The Attack of the Citizen Scientists

by George Johnson

Earlier this week I spent three days in Aspen, Colorado, at a small meeting on how to improve science literacy. First you have to define what that means, and David Pines, the physicist who organized the event, suggested that it was not simply a matter of knowing a lot of stuff. You can be scientifically literate and not necessarily be able to describe Maxwell’s equations or name the columns in the Periodic Table or the six flavors of quarks. But what you do need is a solid grasp on how science works: Things are discovered by posing questions about the world and then seeking answers through precise observations and experiments.

It is a long, difficult process. But over the years as thousands of scientists collaborate and compete, a consensus will emerge: Life on earth evolved and changed through random variation and selection. The universe began with a big bang and is continuously expanding. The knowledge will never be complete, and sometimes an anomaly will arise — a scrap of data that doesn’t fit into the big picture. If enough of these accumulate, an area of science might undergo a paradigm shift. The sun, not the earth is the center of things. Andromeda is not a small, nearby cloud of light but a galaxy far, far away. More often the anomaly will turn out to be wrong. If not the theory will be modified. It is through this give and take that knowledge emerges.

Participants at the Aspen meeting were flabbergasted when I told them that the Santa Fe City Council, acting on the testimony of a few citizen scientists whose only qualification was an Internet connection, had decided to stop fluoridating the water supply. The vote has since been rescinded. But when the hearing on the issue comes around in August, the loudest voices will arise from those who know the least.

None of these people would consider themselves scientifically illiterate. They have filled their heads with a lot of stuff. Starting with what they already were convinced was true, they ventured into cyberspace to pick and choose the evidence that suited them. Or more likely they found an advocacy group, the Fluoride Action Network, that had already done the choosing for them. But they miss or choose to ignore the dynamic through which real science unfolds.

A study I mentioned earlier, When Public Action Undermines Public Health: A Critical Examination of Antifluoridationist Literature, describes the phenomenon:

Although the overwhelming majority of scientific enquiry supports the benefits of water fluoridation, members of the public who type the term “water fluoridation” into any of the major search engines would immediately be presented with a disproportionate percentage of anti-fluoridation websites.

The information ranges, the authors note, “from factual, to unsubstantiated opinion, to outright fraud.”

As they go about their “research,” what the citizen scientists won’t find is a single definitive study — where, let’s say, identical twins were taken from their mothers at birth and raised with and without 0.7 milligrams of fluoride in their drinking water and with all other variables — number of candy bars eaten, frequency of brushing teeth — carefully controlled and accounted for. Instead beginning in the 1940s there is one imperfect study after another. Each was conducted differently and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. That is the nature of epidemiology.

But taken together the accumulation of evidence has persuaded the American Public Health Association to strongly recommend “the fluoridation of all community water systems as a safe and effective public health measure for the prevention of tooth decay.” The group’s paper, Community Water Fluoridation in the United States, describes its reasoning and cites the supporting studies. A Systematic Review of the Efficacy and Safety of Fluoridation, a long study by the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council, reaches a similar conclusion.

Next month’s hearing will be filled with testimony from people who believe that they have found the smoking gun — some study, ignored or suppressed, that threatens to topple the scientific consensus. I’ll examine the evidence they are likely to present in a future dispatch. But the important point is that there is an expert body of opinion on water fluoridation. As they decide whether or not to overturn a longstanding public health policy, our counselors — those which are scientifically literate — will have to take that into account.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review

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Fluoride, Part 2

by George Johnson

The City Council has rescinded its vote to stop fluoridating Santa Fe’s water — not because of a sudden return to reason but after being advised by the City Attorney that the decision may have violated the state Open Meetings Act. But now Pandora’s Box has been opened, and a hearing is scheduled for August 28. An issue that has already been decided on its scientific merits will be thrown into the arena and subjected to the jousting of populist politics.

