Debating science

The Science March in Palmerston North. Credit: Erin Wilson, Twitter.

This last week has certainly raised the profile of the “science debate” in New Zealand. Most importantly we saw big turnouts for the Science March in several major cities – a demonstration that lots of scientists and supporters of science feel that science could be threatened – or at least that it is unappreciated by the politicians and other decision-makers. Maybe even by a section of the public.

And at the other end of importance, we saw a childish spat by local anti-fluoride activists who had attempted to use a member of Parliament’s experience of miscarriages to make the scaremongering claim that these were caused by community water fluoridation. Then they attempted to divert attention from the embarrassing (for them) widespread condemnation by promoting, through their own press releases,  the fake news they had organised a “TV debate” on fluoridation with a local scientist.

The Science March

The Science March was many things to many people. I saw it as a general demonstration of support for science and opposition to attempts to discredit science – examples being the science around climate change, vaccinations, evolution – and yes even fluoridation. Some of the media presented it as a demonstration against US president Trump and his policies – and there may have been many in the US Science Marches who had these motivations. But every country and every region have examples where politicians have downplayed scientific evidence or even attempted to discredit that evidence and the scientists who produced it. These sort of struggles went on long before Trump and they will go on after Trump.

For example, in New Zealand, we have some specific issues over water quality and climate change which are quite unconnected to the US and its politicians. We have to fight out those issues here. Scientists, anyway, strongly resist linking their issues to politics and political movements. We have had a few bad experiences from that. This resistance and the silly intervention of identity politics into the organisation of the US Science Marches did make many scientists wary of participation.

But, in the end, the Science Marches around the world had good turnouts and my impression is that participants felt they had been both worthwhile for science and good experiences personally.

Of course, the Science March will not make the problems go away. There is still a need for the day to day struggle on issues like climate change, water and environmental quality and even fluoridation. This is one of the points I attempted to make in my article Trump didn’t invent the problems – and his opponents didn’t invent protest.

Debating science

And this is where a continuing debate around science issues is important. To be clear – I am not using the word “debate” in the formal sense (more on that later) but in its most general sense. And not necessarily debate involving specific contact between adversaries.

Issues about water quality and the environment come up continually in New Zealand. In the media, in local body and parliamentary considerations, and in government statements. A lot of the commentary may downplay the science on the issue or overplay economic and financial aspects. Some of the commentaries may be outright anti-science – or present misinformation, even distortions, about the science. Activist claims about the “dangers” of the use of 1080 to control predator pests are an example.

The misinformation and downplay of scientific information cannot be allowed free passage – it must be challenged. Hence there is a debate – again not a formal debate, but a debate, nevertheless. The public is exposed to various claims and counterclaims via the media and the internet. Regional bodies and parliamentary committees are deluged with submissions and scientists and supporters of science have a role to play there too.

Scientists and supporters of science should not stand aside and let the opposition win by default – simply because they abhor the political process or ego-driven participation in media reports. But they need to choose their battles – and they need to consider the effectiveness or otherwise of different forms of participation in public debate.

Problems with formal debates

So what about formal debates of the sort the Fluoride Free New Zealand (FFNZ – the local anti-fluoride organisation) claimed via their press releases to have organised? A TV debate between New Zealand Scientist Professor Michelle Dickinson from Auckland University, and Dr. Paul Connett – chief guru at the US Fluoride Action Network. This proved to be a kickback from FFNZ, a diversion from the bad publicity that came their way when Dickinson publicly criticised their use of scaremongering tactics in an email sent to a Green member of parliament. Public commenters were disgusted at the FFNZ claim the miscarriages she had suffered were caused by community water fluoridation.

Professor Dickinson pointed out she had not agreed to a TV debate (which FFNZ then childishly used in another press release to claim she had reneged). And Dr. Paul Connett did not even publicly respond – indicating that while the debate challenge had been made in his name he knew nothing about it.

