Poisoning the well with a caricature of science

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t seen this video before have a look at it before reading on.

The first time I watched the video I think I missed it too.

Anyway, the video illustrates how difficult it can be to actually see and understand what is staring us in the face.  It may happen because our attention is directed elsewhere. But I think even more blatantly it happens if we have preconceived beliefs or ideological commitments. We will not only be unable to see what is front of us – often we may see something completely different. Something more comfortable to our confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias in public debate

We saw a classic example of this with the fluoridation issue this month (well, several examples but here I just want to concentrate on one).

Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s science advisor, commented on the Hamilton City Council’s decision to stop fluoridating the city’s water supply. Have a look at his blog post What is in the water? for the full text. The second paragraph says:

“The science of fluoride in water is effectively settled. It has been one of the most thoroughly worked questions in public health science over some decades. There is a voluminous scientific and lay literature that needs to be considered.”

Now, how did you read that. Did you read that the science was “The science . . . is effectively settled?” Or did you read it as “The science . . . is settled?”

Well it seems it depends what side of the argument you are on. If you were opposed to fluoridation your confirmation bias seemed to prevent you from seeing  the word “effectively.” The Fluoride Action Network, for example declared in their press release Chief Science Advisor ‘out of step with science’

“The science is settled” is one of the most unscientific things anyone can say, let alone the Chief Scientific Advisor. 

(Actually that response was anonymous but a Stuff link attributed it to the Fluoride Action Network and it includes their arguments.

The Network finished its press release with this:

The science is in no way settled and ultimately everyone has a right to informed consent to medication. Therefore, fluoridation, by nature of it being a medication added to community water supplies, will always be unethical regardless of where the science is at.

This summarises their bias  – they insist on describing a supplement for correcting an elemental deficiency as a “medicine” (with all that implies) and as far as they are concerned they will always be opposed to fluoridation whatever the science says. So it suits their argument to misrepresent what Gluckman actually wrote. To present him as an enemy of science and not a spokesman for it.

We are all prone to confirmation bias

Mind you, I support fluoridation but must admit I still fell victim to that confirmation bias. I even expressed an opinion that Gluckman should not have said what he said – until I actually checked the statement and saw that all important word “effectively.” I seem to have been programmed to react to the word “settled” and ignore the adjective.

That adjective makes a world of difference but even I, a supporter of science and reason, missed the gorilla in the room. I didn’t hear the word because I have effectively been conditioned not to. And if I can make that mistake just imagine what it is like for someone who has no sympathy with scientific understanding, or is an activist supporting a cause which relies on pseudo-science.

Here is the problem. There is a caricature of science which is promoted by activists and others who disagree with one scientific finding or another. We see it with creationists regarding evolution. We see it with climate change contrarians/ pseudosceptics/deniers. And we also see it with anti-fluoridation activists.

The caricature is to present science  and scientists as dogmatic. To describe them as arrogant when they try to explain existing scientific knowledge. To even ridicule them.

Have a look at this from a local Catholic blogger (appropriately calling him or herself who disagrees with the scientific findings on climate change – again attacking Gluckman (see Going ga-ga over Gluckman):

I had a good laugh to myself when I read what he is reported to have said, for not only does he appear to have gone on the offensive against anyone who refuses to embrace the theory that global warming is a manmade phenomenon, but he has done so with some of the cheapest and most ridiculous rhetoric in the book.

Firstly, he starts with the classic insinuation that the unwashed masses really should listen to the high priests of science when they tell them that the sky is falling because the computer model god is angry, and that if we don’t all increase our weekly tithe to the temple in Wellington he will smote all the cute looking polar bears.

Then he starts ringing up the usual tally of cheap shots and straw man arguments in support of his new faith in computer model god.

Firstly he makes the totally ludicrous accusation that refusing to accept his beliefs about global warming is somehow akin to being a literal seven day creationist, an HIV-AIDS denier or believing that cigarettes don’t cause cancer.

It’s telling that The Dumb Ox was responding to a Herald report – “Climate row ‘undermining’ confidence in science”. Gluckman was expressing concern about the poor misunderstanding of the nature of science and how many in the public debates attempt to undermine public confidence in science, rather than debate the real issues.