This is so much like what happened with the great cell phone debates (please see the Santa Fe Review series Electromania). Once again we have an established body of scientific research supporting a technology — in this case fluoridating drinking water. After considering the evidence, the American Dental Association and the Centers for Disease Control continue to recommend that a level of 0.7 milligrams per liter prevents tooth decay without causing harmful effects.

But what if the ADA and the CDC are part of an evil plot? As with the cellphone issue, a small, loud group of “citizen activists” distrust the experts and are putting their faith instead in a fringe group: the Fluoride Action Network, which is dedicated to the proposition that adding fluoride to drinking water is “a violation of the individual’s right to informed consent to medication.” Much of the anti-fluoridation sentiment the Councilors will hear in coming weeks will be peeled directly from the group’s website.

There is no shortage of research showing that too much fluoride can lead to a cosmetic condition called enamel fluorosis (spotting of the teeth) and possibly in some people to a weakening of the bones. Acute fluoride poisoning may even cause neurotoxicity — the killing of neurons — and the EPA sets the maximum safe amount of naturally occurring fluoride at 4.0 milligrams per liter. Studies in Chinese villages with high fluoride levels have found suggestions of a negative effect on children’s IQs. (A recent meta-analysis summarizes the findings.) All of that was taken into consideration when the safe and effective standard for preventing tooth decay was set. As with anything, the dose makes the poison. Putting your head inside a microwave oven is a very different phenomenon from talking on a mobile phone.

Since the Councilors have decided to second guess the ADA and the CDC, we can only hope that they will each look beyond the Fluoride Action Network for their information. The best overview is the summary of the National Academies of Science report, Fluoride in Drinking Water.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review

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The Great Fluoride Conspiracy

by George Johnson

The fluoridation of municipal drinking water is counted by the Centers for Disease Control as one of the Ten Great Public Health Achievements of the 20th century. And now, bowing to the forces of unreason, the Santa Fe City Council has voted to stop adding fluoride to the water supply. If the decision stands, the level will fall far below the minimum considered beneficial and children, especially poor ones, will likely suffer from more tooth decay. But not to worry. Councilor Calvert calls for donating the annual $32,000 in budgetary savings to La Familia Medical Center, where it can be used to pay for more fillings and extracted teeth.

The great fluoride conspiracy theory began in the 1960s with the John Birch Society, which denounced fluoridation as part of a Communist plot to pollute our precious bodily fluids. Last year Tea Party activists persuaded one of the largest counties in Florida to stop fluoridation because it is “part of an agenda that’s being pushed forth by the so-called globalists in our government and the world government to keep the people stupid so they don’t realize what’s going on.”

The level of debate in Santa Fe fell just as low. Fluoridation is “one of the greatest scientific frauds done to the unsuspecting public,” one woman declared. “I am the grandmother of a perfectly normal child,” another testified. “Her mother gave her a drink of the city water, and now that child is autistic.” This kind of mania extends wordwide and was the subject of a cautionary study: “When Public Action Undermines Public Health.”

The reason this long settled issue has been reopened is a minor change in federal guidelines on how much fluoride is beneficial. Since 1962 the United States Department of Health and Human Services has recommended a level of 0.7 milligrams to 1.2 milligrams per liter of water. This minimum of 0.7 remains in place — going below it is considered detrimental to public health. All that HHS is doing is tightening the range. After considering the many other sources of flouride that have become available since the standard was set — toothpastes, mouth rinses, and so forth — they now consider those extra few tenths of a milligram to be superfluous. While the extra fluoride comes nowhere near levels considered detrimental — the primary risk of a small excess is tooth discoloration —  it is sensible to err on the side of conservatism. The problem is that without any supplements, the fluoride in Santa Fe’s water will fall to its natural level of 0.2 to 0.4 — about half of what it takes to prevent tooth decay.