Kane Titchener, the Auckland FFNZ organiser who made the challenge to Michelle Dickinson, is a bit of a Walter Mitty character and often makes debate challenges in Paul Connett’s name, but without his authorisation. These challenges are his way of avoiding the discussion of the science when he is outgunned. He made a similar challenge to me four years ago – I called his bluff and nothing happened. The debate I did eventually have with Paul Connett was arranged through Vinny Eastwood (a local conspiracy theorist who promote anti-fluoride propaganda), not Kane Titchener – who was probably not even in contact with Connett.

But, in general, scientists are unwilling to take part in the sort of formal debates Kane Titchener was proposing. There are often similar challenges made to evolutionary scientists by creationists and religious apologists, and to climate scientists by climate change deniers. Scientists generally feel their opposition make these challenges in an attempt to gain recognition or status they do not deserve. (I think in this particular case Kane Titchener may have naively thought he could use Michelle Dickinson’s connections with TV personalities to get Connett on TV – something he has found impossible on his recent visits to NZ).

Another, more important, reason is that such formal debates are usually more entertainment than information. In fact, debating is a recognised form of entertainment often driven by egos and aimed at ‘scoring points’ which appeal to a biased and motivated audience. They are rarely a way of providing information and using reasoning to come to conclusions – which is the normal and accepted process of scientific discussion.

Good faith discussion

Don’t get me wrong – I am not opposed to all forms of one-on-one “debate” or discussion. These can be useful – especially when the audience is not stacked by biased activists. An exchange of scientific views or information in front of an interested but unbiased audience can be a useful and good experience.

Similarly on-line, written debates or discussion of the sort I had with Paul Connett in 2013/2014 can also be useful (see Connett & Perrott, 2014. The Fluoride Debate). In this format, ego and debating or entertainment skills are less effective. Participants need to produce information – and back it up with evidence, citations or logic. And one’s discussion partner always has the opportunity to critically comment on that information.

I feel that debate was successful – it enabled both sides to prevent information in a calm way without put downs or ego problems. I often use that debate when I want to check out citations and claims. Interestingly, though, Paul Connett behaves as if the debate never happened – claiming that no-one in New Zealand has been prepared to debate him. The FFNZ activists do the same thing. Ever since that debate, I have been blocked from commenting on any anti-fluoride website or Facebook page in New Zealand and internationally. It’s almost as if some sort of Stalinist order went out to treat me like a “non-person.”

A challenge to anti-fluoridation activists

If these activists are so keen on debating the issue then why don’t they allow it to happen? Why do they block pro-science people from commenting on their Facebook pages? Why do they ignore open letters and offers of rights of reply of the sort I sent to Stan Litras and other anti-fluoride activists (see A challenge to anti-fluoridationers to justify their misrepresentation of New Zealand research). Why did Lisa Hansen – the solicitor for the NZ Health Trust who has been making incorrect scientific claims in her High Court cases opposing fluoridation ignore my offer of a right of reply (see Open letter to Lisa Hansen on NZ Fluoridation Review)? Even the “great helmsman” himself, the man who Kane Titchener seems to think will answer all the questions, refuses to respond to offers of right of reply (see Misrepresenting fluoride science – an open letter to Paul Connett).

Why do these people ignore such opportunities?

One thing I noticed about the submission made by opponents of community water fluoridation to the recent parliamentary Health Committee consideration of the Fluoridation Bill was the overwhelming reliance on scientific claims in almost all their submissions. Claims that fluoridation causes IQ loss, fluorosis and a whole host of sicknesses. Many of the submitters actually used citations to scientific journals or attached copies of scientific papers.

These people claim they have science on their side – yet they seem to be extremely shy about discussing that science in any open way. Why is that?

No, it’s not a matter of Walter Mitty types making debate challenges in the name of Paul Connett. Why don’t Kane Titchener, Mary Byrne, Stan Litras, Lynn Jordan (alias Penelope Paisley on Facebook) and similar activists who love to make “authoritative” scientific claims in submissions or behind the protection of a ring-fenced Facebook page or website participate in an honest open debate?

For a start – what about stopping these silly”challenges” in Paul Connett’s name. Then they could remove restrictions on the discussion on the websites and Facebook pages they control.