Casting doubt on the science

This sort of caricature of science is an unpleasant attempt to play the man and not the ball. Using the old poisoning the well fallacy to discredit the science without dealing with the science.

This was a conscious tactic used by activists for the tobacco companies who tried to discredit the emerging scientific knowledge about the dangers of tobacco and secondary smoke. It’s also a conscious tactic used by conservative think tanks and climate contrarian/denial/pseudosceptic activist groups. And, I believe, it is a conscious tactic of some of the leaders of the antifluoridation activist groups.

Here’s what  one of the activists who recently carried out yet another successful campaign to prevent fluoridation of the Portland public water supply in the USA, said:

“The simplicity of their message was certainly an advantage,” said Alejandro Queral from Healthy Kids, Healthy Portland. “I think the opponents did a very good job of casting doubt on the science. I think they homed in on their message and they hammered away on it.” [MY emphasis]

These tactics of casting doubt and poisoning the well attempt to remove genuine scientific input into the debate of controversial issues. Rather than honestly discuss the science, activists will paint the supporters of science as arrogant and dogmatic. As conservative and orthodox. They hope, thereby, to clear the “playing field” for their own very distorted picture of the scientific knowledge at issue.

Very often the science is not really the issue – it is used by activists as a smoke screen.  The Fluoride Action Network  declared in the above quote they believe fluoridation “will always be unethical regardless of where the science is at.”

They really are not interested in the science, except to use it as a proxy argument for what is really a political or values issue. As Gluckman said in his comment:

“The misuse or inapporopriate and alarmist use of science is a classic example of science being a proxy for values debates.”

Dangers of the “settled” word

But, getting back to this word “settled.” My impression is that I hear this word more from anti-science and pseudoscience people than I hear it from scientists themselves. And they never qualify it with an adjective – it’s part of the bad caricature of science they wish to disseminate.

And this caricature does get a response from many lay persons. It can be effective in neutralising the real scientific knowledge with some people. After all, if this conditioning has effected me enough to innocently miss the word “effectively” so will many other people.

That is why I, personally, don’t like to hear scientist use the word – even though they are usually technically correct. Many areas of science are, for the moment, “effectively settled.” We are justified to say this about the current understanding of the effect of fluoride on teeth and bones.

Scientists are always aware such assessments are conditional. We must be open to new findings, and to the effects of technological and dietary changes. But governments and society very often want to know what the current understanding is – accepting that it is never perfect and can change. Without access to a reliable summary of current understanding on controversial issues how can governments and society make judgments.

Should we ignore what science has to say about the safety or toxicity of fluoride when we make decisions like that made by the Hamilton City Council? Should we ignore what climate scientists have found in their studies when we make judgments on our energy and CO2 emmission policies? Should we ignore what science says about the dangers of tobacco when we make decisions about public exposure to tobacco smoke? Just because knowledge in all these areas is “effectively settled” and not completely “settled?” 

After all, science is never “completely settled,” although we can be so confident of knowledge in many areas that only fools would really question it without some amazing new evidence.

I believe the word “settled” has become so tainted in the debates that it shouldn’t be used by the supporters of science. Even when it is correctly qualified. There are other ways of describing the real nature of scientific knowledge, the levels of certianty (or uncertiant) and the amount of research carried out. We need to get these ideas across in these public debates – I just think the word “settled” does not help.

See also:
Interpreting science – implications for public understanding, advocacy and policy formation

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10 responses to “Poisoning the well with a caricature of science

  1. Good article Ken.

    So what are the levels of certainty relating to the science under-girding fluoridation of reticulated water supplies?


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  3. RonL has so many doubts and so many questions.


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  5. I saw the gorilla. There is still absolutely uncertainty of the effects of fluoride on every organ in the body. Anybody who argues otherwise then enters the realm of pseudoscience..


  6. Absolute uncertainty, Gus, is ignorance. We actually do know quite a lot about the role if F in bioapatites. And a little critical analysis easily exposing some of the misinformation and outright porkies of the anti-fluoridationists.


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