dosing of the infant. And, that might be wrong. Wrong for bad, yet avoidable, reasons.

Getting back to the Vax vs. Antivax debate, I’d like to recommend the following items for you to read:

The Rise in Autism and the Role of Age at Diagnosis

Autism Study Examines Cause of Apparent Rise in Rate

Is the Rise In Autism Rates Real?

The MIND Institute’s Second Attempt: More of the Same Type of Reasoning

Mercury in vaccines as a cause of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs): A failed hypothesis

Still more evidence that it’s all about the vaccines

If you read through these sources, you’ll probably get a good idea of at least one aspect of the debate, and you’ll be skeptically prepared, in fact, to discuss it in some detail. But, this is a biased set of references. I’m not giving you sufficient anti-Vax material for you to really see their side of the issue. But you can Google it if you want. It’s pretty crazy stuff, much like the fluoride scare tactics, but with less of a history. The fluoride discussion goes back quite a ways, after all. Grand Rapids Michigan was the first US city to fluoridate its water (Janurary, 1945), according to the Caribou Coffee Trivia question of two days ago (it is important to cite one’s sources). And then there’s this, which if you do not know you are not properly enculturated:

Editors. 2007. “For the Dental Patient … Infants, Formula and Fluoride. JADA Vol. 138. Download here.

Diesendorf, M., & Diesendorf, A. (1997). Suppression by medical journals of a warning about overdosing formula-fed infants with fluoride Accountability in Research, 5 (1), 225-237 DOI: 10.1080/08989629708573911

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2 thoughts on “Are you are real skeptic, or are you just faithing it

  1. We went through this exact debate about a year ago. My regular dentist was horrified that we were not using fluoridated toothpaste with our daughter (who is Huxley’s age). My pediatrician was horrified that my dentist could hold such an opinion.

    My dentist said, “I used to eat whole tubes of toothpaste as a child, and I don’t have fluoridosis!” (I responded, “Wow, you really wanted to be a dentist, didn’t you?”)

    My research turned up mostly anecdotes, 50% for and 50% against. I decided that I was willing to trust my pediatrician’s recommendation, and she gets non-fluoride toothpaste and vitamins with fluoride in the “correct” amount. She also didn’t get the vitamins until she was off formula, so that eliminated whatever doubling effect there might have been.

    I think there are enough demonstrable evils (lead paint, cigarette smoke, dog bites) for parents to be worried about that Chiclet spots on teeth can be reasonably ranked low on the Protect The Kid scale.

  2. 97% of western Europe has chosen fluoride-free water

    Ha! Cunning…

    I’m not sure about the rest of Europe, but I do know that in much of the UK the water is certainly not “fluoride-free”, despite not being artificially fluoridated – because much of the ground water in the UK already has naturally occurring fluoride levels equal to or higher than the normal fluoridation level.

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