And, yes, I would be happy for them to participate in good faith scientific discussion in articles on this blog. That is what my offers of the right of reply to my articles were all about.

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22 responses to “Debating science

  1. Ken: “Professor Dickinson pointed out she had not agreed to a TV debate”

    1. Are you sure she is a professor in terms of its NZ meaning?

    2. Your statement gives the impression that she had refused whereas she has been reported as saying a time had not been agreed to. (Since then maybe she has seen some of my statistically signficant correlations and become worried.)


  2. Ken: “The misinformation and downplay of scientific information cannot be allowed free passage – it must be challenged.”

    The public get confused by such “scientific looking” advertising. Some members of the ASA thought they would be. So it be an easy step to distrust all science.


  3. So it be an easy step to distrust all science.

    Only for the soundhills of the world and others who also can’t tell the difference between science and marketing.


  4. Richard, lots of pharmaceutical marketing tends to promote its product as science. The distinction seems to be purposefully blurred. If I speak against some GMO products I am called “anti-science.” But I see it as dishonest marketing from a failing industry which has been relying on huge government subsidies to corn and soy famers to buy the GMO product, whereas the proven healthy vegetable producers do not get subsidies.


  5. “So it be an easy step to distrust all science.”

    …Or to make up your own idea of science. Or even your own idea of English grammar.


  6. Sorry Stuartg, about my grammar.

    I am trying to think about avoiding the use of the indicative “is” in case where fact is not certain, and use the subjunctive “be.”

    Another example which may sound awkward is when I say “If I were,” rather than “if I am,” “were” being the subjunctive used following, “if.”

    “If you be interested,” not “if you are interested.”
    It be becoming normal to use the indicative rather than the subjunctive.

    In that last sentence I probably should not have left out, “appears to” before “be.”

    Stuartg you are so on about my making of “claims.”
    My use of “be” rather than “is” be to avoid that.

    “So it be an easy step to distrust all science,” may be for me a sort of approximation to, or abbreviation of, “So it appears to be an easy step to distrust all science.”

    Were I to have written “So it is an easy step to distrust all science,” it feels to me I would have been expressing or claiming a fact rather than expressing an opinion.

    Try replacing my abbreviated form, “be” with “appears to be” or “appear to be.”


  7. Stuartg: “…Or to make up your own idea of science.”

    So often the word appears to be used to express some clever activity that the ordinary soul be suggested to stand in awe of or be obedient to.

    The article you cite appears to be close to identifying commercial products with science where science appears to be from my understanding only a process of obtaining knowledge. And I remember more of that from you in the past.

    To her credit Michelle Dickinson has written about the science of tying shoe laces. A bow in which is aligned along the shoe is claimed to be more likely to come untied than one across.


  8. Brian:

    1: I do not know Michelle’s employment status – she was described in the newspaper report as a professor.
    2: You claim my articles ” gives the impression that she had refused whereas she has been reported as saying a time had not been agreed to.” I wrote (and you can check above):

    “Professor Dickinson pointed out she had not agreed to a TV debate (which FFNZ then childishly used in another press release to claim she had reneged). And Dr. Paul Connett did not even publicly respond – indicating that while the debate challenge had been made in his name he knew nothing about it.”

    Neither had Paul Connett agreed to a TV debate.

    This sort of Walter Mitty behaviour is typical of Kane Titchener – he is away with the birds.


  9. I agree, Biran, the public do get confused by “scientific looking” advertising – as they do by “scientific looking” submissions and advertising that FFNZ makes. That can easily lead to a distrust of science – and that is one of the main aims of FFNZ.

    That si why I put a lot of effort into debunking the misinformation and distortions of their scientific claims. Science itself is not at fault.


  10. “Dickinson said as of Monday, she had yet to hear that a time or place or channel had been set up for a debate.”

    That could sound as if she were waiting and expecting to debate.

    Dr Dickinson is a senior lecturer which might be called professor in USA. She also heads a nanotech lab. I am wondering who funds it.


  11. soundhill,

    Read back.

    I cited nothing. I merely quoted yourself.

    Now I am wondering who funds you.


  12. Stuartg: “Now I am wondering who funds you.”

    And you.