According to the New Mexican, the water department has been boosting the level to 0.8. Insignificant though the difference may be, it would be reasonable to back off to 0.7. Maybe that will happen if, as reported today, the Council reconsiders its decision to end fluoridation altogether. So far, however, the only voices of reason have come from Councilor Ives and Mayor Coss. Councilor Calvert, on the other hand, argued that we should stop adding fluoride because 90 to 95 was wasted — used to water gardens, wash clothes and dishes, flush toilets, etc. Councilor Rivera voted against fluoridation because people should “have a choice.”

The same arguments could be used to stop chlorinating the water. Let the people be free to choose the consequences of more bacteria, viruses, and parasites. The money saved can be added to the donations for La Famila — to combat outbreaks of cholera, typhoid fever, dysentery, and hepatitis.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review

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Burnt to a Crisp

by George Johnson

August 7, 2011

Last Sunday, a couple of friends and I drove up Hyde Park Road and, just before the Aspen Vista lookout, turned onto Forest Road 102. We were headed for Aspen Ranch, the trailhead for what I remembered as one of the most beautiful hikes in the Santa Fe mountains. The 13-mile loop leads to La Junta, “the junction,” a mountain meadow where the Rio Nambe and the Rio Capulin meet. Judging from the maps of the Pacheco Fire, the meadow is now toast, but I hoped to get close enough to see what had been spared by the flames.

Long ago Aspen Ranch was the site of a boys school. In his book, An Anthropology of Everyday Life, the late Ned Hall (better known to the world as Edward T. Hall) described a year he spent there. The land is now owned by Tesuque Pueblo, and when I used to go there, maybe a decade ago, there was a sign informing hikers of a $10 parking fee. Since there was never anyone monitoring the trailhead and no visible means of making payment, I would leave a check made out to the pueblo on my windshield. It was always there when I returned, so I would keep it in the glove compartment for a future visit.

This time it was not an issue. The entire ranch was cordoned off with barbed wire and locked gates marked with “No Trespassing” signs. During my long absence, the Forest Service had built a new trailhead on the public side of the gate and cut a detour around Tesuque’s land.

In Rio en Medio Canyon. Photo by Kerry Sherck

In Rio en Medio Canyon. Photo by Kerry Sherck

The trail is called the Borrego because sheepherders once used it to herd their flocks from Chimayo to Santa Fe for market. We followed it a short distance and then turned onto another trail that descends along the Rio en Medio all the way down the mountain. Most people know this trail from the bottom end — where it starts outside the village of Rio en Medio and climbs past several waterfalls. The canyon looked as lush and shady as ever — green meadows filled with wildflowers and an astonishing number of butterflies flocking to feed on the nectar of Black Eyed Susans. It was hard to believe that just over the ridge so much devastation lay.

I returned to the same area yesterday, staying this time on the Borrego Trail. More idyllic meadows, talls stands of pine and aspen — and suddenly the smell of 10,000 acres of burnt forest. There is a short stretch where the trail follows a power line service road and, at the top of a hill, peels off and heads down to the Rio Nambe. Standing there, I looked down on a hillside of badly burnt trees. Not far in the distance whole landscapes were reduced to gray moonscapes — the way so much of the Jemez looks now. A helicopter, hovering overhead, was dropping loads of straw on denuded mountainsides. The restoration effort was already under way.

A sign that had been posted at the edge of the burn area didn’t say, in so many words, that entry was prohibited. But it gave enough good reasons to stay out — falling limbs and trees, flash floods of ash and mud, burnt-out stump holes, fire maddened nests of hornets — that I almost turned back. Most of the destruction was below the trail (it had acted as a partial fire break) so I followed it a little farther. When I reached a spot where the trail had washed out, I decided to call it a day.

It was a relief to drive home through old familiar aspen groves. I told myself that this beauty now exists because fires, long ago, had cleared the pines, opening new niches in the ecosystem — that someday, decades from now, the ashen lands of the Pacheco Fire would be as beautiful. It was too much of a stretch for my imagination. All I could honestly feel was a terrible sense of loss.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review

Note: This is the last of three posts looking back on the ice and fire of 2011.

