“Where’s your proof?”
If my father had an epitaph written on his tombstone at Forest Lawn, that would have been it.
You see, Dad was a professor of oral pathology and vice chair of forensic medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, inter alia. He was well-known in his fields of expertise and had published over 200 scientific journal articles.
Pop was trained as a hard-core scientist — not like much of what you see today. Correlation studies without replication, now so commonly reported in the media, were not in his vocabulary. That’s because any hard-core researcher knows that correlation is not necessarily causation.
But my father’s research could be replicated, which according to Stanford professor John Ioannidis and other critics say 50 percent of today’s studies cannot.
Back then, peer review had unquestioned integrity. Dad did not mix politics or popular beliefs with his findings. He would not be pressured into conforming if the data did not indicate so.
As you might have guessed, growing up with someone who operated within this classical scientific framework was not an easy task.
You see, like most kids, I trusted those I saw in authority. I believed what was read or seen in the media. I even accepted things friends or relatives told me without contemplating a single skeptical thought.
But these sources of information weren’t so easily cited in my house. One day in the sixth grade, I came home with a “junk science” story from school. It was, “Fluoride added to the drinking water will cause cancer and kill people.”
Upon hearing this statement, the old man’s answer was predictable: “Oh, really? WHERE’S YOUR PROOF?”
“The teacher told us that,” was my answer - thinking a school sourced response would be sufficient. Of course, it wasn’t even close to satisfying my father’s standards.
“Where did your teacher get that story?” was his next question.
“I don’t know. I think she read it in the paper,” I answered. “And the teacher said a lot of scientists say it’s true.”
Now like a good trial lawyer, he went for the kill.
“Who wrote the story? Was it someone with an expertise in oral disease or oncology?”
“I don’t know. I think she said it came from some kind of scientist.”
“What is his background?”
“I don’t know.”
And then, Dad administered the coup de grace:
“Was it opinion or fact? What studies on this topic in the article were quoted? Were they from legitimate scientific sources directly related to the subject matter? Were any of them actually read by the author or just mentioned from another source? Did the story provide a contrarian point of view or other research with different conclusions?”
Of course, I was dumbfounded. At that point, what could a 12-year-old boy say?
“Here, take a look at these.” Dad went through a file cabinet and pulled out summaries on recent university dental school studies that even I could understand. They concluded the amount of fluoride being planned for city water supplies was not harmful but instead would significantly reduce cavities in children.
Sixty years later, these hard-core studies have proven correct. According to the American Cancer Society, there is no conclusive evidence that anyone dies or gets cancer from fluoride found in drinking water. The Center for Disease Control reports that cavities have been reduced in children by as much as 60 percent.
So growing up with my father wasn’t easy. But it certainly made skeptics out of my siblings and me. Because of his teachings, I do my own homework and don’t fall prey to various ramblings found in many modern-day media sources. On occasion, it’s really not unusual to find me asking inquisitively “Where’s your proof?”
Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.