    I get no pay, funding or kickbacks for this. Am I that good, looking as if I am being paid?

    Michelle Dickinson’s name seems to appear in work to do with nanocomposites. I think 3M company use such in their dental composite fillings. Would companies like 3M be funding work which would impact their business negatively to any great extent? Fluoridation does not make much of an impact but can be made to appear public-health-oriented. So is her money purely from public-good funding sources?


  13. Brian – you are Gish galloping. Without acknowledging how you misrepresented me you move on to something else – all aimed at discrediting Michelle – which is an implicit FFNZ directive. And you blindly follow this directive with the slanderous question “I am wondering who funds it,” One could wonder who funds you and your incessant rubbish.

    You are now quoting from an article based solely on an FFNZ press release. Surely you are aware this organisation lies?

    What about dealing with the fact that Mary Byrne said in her press release she would make an email trail backing up their story availabkle to anyone who asked. I have asked, as have a number of other people – absolutely no response!

    Interestingly, Michelle is also waiting for that email trail to be released.

    This whole debate fiasco is simply an attempt to divert attention away from the scaremongering and disgusting attitude used by hour FFNZ in the email campaign aimed at MPs. A campaign that these MPs are completely fed up with and is backfiring badly.

    FFNZ never seems to learn that these sort of tactics are counterproductive.


  14. Brian – please stop this defamatory innuendo. Considering the new social media legislation this could put responsibility on me to censor you – as the Daily Blog example is showing.

    You are simply following FFNZ directives to defame Michelle – this time by questioning her research funding.

    It is the simplest thing in the world to identify the funding for any specific piece of published research as that information goes alongside publication. You resort to innuendo purely to defame.

    Please stop it.


  15. Ken: “You are now quoting from an article based solely on an FFNZ press release.”

    It seems to me it is a Stuff article correcting their earlier misinformation and looks as if they have contacted Michelle.


  16. Of course, you will argue that, Brian, because you are simply following the FFNZ directive aimed at discrediting Michelle.

    Now, why don’t you hunt out the evidence that Michelle agreed to a debate and then informed FFNZ she had changed her mind.

    Why don’t you contact Mary Byrne and take her up on the offer to supply the email train?

    I have done that – so have others.

    You know what – she produced nothing!

    You must remember than Kane Tichener who is behind this is a Walter Mitty type character – well known for makiing such challenges but being unable to follow through. Even Connett seems completely unaware of the challenge – obviously because it was not made by him.


  17. Ken: “Now, why don’t you hunt out the evidence that Michelle agreed to a debate”

    Because Stuff reported:
    “Dickinson said as of Monday, she had yet to hear that a time or place or channel had been set up for a debate.”

    Do you take that as a refusal?


  18. Not that she had agreed, I didn’t say that, just that it appeared she had been thinking of taking part, going by that statement.


  19. Ken the privatisation of health care is always a sensitive topic. I see Canterbury District Health Board are taking the food service contract away from the private provider.

    Here a mother challenges Richard Branson control taking over mental health services:

    “A New Zealand scientist has spent a week with Richard Branson on his private Caribbean island playing chess, eating sushi and discussing technology and sustainability.”
    That is very commendable if she can be able to influence business for altruistic public benefit. But what may she have to concede?

    I have found it hard to find her papers to check her funding. One journal wants $US100 to access. So I asked.


  20. Brian – have you asked Mary for the email train? In her press release, he offered to hand these over to anyone who asked.

    Seeing you seem so concerned with what is now fish and chips wrapping I would have thought you would take her up on this offer.

    If not, why not?


  21. In fact – it looks like it is FFNZ that is reneging.

    In Mary’s press release as published by scoop 21st April she actually says:

    “However, she is now claiming she never agreed in the first place. FFNZ says they have the email trail to prove she did agree and will provide it on request. They say Michelle needs to explain herself.”

    In the amended press release on the FFNZ website 23rd April, the second sentence has been deleted.

    Then paragraph now reads:

    “However, she is now claiming she never agreed in the first place. FFNZ say Michelle needs to explain herself.”


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