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Fire

by George Johnson

Las Conchas Fire, June 26

Las Conchas Fire, June 26

Sunday evening I stood on the second-story portal of my house in Santa Fe and looked west toward Los Alamos where smoke billowed like a mushroom cloud from the Las Conchas fire. Hours later in the darkness, the glow of the flames was so bright it looked as though the sun had got stuck on its way below the horizon. I remembered the Cerro Grande fire, 11 years ago, and something I wrote for the Week in Review of the New York Times: Chaos Theory; Harness Fire? Mother Nature Begs to Differ. Reading it again after all these years, I see that my theme was the illusion of control.

Las Conchas, where the fire is said to have begun — the specifics have been maddeningly imprecise — is near the trailhead for the East Fork of the Jemez River, a cool, shady meadowland where two friends and I had gone hiking just the week before. We had planned to hike that day to Nambe Lake in the Sangre de Cristo mountains on the opposite side of Santa Fe. But the forest there had just been closed because another fire, called the Pacheco because it was mistakenly reported to have begun in Pacheco Canyon, was burning out of control. I can see its plume from the east side of my house. I feel surrounded.

Late in the afternoon the smoke from both fires filters the light and gives everything an eerie orange cast. Doomsday, it seems, would look like this. I try not to imagine what is happening now to so many of my favorite places: The high meadows of Rancho Viejo where the Rio Capulin flows on its way to meet the Nambe. The Upper Crossing of Frijoles Canyon, one of the only places in New Mexico where I’ve seen fireflies at night. All of that appears to be burning and there is nothing I, or really anyone, can do about it.

A neighbor, fearing fallout from the fire near Los Alamos, is flying with her child to Denver and what she feels instintively is safer ground. The odds of a radioactive release appear to be vanishingly small. It is probably more likely, God forbid, that her plane would crash. As with Cerro Grande the great threat is not from a nuclear reaction but a chemical one: oxidation. It starts as an innocent spark. Fueled by the trees we love and the air we breath it consumes mountainsides and memories.

Pacheco Fire, June 28

Pacheco Fire, June 25

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review

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Red Sky at Morning

by George Johnson

As The Santa Fe Review inches slowly toward blogdom, I am almost tempted to turn on the Comments feature. I received some wonderful responses to my last post. I’ll mention just a few. One reader remembered a night around 1970 when he lived on Hillside Street and the temperature dropped to 26 below. Gas pipes burst and people were without heat. Something like that is happening now in Española, Taos, and elsewhere in the state where gas pressure has dropped precipitously. Rosemary Romero, the city councilor for my district, wrote to say that her mother is driving in from Sombrillo because her house is without heat. We have been luckier so far in Santa Fe.

The account of my arctic Eastside walk reminded my friend Larry Calloway, legendary New Mexico journalist and editor in chief of the Crestone Conglomerate, of the time he worked with Richard Bradford (the author of Red Sky at Morning) and lived on Camino Don Miguel. (I didn’t mention in my post that parts of the movie were filmed there.):

Dick Bradford and I had adjoining desks at the NM Department of Development. We were both so poor, as I recall, that we carried our lunches. These were temp jobs writing tourist blurbs, thanks to a Republican governor (Cargo) who did not owe much to the usual hungry Democrats. One afternoon Dick took a call, listened for a long time, said quietly, “I am very glad to hear that,” and hung up. I asked him what the news was. He said in his emotionally flat, almost shy way: “My book is on the New York Times bestseller list.” And he walked out.

A couple of years later Tova and I began our ill fated marriage in a hovel rented from Bob Sinn on Camino Don Miguel. (It was not a friendly neighborhood in those days. Our welcoming included some guys bashing in the back window of our new Chevy pickup.) One afternoon agents of a film crew asked us to stay inside for a while. I looked out my study window and saw “John Boy” (Richard Thomas) waiting for his cue to run down the hill to Johnny’s Cash Market. The shot made it into “Red Sky at Morning.”

Sinn offerred to sell us the guest house for $17,000, but we did not think it was worth it. About ten years later at a juried art show, I saw a small watercolor of the front of the same crooked little house. The price tag was $10,000.

Larry Calloway

George Johnson
talaya.net

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The coldest night ever in Santa Fe

by George Johnson

At about 8:45 p.m. I looked at the thermometer I’d placed outside the window and saw that it was 12 degrees below zero. Such an extraordinary event shouldn’t go unexperienced so I put on my long johns and walked for a mile. I hadn’t worn them since the last time I went cross-country skiing at the old Johnson cabin 8,000 feet up in the Jemez mountains. That was with Nancy, the woman I was married to.

As I headed west on Camino San Acacio, each footstep squeaked against the snow, and I’d flare my nostrils feeling the sting from the ice crystals breaking away. I remembered a day like this in Minneapolis walking alone along the icy Mississippi, so cold and quiet it was like being on another planet.

Orion, my favorite constellation, loomed to the south over Reservoir Hill where Tom Ford soon will occupy his mansion. Who would have thought that someone could make infinite money from designing clothes? To his credit he had the architect site his new home, one of his homes, in a relatively unobtrusive way. It was dismaying when late last year a security fence with bright metal posts suddenly appeared, cutting diagonally across the piñon-covered hillside, a barrier against thieves and paparazzi. Mr. Ford’s builder, Doug McDowell, promises that the posts will be repainted to make the ugliness disappear. I’m sure that is his intention.

When I got to Camino Don Miguel, I followed it downhill toward Johnny’s Cash Store, the last of the old neighborhood groceries. It was almost 19 years ago, walking in the opposite direction, that I first saw San Acacio and knew I wanted to live there one day. Most of the Eastside is hunkered down at the level of the river, shady and protected. When you reach San Acacio the sun comes out and the sky cracks open. The colors explode.

As I entered the semi-secret passage to Martinez Lane, I felt as though I were walking in a remote village a century ago. I remembered those magical scenes in Red Sky at Morning and thought about how its author, Richard Bradford, lived just about a mile from me on Halona Street before he died not long ago. I probably could have met him if I tried.

My plan was to turn right at Acequia Madre and head toward home, but I didn’t feel like going back yet. I took a left instead. Acequia Madre (this is a note for my foreign readers) means “mother ditch,” the main irrigation canal for what once was farmland, and the small lots along its bank have become the most valuable real estate in town.

Acequia Madre to Camino del Monte Sol to Canyon Road . . . then past El Farol where mambo music vibrated through the door. I peeked in at the dancers and thought for a moment that it would be nice to be the kind of person who casually walks into a bar, buys a drink, meets new people. It is probably too late to change.

Rising almost vertically from Canyon Road, Camino Cerrito leads back uphill to San Acacio passing by the old playground for Cristo Rey Catholic School. It is closed now, the children gone, a consequence of gentrification. Gentrify. What a funny word: “to renovate and improve.” From the Old French genterise, “of gentle birth.” They swoop in gently from afar, gut old middle-class houses, turn neighborhood groceries into art galleries. Palace Grocery on East Alameda is for sale.

But I quickly forgot all that. These old streets bring back good memories. On “Keep Santa Fe Beautiful Day” we would walk along here picking up the beer cans and other trash that had accumulated during the year. Me, Nancy, Tom Turney (he was still the State Engineer), and Willard Lewis (world class raconteur, Republican, and zinfandel connoisseur). Once we delivered 250 pounds to the dump. It’s called a transfer station now.

Back home I opened up the casita and turned on a tap so it dripped very slowly. In parts of the universe like this where there is friction, even the tiniest motion produces heat, enough I hope to keep the pipes from freezing. It is midnight now and 14 below. At absolute zero all motion stops. But there is still 446 degrees to go.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review

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The Cancer Chronicles

by George Johnson

Dear readers of The Santa Fe Review,

I have decided to take the plunge with a new blog (I still wince at that word) about my current project: “The Cancer Chronicles: Notes for a Book in Progress.”

I hope you will tune in.

santafereview.com/chronicle/

George Johnson

http://talaya.net

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What I have been doing

by George Johnson

Today on the cover of the weekly science section of the New York Times, I have a story, Unearthing Prehistoric Tumors, about the antiquity of cancer, which has probably existed since the first multicellular creatures slithered on earth. Several people have asked what I have been doing while away from The Santa Fe Review. The Times article is a sample of what I will be writing about in a new book about the science of cancer to be published eventually by Knopf in the United States and Bodley Head in England. I will post updates on my progress along with (I hope) more communiques on life and politics in Santa Fe. So many things have been happening and I just haven’t had time nor will to write about them. The other reason for my absence is a divorce, unwanted and unexpected. It will take awhile for life to seem interesting again.

Almost two years ago I wrote about my aversion to blogging (please see My Anti-Blog). I was an early adopter of the Internet. Since the mid 1990s I have had my own Web site, coded entirely by hand, describing my books and providing biographical information and links to my newspaper and magazine stories. Why would I also want a blog? And why would I need Facebook? Anyone could find me with a Google search, and my email address is on my web site.

Gradually I am becoming less hardcore. I now have a mostly private Facebook page, which I use to keep in touch with friends and colleagues, and lately I have been thinking of starting a blog about some of the amazing things I have been discovering about cancer. This post is a way of sticking a toe in the water.

Merry Christmas and New Year.

George Johnson

http://talaya.net

Venice Beach, Thanksgiving, 2010

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Another Christmas Eve (recycled from December 2008)

by George Johnson

xeve08
You might have thought from the flashing red and blue lights on the police cruisers cordoning off Canyon Road that there had been a toxic chemical spill. There must be a less obnoxious way to keep cars out of the neighborhood for the annual Christmas Eve farolito walk.

“Union Pro-tec-teeva — what’s that?” said a loud voice behind me as I rounded the corner of Acequia Madre and Camino del Monte Sol. “Must be some kinda union.” You could tell she didn’t consider that a good thing. I started to explain that La Union Protectiva de Santa Fe was a mutual support society, almost a century old, started by neighbors to help one another with burial costs. But the moment passed.

“Everything’s closed,” complained a young blonde walking up Canyon, like she was expecting a last-minute shopping opportunity.

To bypass the hordes of revelers — some texting Christmas greetings on their cellphones — I cut up Gormley Street to Acequia Madre. It was a little more peaceful, and the display at the school was as pretty as ever, disrupted only by a high-tech exhibitionist projecting tiny blue fiber-optic laser lights into the trees. Any other night it would have looked cool.

I was glad to arrive at the Plaza and find it all but deserted. I listened to my wife (now ex-wife) sing a solo (Handel’s “Let the Bright Seraphim”) at First Presbyterian then ducked out the backdoor before the religious part began. I warmed up at La Fonda’s Fiesta Lounge with a glass of wine and the Bill Hearne Trio. In the hotel lobby I spotted Colonel Hawthorne with his long, white beard regaling a couple of tourists with memories of Oppenheimer and Los Alamos and complaints about the financial crisis: “It’s not a credit shortage, it’s a cash shortage!” A genuine Santa Fe experience.

According to a column in yesterday’s Journal by Dan Mayfield, the farolito walk ended badly with the Santa Fe police making “a slow, honking, sirens-blaring, crowd-parting, lights-blazing show-of-force,” their crackling bullhorns ordering pedestrians off Canyon Road. Christmas Eve is all about crowd control.

Every year there are fewer farolitos. Most of the bonfires are lit by art galleries instead of neighbors, and there is a charge for hot cider. Maybe it is time to put an end to this over-produced “tradition” and see what springs up naturally to take its place.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review

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